Akram Khan’s Giselle – English National Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, London, 17 November 2016

Gisbloodyelle this is good

Cesar Corrales gets the point in Akram Khan's Giselle. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Cesar Corrales gets the point in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Every now and again you watch a show that simply blows your mind. This was that show. Somehow Akram Khan has taken the hackneyed tale of a 19th century love-struck peasant girl and turned it into something very modern and very weird but completely intelligible and totally compelling.

It works on so many levels, each element in harmony with the other. The narrative has been abstracted considerably, is slow to unfurl and is reduced to key pointers but it works brilliantly because the main thrust of the story is completely clear and requires no knowledge of the original tale to make sense of it.

Khan’s choreography gives English National Ballet a new language to communicate with but also utilises their classical training to create something wholly unexpected. The gnarly humanistic yanking that populates the first half is reminiscent not only of Khan’s contemporary work but also of Pina Bausch’s ferocious Rite of Spring and of Hofesh Shechter at his most agile. Conversely (perversely almost), the pointe work of the Wili’s in the second half stands them out as menacingly alien; they’re not a group of people you’d want to spend time with.

The superbly danced ensemble work is sensational to watch, a powerfully febrile use of arms and emphatic rhythm. Initially, the solo dancing makes less of an impact, subjugated as it is to the development of strong characterisation – it’s such a relief to find a contemporary choreographer prepared to tell their stories through movement rather than relying on gimmicky sets and florid programme notes – but the second half slowly gives way to the individual.

And here the marvellous trio of Tamara Rojo’s Giselle, James Streeter’s Albrecht and Stina Quagebeur’s Myrtha take over. Their love/hate triangle is full of tension and it’s never quite certain how it will end. The main pas de deux between Rojo and Streeter, full of stunning sculptural shapes, has you believing that Albrecht does love her and, as a consequence, the ambiguity of her final disappearance is genuinely moving. It also must be said that Cesar Corrales has adopted Khan’s style with astonishing dexterity and conviction – his Hilarion is such a bastard that at last we understand why the Willis kill him.

For those familiar with the classical ballet version, there are a huge number of choreographic references to it, often out of place but hugely effective because of it. This is something that also applies to Vincenzo Lamagna’s fantastic reinvention of Adolphe Adam’s original score. Interspersed with rumbles, silences and odd noises, Lamagna takes key themes from the original, twists them inside out and slowly builds them up into ominous, pulsing wind tunnels of sound. The effect is loud and hugely dramatic but it always works with events on stage, never overpowers them.

Tim Yip’s designs are just as effective at realising the world inhabited by the dancers. Stark, minimalist and grey, they look towards depictions of dystopian futures found in movies such as Metropolis and 1984 for inspiration (there’s even a touch of A Clockwork Orange in Hilarion’s bowler hat). Mark Henderson’s lighting brings it all to life by paradoxically emphasising the claustrophobia. Yip, Henderson, Lamagna and Khan’s united vision is never bettered than in the entrance of the all-powerful Landlords – the combination of klaxon, tilting wall, back-lighting, far-out costumes and eye for spectacle is astonishing.

There’s so much more I could say about this piece but I think you get the idea. It’s brilliant. I loved it. If you get the chance, go see it. It’s more than a wonderful dance piece, it’s a great work of contemporary theatre.

Akram Khan’s Giselle runs at Sadler’s Wells until 19 November 2016 (returning again on 20-23 September 2017 – tickets already on sale). More info and tickets can be found on the English National Ballet website.

Gerard Davis

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This entry was posted in Akram Khan, English National Ballet, Giselle, Sadler's Wells, Stina Quagebeur, Tamara Rojo and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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