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Giselle: English National Ballet – Sadler’s Wells Theatre

Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan's Giselle
Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan’s Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

This is going to be one of those quintessential productions. One of those, that if you’ve been fortunate enough to get to see it, you will still be talking about in twenty years time. Telling others you were there and, yes, this is how it was.

A great Romantic ballet of themes, Giselle remains a two-act frame for this stunning reimagining by Akram Khan, Tamara Rojo and her English National Ballet of which she is the Artistic Director as well as being a principal dancer. Originally a story about a rural peasant girl who, when betrayed by her aristocratic lover, dies of a broken heart to become a shade, one of the Wilis, a band of ghostly jilted brides, who take eternal revenge on all men by dancing any they come across to death.

Hope, joy, love, betrayal, cruelty, mortality, longing, forgiveness. They’re all here, to be found. And find them they do, this extraordinary creative and performing team.

What you will probably notice first about this production is the wall. Designed by Tim Yip, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This wall brims with meaning in our new political reality. Massive and grey it’s pockmarked and marked within human reach by black handprints. It looks immovable but it is not. It turns and it slides, creating at times impressions your brain will accept but your eyes will scarcely believe.

There will come a time in the first act when Giselle, (Tamara Rojo), will show her lover, Albrecht (James Streeter) that the wall exists, sees whether their hands fit into those imprints left by others before. This is a story of many, not theirs alone.

There is a different significance to such handprints on a wall, in India. A new widow, about to make the Hindu sacrifice of suttee (sati), would leave her handprint in soot on a dedicated wall, alongside those of all the other women who had already died on their husband’s funeral pyres.

A horizontal stripe of deep shadow and an open orchestra pit below suggest the stage on which the first act takes place is a precipice.

We discover we are being confined by the wall in an industrial landscape, a factory of workers, a modern place of work for the poor, since the industrial revolution. The slippered dancers are wearing clothes the colour of skin, they’re all cowed, all the same in this except for Giselle. She is different to the rest. For it is Giselle alone, out of all those that will appear on this stage, who knows joy and the liberation that is hope, poignantly communicated by Tamara Rojo, on superb form. And it is these unique qualities stolid, conventional lover, Albrecht, a member of the ruling class, also finds irresistible, despite being secretly betrothed to another. That Albrecht is not worthy of her, as we are shown from the start, makes no difference to Giselle, her love is true.

Klaxons sound as dancers scurry about on flat, slippered feet, bent over, arms dangling as if they are some sort of feral animals. More feral and slippery than the rest is her second admirer, Hilarion, Cesar Corrales, who provides a portrayal of great clarity of that character through movement. What a pleasure he is to watch.

The score in the first act by Vincenzo Lamaga, orchestrated by Gavin Sutherland, drives the action forwards with a marvellous mix made of the original classical orchestral music, industrial sounds and a modern electronic beat which brings you in the audience into the action, as you want to move to its rhythm in your seat. The old stories and our present combined together through the music.

Classical ballet, contemporary dance and Akram Khan’s Khatak movements, originating from India combine in perfect harmony.

For this is a story through time and across the world. We think of the textile factories of India and the Far East. Of exploited workers, wherever they are. Capitalism, a system which requires someone must always be on the bottom rung.

Members of the ruling class enter in a marvellous scene in which stillness and movement en pointe combine to create illusion, a sense of the other, perhaps from Carroll’s Alison in Wonderland, perhaps from pre-revolution France. They are richly dressed but in clothes hampering movement, they are rigid, possessing everything but joy.

Albrecht’s betrothed is among this class, where Giselle has no status, what had passed between her and Albrecht counted for nothing, because love cannot transcend class. That’s their belief and Albrecht complies, casting Giselle aside with great cruelty. As she lies sprawled at his feet on the floor, the audience is reminded of the hard truth the greater the attachment that has existed, the harder the push away to achieve separation must be. We feel for her. We have all been her. Or, we have inflicted such cruelty. Or both. Sorrow and guilt. Knowledge. Each audience member’s past is present in these heavy moments, in the Sadler’s house.

Giselle is dying but the English National Ballet ensemble, at some inspired pinnacle of ensemble ability, whirl as one in an attempt to make her live, a wheel of bodies to hold her up, lungs to breathe.

What alchemy of choreography and dance ability combine here, making the magic of living art. Albrecht was weak, Hilarion a disaster, it is Giselle, the factory worker, that is extraordinary. But she will not breathe. She gasps to the surface of the mass of dancers one last time and then she dies.

The second act is set underground. The action here begins puzzlingly slowly for the first few minutes before the pace of the production picks up all over again.

Giselle has a new ruler in this supernatural world, the Queen of the Wilis. Danced, exquisitely and astonishingly en pointe throughout, by the charismatic Stina Quagebeur, who communicates a malign intention of purpose combined with the suggestion of physical strength. She is beautiful and terrifying, determined Giselle will do her bidding. Will function, will dance, will take revenge.

There is another sensational entrance by the shades of the jilted brides, the Wilis. All these dancers dance on points throughout, this is their signature move. There is wonder here, all over again.

The music in the second act is different to that of the first. It echoes the original Giselle score more often, with less of a modern tone as is apt because we are being transported to other realms, possibly the supernatural, certainly the subconscious.

Here there is a pas de deux of enormous pathos between the pair. Giselle suggesting the erotic, having been innocent in the matching pas de deux at the beginning of their love story. All they still yearn for, all they could have had and the loss of that is danced as shadow feeling, they are ghosts of their past, blanched on stage by grey light, moonlight no more.

In the audience, we know this dance. That desire to return to love as it used to be before we spoiled it. All that is left of love is ruins and yearning and forgiveness. Many, if not most, of the audience, were in tears here.

And, this being an extraordinary production, the impossibility of going back in love is expressed in an extraordinary way. And, as we leave we are left to wonder whether the marks of hands on the wall are just imprints or, whether they are visible traces of the souls beyond, trying to break through, forever wanting to reach back to a lost love.

Every single aspect of this production is superb. Without a doubt, it is the hard, practical work of all those involved, dealing with such matters as aesthetics and technique, that have constructed the conduits for the sublime, unique sensibilities of this Giselle to flow.

Taking it beyond exquisite to universal truth.

For, as with all great stories, this production describes what it is to be mortal, whenever our time for life, wherever that happens to be. It is about all of us, for all of us, not just those lucky enough have a seat in a dance theatre in Islington.

I urge you to see this production which returns to Sadler’s Well’s in September 2017, if you love art, even if you are not a dance aficionado. The tickets are on sale and moving fast but even if you have little money to spend there are standing tickets for twelve pounds. You’ll miss some of the entrances and exits but you’ll have a rail to lean on and you won’t regret a minute of the time you spend doing that, not ever.

In every lifetime there are only a few shows as good as this is. Don’t miss it.

5 Star Rating

Review by Marian Kennedy

One of the most anticipated dance events of 2016, Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Akram Khan creates a brand new version of the iconic romantic ballet Giselle for English National Ballet.

The classic story of love, betrayal and redemption is given a new interpretation, with Academy-Award winning designer Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) creating a stunning set design, and composer Vincenzo Lamagnaadapting the original score, which will be performed by English National Ballet Philharmonic.

Giselle is a ballet that lives in both the real and spiritual world: this is why I thought it would be particularly appropriate for Akram Khan, whose work often represents those two worlds” says Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet.

“I am eager to start the creation of Giselle. It is a beautiful and iconic piece, and I am looking forward to bringing my own take, together with my collaborators and the wonderful English National Ballet dancers”, says Akram Khan. “I am still nostalgic from the experience of creating Dust, in the Lest We Forget programme, and am now even more energised to discover the world of Giselle”.

Sadler’s Wells
Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R


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