A staple of ballet companies the world over, the story of Giselle is well-known. The young peasant girl of the title falls in love with Albrecht, an aristocrat pretending to be a simple country lad; she spurns the courtship of the uncouth, but well-intentioned woodsman, Hilarion. When Albrecht’s deception is exposed, Giselle goes mad and dies, either of a broken heart or by killing herself.
In Act 2 Giselle joins the Willis, the spirits of girls who died before their wedding, whose mission is to kill any man who enters their wood at night. Hilarion does so and is duly dispatched; a guilt-racked Albrecht is only saved from a similar fate by Giselle’s intercession.
There’s no ambiguity to the character of Hilarion: he is an out and out villain, the factory foreman who is a bully to the workers and an oleaginous servant to his masters. His interest in Giselle is brutal: as the foreman he sees possession of her as his entitlement.
The plot itself proceeds very much along the lines of the original, but Khan brings in some truly inspired twists. Trained in northern Indian kathak and contemporary dance, his choreography is powerful, earthy and reliant on strong rhythms. It is also hugely expressive; and he brings all that to the factory floor of Act 1, a gritty industrial setting, where the movement often mimics the repetitive rhythm of machinery.
On its first outing last year Act I was much stronger on oppressive atmospherics than on narrative, which was diffuse and unclear, particular in its sketchy introduction of the two protagonists. It seems that for this second outing tweaks have been made to the narrative, which is much more cogent, in particular in the characterisation of Giselle and Albrecht.
Act II is pure genius. The Willis are no longer the ethereal (if vengeful) spirits of the original, in their pristine white Romantic tutus dancing on a wood clearing under bright silver moonlight. Khan’s Willis are truly malevolent spirits. They emerge from the earth under the dim yellowish light of a baleful moon, their long skirts tatty and muddy. They each carry a long stick. Their massed ranks bourrée on pointe - a hovering menace...
Hilarion is killed not off stage, as in the original, but on, in a scene of graphic violence, where the Willis’ beat an infernal rhythm on the ground with their sticks, even as they are spearing him to death.
And Act II draws to an end with an extended pas-de-deux for Albrecht and Giselle’s spirit, which surely must rank among the most erotic, intense, passionate, and heart-wrenching scenes in the entire ballet canon.
On press night Giselle was danced by ENB’s Artistic Director and Lead Principal Tamara Rojo, still one of the most compelling dance actors around; her Albrecht was Soloist James Streeter, an eloquent dancer and skilled partner.
Special praise, though, must go to ENB’s newly-minted Principal Cesar Corrales as Hilarion. Barely 21-years-old, Corrales possesses an astounding technique; but more than that, he has the self-assurance and star quality that make it almost impossible to take your eyes off him when he’s on stage.
The music by Vincenzo Lamagna after the original score of Adolphe Adam is inspired too, drawing just enough from the original to bring recognition and keep the connection, but adding a much darker tone, blending in the shrill, sustained grind of industrial machinery, as well as the pounding rhythms demanded by Akram Khan’s style, and the Romantic underpinning for Giselle and Albrech.
Akram Khan's Giselle is one of the balletic events of the decade. This run sold out a long time ago, but it is well worth trying for a return.
|What||ENB, Akram Khan, Giselle review|
Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4TN | MAP
|Nearest tube||Angel (underground)|
20 Sep 17 – 23 Sep 17, Matinées Thursday and Saturday
|Price||£12 - £45|
|Website||Click here to book via the Sadler's Wells website|