There’s a chilling prescience to Akram Khan’s new version of Giselle for English National Ballet. Gone is the winsomely rustic Rhineland village of the original, in which merry peasants frolic. Thanks to Tim Yip’s marvellous designs and Mark Henderson’s shadowy lighting, Khan’s world is both unspecific and horribly recognisable – a place in which a giant monolithic wall divides a class of migrant garment workers (of which Giselle is one) from a ruling elite of landlords draped in imperious couture. Vincenzo Lamaga’s electro-orchestral score blends thrumming soundscapes with echoed fragments of the traditional Adolphe Adam music, with the sweetness always transposed to an ominously minor key.
As in the original, Giselle’s lover Albrecht is pretending to be part of her social circle when he’s actually one of the powerful aristos and, to make matters worse, betrothed to a glacial bitch called Bathilde. In Khan’s work, Hilarion – who loves Giselle and reveals the truth about Albrecht – isn’t a burly woodsman but a wily “fixer” who flits between social strata.
But he doesn’t search for Giselle’s grave in any misty glade. In the second act the lifted grey wall becomes a portal into an industrial hinterland populated by the vengeful Wilis – they’re not jilted spirit-girls, but baleful victims of factory accidents, wielding canes that nostalgically evoke a pre-mechanized era but are also handy for stabbing. Their gripes might be more about market forces than being duped by cads, but they’re emphatically not man-friendly, which is what matters most. Hilarion isn’t so much danced to death as mercilessly threshed.
Khan doesn’t come from a ballet background – he’s known for blending contemporary movement with kathak technique – but the choreographic language he’s created here is hypnotic. By turns delicate and visceral, it blends balletic form with a swooping folky heft and kathak accents in the wrists and fingers (an airy sewing motion with thumb and forefinger becomes a recurring motif). As Giselle, Tamara Rojo dances with a lilting luminosity, spinning off into her own daydreamy realm after a tender pas de deux with Albrecht. The hand she places on her stomach takes on various shades of significance – it’s a sensual secret passed between them, a sign of desperation and shame, then an emotional weak spot targeted by Stine Quagebeur’s wonderfully spectral Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. The latter – their long hair loose and lank, heads uncannily cocked – create a thrillingly dramatic vision. When they bourree together en pointe, they’re possessed both of a flickering weightlessness and a piercing aggression.
As Albrecht, James Streeter is suitably contrite in the second act, his agonised solo inflected with earthy snatches of the migrants’ ensemble dance. Needless to say, Bathilde (Begona Coa) registers nothing but indifference. Cesar Corrales (Hilarion) imbues his role with a kind of feral power, dashing off airborne turns and crouched simian spins with breathtaking speed and exactitude. I could go on and on because the whole thing is visually stunning, deeply moving and danced with riveting attack– it’s a triumph for ENB that deserves to be treasured. If only certain froth-mouthed individuals with ideas about walls and migration could be savagely minced by a bunch of pissed-off females with sticks, then life outside the theatre would be slightly more tolerable.
Akram Khan’s Giselle is on until 19th November 2016 at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for more details.