English National Ballet’s production of Akram Khan’s reimagining of Giselle constructs a wonderful evening of performance art at its most integrated and rewarding.
The bare bones of it: Act 1: Rich boy (Albrecht) disguised as poor boy, falls for poor girl (Giselle). Poor girl’s poor admirer (Hilarion) kicks off and intervenes (repeatedly). Rich boy’s family arrive with his fiancée (Bathilde) in tow. Rich boy departs, fiancée on arm. Poor girl expires (broken heart? self-harm? foul play? You decide).
Act 2: Poor girl’s spirit is recruited by gang of disgruntled female spirits (all victims of male perfidy). Poor boy visits grave but is scared away by spirits. Rich boy visits grave. Poor girl’s spirit battles Queen of spirits (Myrtha) to try to save him.
Tim Yip’s set confronts the audience with a grim, pock-marked grey “concrete” wall (and, of course, it’s hard not to think of Gaza). On our side, the excluded side, are Giselle (danced with delicacy and vulnerability by Erina Takahashi) and her fellow migrant workers. Lurking in amongst them, the wealthy Albrecht (given subtle self-assurance in James Streeter’s performance) dotes on her, whilst facing down her jealous, long-term admirer, Hilarion (Ken Saruhashi seethes and struts his frustration and growing sense of futility).
The ensemble carves and weaves Khan’s shapes and patterns with faultless pace and precision, all lifted and guided by the orchestra, masterfully roused and driven by Gavin Sutherland’s tireless baton.
When the music pauses, Albrecht can be seen to one side, still dancing. Try as he might, he doesn’t quite belong.
A klaxon sounds, the wall tilts and lifts and the factory owners, sumptuously dressed in clothes made by these migrant workers, glide forward. A simple gift from Albrecht’s father (a bowler hat) renders Hilarion their willing overseer. He bows and scrapes, physically forcing his fellow workers to kowtow to the mighty who have deigned to go among them.
Browbeaten, Albrecht takes the arm of his glamorous fiancée and returns to his own side of the wall. The impact of this betrayal is too much for the adoring Giselle. The precise nature of her fate is masked from us – does she simply collapse in grief, or might this be suicide (or even something darker)?
After the interval, Mark Henderson’s chill and eery lighting roots us in a graveyard of restless souls. The choreography (much of it en pointe) is relentlessly beautiful. The ensemble presentation of the spirits of wronged women (the Wilis) is impressively otherworldly – I’m guessing it takes quite some level of skill and concentration to perform ballet with a metre-long stick clamped between your teeth. The effect is worth the effort – the women becoming a wall of vengeful menace. Even half-lit, Emma Hawes shines as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. The final pas de trois (Myrtha, Albrecht and Giselle) is profoundly moving.
The storytelling throughout is clear but never patronising (there is work for the audience to do and their attention never drifts.) I have rarely seen the Palace crowd so rapt.
Don’t miss it.
English National Ballet – Akram Khan’s Giselle is at The Palace Theatre, Manchester from 19 to 21 October 2023 before continuing on tour. The ballet is also available for purchase to stream on demand.