It is no surprise to learn that Akram Khan’s Giselle is a sell out wherever it is performed. Not only is the ballet a global success, but it’s become English National Ballet’s signature piece. There is much to admire, most obviously, the choreography and dancing, but also the elements of collaboration, which make this such a rewarding experience. Tim Yip’s heavy-looking revolving wall, which separates the ‘outcasts’ from the ‘landlords’, is as much a part of the action as the figures it dominates. Vincenzo Lamagna’s haunting score and sound design, with its references to Adolf Adam’s original, poignantly draws the story with extraordinary clarity. Gavin Sutherland’s magnificent orchestration, alongside his conducting of English National Ballet Philharmonic is equally impressive. With Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting design and Ruth Little’s dramaturgy, it leaves you wanting for nothing.
Khan’s Act I is set in this century, in a community of disillusioned migrants, former garment factory workers. The love story remains the same as the original. Giselle, an outcast, is in love with Albrecht, a landlord disguised as an outcast. Hilarion, described in the programme as a ‘fixer’, is fundamentally an unscrupulous advantage taker. He acts as a manipulator between the landlords and outcasts, and whilst we are led to believe that he is also in love with Giselle, he has no qualms about killing her if he has something to gain. From the start, the group scenes are thrilling. The movements go from frenetic to complete stillness, with Khan’s kathak influences giving ENB’s wonderful dancers renewed vigour. There are hints at the dances of Mary Skeaping’s Rhineland vine-gatherers but mostly the vocabulary is like no other. The duets between Giselle and Albrecht are tactile in a more unusual way than the pas de deux we are used to seeing. Shoulders and hands brush with sensuality, the torso is never upright. The most impactful moments in the first act are during the tension filled face-offs between Albrecht and Hilarion. The overt aggression in Jeffery Cirio’s astonishingly fleet Hilarion and Isaac Hernández’ cheating Albrecht are completely believable. Both dancers have developed their roles considerably since I last saw them. Hernández has given Albrecht more depth, more meat, whilst Cirio’s quirky characterisation has become seriously psychopathic. Combine this with a sensational command of the technique and soaring jumps, it’s a pretty sassy cocktail. Alina Cojocaru’s Giselle, whether in this production or its classical predecessor, is extraordinary. She still looks like a teenager, her dancing is as light as a feather and she has vulnerability in spades even when she is the feisty outcast of Act I. Her death at the end of the act, by strangulation at the hands of Hilarion (although we don’t discover this until Act II) is particularly brutal but it is the attention to detail throughout this act that is most captivating: Giselle’s recognition of her own efforts as a seamstress when she sees Bathilde’s dress; the hand movement flicking the dust off the landlords’ shoulders, later mimicked by the outcasts; the way Giselle places Albrecht’s hand on her stomach – an indication that she is carrying his child; it is real.
Act II is just as enthralling. This time set in the empty shell of a former factory, the Wilis are the ghosts of women killed in industrial accidents there. On pointe, they wield sticks (a nod to the old hand looms) with gruesome malevolence. Sarah Kundi’s Myrtha is not yet as terrifying as Stina Quagebeur’s but she is nevertheless accomplished in the role. Her pointe shoes could have done with being bashed a little before her first entrance as they were distractingly clunky, but other than that she was imperious and menacing. Giselle’s introduction to the ghostly life ahead is superbly depicted, dragged in her human form, across the stage by Myrtha and poked into transforming to Wili by the aforementioned stick. As the Wilis gather for the kill, with their flowing locks and beating sticks, I’m surprised that Hilarion doesn’t die of heart failure at first sight of these evil spirits, instead of hanging on for a ferocious stabbing.
The best was yet to come though – the final pas de deux between Giselle and Albrecht is so very touching. Hairs stand on end, every time I have seen this with all sorts of casts. Everything about this production is topical, very real and will probably be so for many years to come. Absolutely five stars to the company, to Khan. What an achievement.