Since its Manchester world premiere, back in September 2016, Akram Khan’s Giselle has been garnering plaudits galore. The dance critics’ recently awarded Khan the 2017 National Dance Award for Best Classical Choreography, following on from an Olivier Award; the South Bank Sky Award for Dance; and the Robert Robson Award for Best Dance in the Manchester Theatre Awards.
The stage production is still going strong; arriving next at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, from 2nd to 6th May, in association with the Dublin Dance Festival; and, in 2019, the company will take Khan’s ballet to Chicago’s Harris Theater and the Bolshoi Theatre, in Moscow.
Long before that – and much closer to wherever home is (for most of us, at least) – the production is coming to cinemas all over the United Kingdom, from 25th April, available to see from Eden Court in Inverness to Truro’s Plaza Cinema; and from the Vue in Norwich to Cardigan’s Theatr Mwldan (although you will have to wait until May, for that screening). A total of 150 cinemas will show the ballet, which was filmed at the Liverpool Empire, in October 2017; and is brought to the screen by digital commissioning agency, The Space, and distributors, More2Screen.
I caught a screening for dance critics, recently, and having seen the live production a half-dozen times, I was sceptical about what could be gained from another recorded viewing; but, I was pleasantly surprised. Ross MacGibbon’s dance knowledge (he danced with The Royal Ballet for thirteen years) aligned with his considerable experience at directing ballet for the screen, has achieved an assured product in which nothing is lost but much is gained. MacGibbon’s choice of camera angles and close-ups brought many nuances into play that my own judgement (or poor eyesight) had overlooked in the live shows: this was particularly true in the crowded first act where it is possible not to fully appreciate the developing relationship between Giselle and Albrecht (an issue I criticised in my review of the Manchester premiere).
For those still unfamiliar with the ballet, the usual narrative ingredients of Giselle have been reassembled in an ambiguous industrial landscape, but nonetheless retaining the essence of this tragic, Romantic tale. Khan’s inspiration was sparked by the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,000 textile workers, mostly women; a touchstone visited immediately the ballet opens when we first encounter Khan’s dustily-clad migrant workers as outcasts, their backs to the audience, staring at a huge wall.
Tim Yip’s wall is a monumental design statement; a boundary between the impoverished workers and the aristocratic, popinjay factory owners, who venture out in their extraordinary elaborate, courtly costumes when the wall revolves – a coup de theatre made even more striking, onscreen, not least due to Begoña Cao’s haughtily beautiful portrayal of Bathilde. Vincenzo Lamagna’s score was composed in less than two months and, aided by the experience of Gavin Sutherland’s orchestrations; it provides a soundscape that matches the special aura of Khan’s theatrical vision. Regular references to Adolphe Adam’s original score haunt the new composition, like the ethereal Wilis flitting amongst the trees.
The ENB artistic director, Tamara Rojo, appears in the title role alongside James Streeter, as Albrecht. It is a mature pairing (Rojo and Streeter have over 40 years’ combined experience as professional dancers) that brings a heightened sensuality to their act one duet, contrasting with the chilling ethereality of their second act pas de deux. Their palpable chemistry is emphasised further by the close-up scrutiny of being projected onto a large screen, seen from just a few yards away. There’s no hiding place on film but it appears that none of the ENB dancers need one!
The casting of Streeter was a stroke of genius. He is not generally the first call for a romantic lead but has the capacity to create meaningful characters with charisma and dramatic strength that project well to the audience, on stage and on film. Streeter also received a nomination in the 2017 National Dance Awards for his outstanding performance in this role and having it permanently enshrined on film is a deserved legacy for this characterful dancer.
The film also provides an opportunity to relish the silky skills of guest artist, Jeffrey Cirio (as Hilarion), now returned to his day job as principal at American Ballet Theatre; and the imposing performance of Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. The film provides a close-up view of every factory outcast and all the Wilis and it is fascinating to identify dancers often seen only in the background.
Khan’s masterpiece of neoclassical dance is one of those rare productions in which the seamless assimilation of many creative talents has gelled so splendidly to produce a palpable triumph; and this glorious high-definition film – so expertly directed by MacGibbon – adds yet another peerless contribution. Whether you have seen the stage production, or not, I highly recommend this treat, hopefully, coming soon to a cinema near you.