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Performing in Akram Khan’s gothic re-imagining of ‘Giselle’, the English National Ballet Soloist met with Chris Connolly before stunning audiences at Auckland Arts Festival as Albrecht.

James Streeter has danced since he was five. He’s danced with English National Ballet (ENB) since 2004, yet he speaks of working with Akram Khan as though he were experiencing it all again for the first time. They’ve worked together once before on Dust, even performing at Glastonbury (Festival) in front of 50,000 people. “That was eye opening for me. It was the first time I got completely lost in myself and the movement. It was an experience I’ve never had before on stage.”

Khan is arguably the UK’s leading contemporary choreographer, with Giselle being his first full length ballet piece. “There’s something about his work which allows you to look even deeper in yourself. It’s something that I’ve never experienced but now try to take it to every role I do.”

On paper Streeter is a classical ballet dancer, known for his work as Tybalt in Derek Deane’s Romeo & Juliet and Rothbart in Swan Lake, but his work on Khan’s collision of ballet and contemporary worlds has given Streeter new found artistic freedom. “He’s given us that gift. As long as you're 100% there you cannot do wrong. I can’t be wrong as James and you can’t be wrong as you. You can’t fake that.”

Working with a contemporary choreographer meant a fresh creative process for the company dancers.

“We spent a lot of time talking. We asked questions and he asked us questions. We were all offered the opportunity to influence this production. We don't have that chance in a classical production choreographed 100 years ago, you know? We don’t. There’s a section where everyone walks in and it’s free. It’s how you feel. When you feel you want to come in - you come in. You have to be in the moment. Right there, right then.”

The story of Giselle is one of love and despair, with Khan adding dark socio-political undertones. “We started exploring what Giselle meant to him. The idea of migrants he had strongly in his head. It all begins as we see them pushing the wall back - which carries such an impact. I guess, for me, it represents their fight for where they want to be.” Streeter continued to say they hadn’t adapted Giselle for New Zealand due to its relatable nature and universal theme. “We had the most amazing ceremony when we arrived, with a Māori tribe. So many of us felt an overwhelming emotion when we watched that, it was a very special moment. At the end of it we stood up, shook hands and we touched foreheads and shared breath with that person to say we accept them for who they are. What’s fascinating is the most intimate moment of this ballet’s when Giselle and Albrecht touch heads just like it.”

“There are thousands of Swan Lakes but there is only one Akram Khans Giselle.”

His role as Albrecht seems to have blurred the lines between himself and his fictional cohort. He spoke of how hard the ending was, the walls closing in and being left with no resolve, a contrast to his role as Hilarion in ENB’s classical version. In fact, every role is somewhat contrary to the classical with the choreographer bringing his signature humanistic style to the stage; accentuated by the dark, sultry pairing of composer Vincenzo Lamagna’s outstanding adaptation of Adolphe Adam’s original score, performed by our own Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. The instrumental set and costume design were meticulously created by Academy Award-winner, Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Just another reason to adore this cinematic masterpiece. 

Their performances at Auckland Arts Festival were an Australasian exclusive, and an unmissable one at that. This is not just another ballet. “Every time you do this it’s different. Every time feels new and special. After experiencing our arrival it’s going to be even more spiritual to know how people are going to view it. You asked if it has been adapted? We discussed how certain movement can mean different things for different people. No one said ‘you should do this’, ‘you should do that’ but there’s no way you can’t have that affect you when you're dancing as every experience throughout the week is brought onto that stage.”

‘So your surroundings affect each performance?’

“Oh, absolutely. Definitely in this. It’s not superficial. Every night I can step into this world. It’s so different to doing a classical ballet - putting white tights on and doing five pirouettes. It’s not about that, it’s about an experience and a journey you can go on from start to finish. For a ballet to even be recognised enough for it to be wanted half way around the world shows how incredible it is. How many Swan Lakes are there? Everyone loves Swan Lake, I love Swan Lake. There are thousands of Swan Lakes but there is only one Akram Khan’s Giselle and it’s special enough for us to be brought to this amazing Arts Festival.”

Missed Akram Khan’s Giselle? See James Streeter as Albrecht in selected cinemas in April.

Contributor: Chris Connolly
Twitter: @chriscon91


An Interview with English National Ballet’s James Streeter

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