“I just don’t know how you would review that,” said Lucian, finally, after a gap of at least ten minutes and a walk, with slightly red eyes, out of the theatre, around the corner and up the first bit of the hill toward the fish and chip shop.
I understand his point entirely. How do you review something that could quite neatly be summed up by Mary Berry’s catchphrase, “sheer perfection”? But I’m going to try to give an answer. Partly through the obligation that comes with holding a press ticket and partly through an egotism that means I need to accept what seems like almost a challenge. So I’m going to provide a list of examples that work as possible answers to the question: how would you review that?
My first answer is that I could zoom in on the tiniest components of the choreography and spill out words on the significance of each. If I were doing this, I would start with the hand on the belly. In neither the original story of Giselle nor the synopsis for Akram Khan’s updated version does it state that the impoverished Giselle is pregnant. In fact, in the coyest versions of classical ballet it would probably be out of the question to suggest that she and Albrecht had already had sex. She might, instead, be ‘promised to him’ or something similarly demure. Their love would be something of the ‘glance-across-a-crowded-village-square’ variety, not the enraptured, consuming, sinuous love of the two people in Khan’s adaptation.
But anyway, during Act 1 they meet and her hand goes almost impulsively towards her abdomen. It’s a fleeting movement and then he is sweeping her up and around, his hands also here, right there, on that spot. Doctors might ask children if their tummy or belly hurts when they’re lying in bed drinking Calpol. But if I said ‘her hand was on her belly’, we would know that meant her hand was considerably lower that where the stomach organ actually is. We would know that this meant there was a slight curve to the hand as through already anticipating supporting the weight of another human being. We would also know that if he put his ear to her belly this isn’t because he has a passing interest in gastroenterology, but because there might be a heartbeat or small kicking legs.
So when Tamara Rojo as Giselle sweeps one hand ever so subtly across her ballet-dancer-flat lower torso as soon as she sees Albrecht (James Streeter) we know what this means. And with one chorographical hand gesture, Khan fills the classical, implausible, fairy tale narrative of Giselle with a pathos absent from the Sugar Plum repertoire. The story is alive and human. It’s in her belly.
My second answer is that I could zoom out and discuss Tim Yip’s visual design and costumes. If I were doing this I would perhaps start with a light-hearted comparison between the aesthetic in Giselle and the Hunger Games films featuring Jennifer Lawrence. The insane white lace mantua skirt of one of the Landlords (presumably Albrecht’s mother) is something Effie Trinket would fully approve of. Ditto the glistening black embroidery and sheer panels worn by Bathilde (Begoña Cao) are straight from Katniss Everdeen’s Catching Fire wardrobe. The grimy lives of the beaten-down Outcasts who live under the lavishly dressed landlords and the huge, monolithic Wall (Khan’s capitalisation) is also comparable to the District 12 vs. Capitol distinction.
And yet this comparison makes the look of piece seem potentially tacky, when it is actually far from it. Perhaps because of the floating pastels and lightly applied browns that cloak the scenes of the workers and the Wilis (more from them below) this huge, heavy aesthetic is worn surprisingly lightly. It’s all as softly dirty as mud on the sole of a pink welly boot.
Far from seeming like a cheep way of getting the kids to like a bit of ballet, Akram Khan’s Giselle is thoroughly grown up. It takes its source material and the dance form extremely seriously. The attention it pays to evolving, distorting and morphing the original into something new feels like an act of upmost respect and devotion.
Finally, I could also note that the shredded silk dresses of the female dancers alter the traditional tutu-ed ballet silhouette by moving the waistline downwards. The effect this has is to make the legs look a lot shorter and the torso a lot longer. A ballet dancer with short legs is anti-theoretical, but draped in a bit of blue cloth, Rojo looks, well, surprisingly small. This is arguably a ballet created for her, so that audiences can watch the way she twists her head across him like a friendly cat vying for attention. It’s a ballet created to show what she has done as Artistic Director of the English National Ballet and how she is truly a dancer worth making sure you see perform at least once in your own lifetime. But up onstage in amongst the mechanical pulsing of the corps de ballet and the incessant pressure of the score and their feet, she is a tiny, vulnerable Giselle made that way by circumstances of poverty, class and gender. The lack of ego present in creating a role that hinges on conveying a sense of powerlessness to be danced by someone who fully deserves to hog the limelight is stunning. Contrast this with the centre-stage grabbing of Irina Kolesnikova in the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s ill-judged Her Name Was Carmen, and you feel like there are not enough flowers in world to send to Rojo’s dressing room.
My third, and final (to stop this being too long), answer would be to discuss the en pointe Wilis. I accept that this is might all come across as an in-joke to those less familiar with ballet. But at the start of Act II, Stina Quagebeur tip-tippy-toes out as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. And the correct reaction to this ethereal vision is: OF COURSE! Of course she is en pointe (and will remain as such for the majority of the Act). Of course she is, and of course all the Wilis are. Because they would be. In a ballet that combines traditional balletic moves with elements of other dance forms, the Wilis – bizarre, folkloric creatures transported wholesale from the classical repertoire – would have to be en pointe. It’s what they do.
It’s as through Khan sought a movement to convey the magnetising, terrifying weirdness of the Wilis and realised the answer could not be more simple: pointe work. Everything that needs to be shown about the Wilis as exemplars of both beauty and pain can be shown through this cliché of the ballet world. The way that the en pointe foot is both the epitome of grace and control, yet also looks borderline grotesque in the manner it distorts the final part of the leg by making the front of the foot bulge out.
The Wilis are also trapped – both within a world of a pain and a set of regulations that cannot be broken – and so, of course, they are also trapped within a range of restricted movements. Giselle breaks this when she meets Albrecht for the last time and becomes entirely divorced from the ground and the box at the end of her ballet shoes that magnetise the rest of the Wilis to it. She climbs and snakes around him, she steps onto his belly and she wraps those half-hidden legs all the way around his chest.
So those would be my three partial answers to ‘how would you review Akram Khan’s Giselle?’ They are three little bits that intersect with what is accepted and known about reviewing: discuss character, costume, choreography etc. They are three things that more than likely don’t come close to describing the feeling of seeing something and knowing, right away, that it is on that list of ‘The best things I have ever seen in a theatre’. They are also three things that certainly don’t touch on describing the experience of seeing a hand make a small, familiar gesture and feeling the weight of sadness something as easily dismissible as a ballet can bring.
Giselle is on at the Bristol Hippodrome until 22nd October, followed by the Mayflower in Southampton, and Sadler’s Wells in London from 15th November 2016. Click here for more details.