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Akram Khan's Giselle - English National Ballet
1-4 March 2018, ASB Theatre, Auckland
Auckland Arts Festival

Reviewed by Tania Kopytko

Akram Khan’s Giselle is a remarkable production in so many ways. The reworking of such a classic and well-known traditional ballet about heartbroken love, into a contemporary work, has been done with strength and bravery on all levels. The choreography is excellent, the orchestration and score amazing, the set astounding and the dancers superb. The audience were clearly enthralled from the beginning as they responded with loud enthusiasm at the end of the first act and rose to their feet at the end. The work has already received prestigious awards.

So how was this different and so affecting? Khan explored inequality in a more contemporary setting, providing more depth to the original tale. Villagers in this production were exploited ‘Outcasts’ from weaving mills. Khan referenced the satanic industrial revolution weaving mills of Manchester and the current exploitation of garment workers of his own Bangladeshi roots. Workers, especially women, so often killed, injured or maimed by machines or exhaustion. The industrial presence was felt in the driving music, which included industrial sounds and clanking. The brilliant music and sound composition by Vincenzo Lamagna, orchestrated by Gavin Sutherland, was beautifully performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. The score covered such scope from pulsating, soaring music to near silence, and at times referencing the original score by Adolphe Adam.

Choreographically we were treated to broad scope in movement texture and vocabulary. Wonderful ensemble work showed the relentless sliding, crossing and looping of the looms – backwards, forwards, between, over, with the workers sometimes running between and under these patters, perhaps economic migrants moving on, as these exploited people do. So many images and stories were offered for the audience. Spectacular was the pulsating cluster which surrounded the dying Giselle, pulsating like a giant beating heart.  Khan was not afraid to use stillness and minimalist movement either. One powerful moment was when the young Giselle, (portrayed by the wonderful Erina Takahashi) recognised and fingered her handiwork in the rich woman’s dress (Bathilde, performed by Begoña Cao).  The rich woman held out her glove and as Giselle reached to take it, Bathilde let it drop on the ground for Giselle to stoop and pick up. Giselle’s lowly position was clear. The politics of power then built as Hilarion, here a ‘fixer’ between the workers and the owners, forced the other workers to bow to their masters and tried to make Giselle do the same. This Hilarion was no simple woodcutter, but a more complex character. Of the ‘Outcasts’ he occupied the intermediary zone between the powerful and powerless and while he might have been attracted to Giselle, his relationships were complex and he was less pitiable. The role was superbly performed by Oscar Chacon.

By contrast the factory owner’s rich son, Albrecht (Isaac Hernández), was naïve in his love for Giselle and in his thinking that lurking around in the factory world of his father’s ‘Outcasts’ he could sustain a love for Giselle. The wall that divided their lives stood in the way – and what a wall and set. A wall with their desperate handprints, which lifted and revolved in a brilliant stroke of creative design so it could be the factory wall, the dividing wall between rich and poor, the immigration wall – all of these and more.

Act 2 in the realm of the Willis gave us much more vengeful souls – those maimed and killed through industrial labour. En pointe, this contrasted wonderfully with the flat foot work in Act 1 and so had the impact of floating ethereally, in keeping with the original Romantic ballet concept.  But there was a power to this, created by Akram’s narrative. Brandishing bamboo sticks, perhaps representing spindles or other implements of traditional labour and weaving, these became the weapons of revenge. Myrtha, the Queen of the Willis (Stina Quagebeur), was lethal, threatening and unforgiving, stabbing Hilarion painfully in the hand – a typical work wound for many of these workers, before the group tortuously ended his life. Once again, the group work echoed, more ominously, the movements of looms and machines.

Giselle’s enduring love for Albrecht and his request for forgiveness was portrayed beautifully through a wonderfully crafted pas de deux, with amazing lifts and entwining bodies, reminiscent of the 2006 duet work of Akram Khan and Sylvie Guillem in Sacred Monsters.  As with the original Giselle, sunrise brought resolution. Giselle faded and Albrecht was left facing an impenetrable wall. And thus, is life now for such migrants, and also for the people of conscience in the more prosperous world, left wondering what, if anything, they can do to change this vicious cycle of exploitation. This is a fantastic production and company, providing a classic ballet story for the now. Bravo!

See Theatreview review (Swaroopa Prameela Unni)

Akram Khan's Giselle

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