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Akram Khan’s Giselle
Composition and sound design by Vincenzo Lamagna, after the original score of Adolphe Adam
Orchestration by Gavin Sutherland
Direction and choreography by Akram Khan
Giselle: Tamara Rojo, Albrecht: James Streeter, Hilarion: Jeffrey Cirio, Myrtha: Stina Quagebeur, Bathilde: Begoņa Cao, Landlord: Fabian Reimair
English National Ballet
English National Ballet Philharmonic/Gavin Sutherland
Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon
1080i High Definition Blu-ray disc
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Region: worldwide
OPUS ARTE Blu-Ray OABD7254D [125 mins]

“I am a true believer that, for any art form to continue to be relevant, the works have to be revisited, reinterpreted, re-edited. From the beginning of my Artistic Directorship, a very important part of my vision was to make classical ballet relevant – to bring it to the audiences of today, to reinvent those great stories and maybe put them in a context that represents the world we live in… and give chances to the artists of today to look at [the classical repertoire] and break it apart and put it together in a most wonderful, surprising way…” Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet, speaking in the documentary film included on this disc.

The accolades that this production has picked up are certainly impressive. They include the Robert Robson Award for Dance at the 2016 Manchester Theatre Awards and, in 2017, both the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Dance and Tanz Magazine’s Award for Production of the Year. Meanwhile, Akram Khan scooped the prize for Best Classical Choreography at the 2017 Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards.

Before going any further, however, I need to clarify one particularly important point. As the disc’s cover proudly proclaims, this is not the ballet Giselle as we know it but something very different indeed – Akram Khan’s Giselle. It is a production that is characterised not only by Mr Khan’s distinctive choreography but also by an unfamiliar storyline and a new musical score and “sound design”.

With all those novel features in evidence, dance critic Debra Crane has described Akram Khan’s Giselle as “taken… so far from its roots as to be unrecognisable” (The Times Saturday Review, 30 March 2019, p. 28), categorising it instead as something of a “poetic meditation” on the older work’s themes. In a short accompanying documentary film, this production’s dramaturg Ruth Little identifies those themes as “love, betrayal, revenge and forgiveness” - but, while those four are certainly absolutely core to the 19th century ballet, in this 21st century version where the element of purely romantic love has been, as we shall see, quite intentionally much diminished, they have been very much subordinated to the theme of class conflict.

Class distinctions are, it’s true, also a key feature of the original Giselle of 1841 yet there they are not presented in a particularly negative light and they certainly never metamorphose into class antagonism. On the contrary, until matters take a turn for the worse in the first Act’s final ten minutes or so, we are presented with a bucolic ideal of life in the medieval Rhineland where friendly peasants are only too delighted to play host to a passing party of visiting aristocrats, offering them food and drink, entertaining them with colourful village dances and even allowing them to take afternoon naps in their quaintly picturesque cottages. Meanwhile, the noble visitors are uniformly modest and polite in behaviour, notably benevolent to the point of outright generosity – as when Bathilde graciously gives a presumably valuable necklace to Giselle – and altogether shining examples of noblesse oblige at its best.
Akram Khan’s Giselle, on the other hand, inhabits a (quite literally) dark, post-industrial landscape where that old harmonious social structure no longer exists. Its story takes place in an environment where benevolent manorialism has been superseded by aggressively acquisitive capitalism and where mutually hostile classes (an oppressed urban proletariat of “Outcasts” and a parasitical ruling class of bourgeois “Landlords”) live in mutually hostile antagonism, almost entirely separated from each other by an immense and hideous concrete wall that dominates the stage.

Mr Khan’s new concept inevitably requires changes to be made to the Giselle story. Many of those alterations are, indeed, very substantial ones. Thus, whereas the whole of the old Act 2 portrayed the wilis as man-hating female spirits who’d been betrayed by their lovers, the new version presents them as women who have died while working in unregulated and dangerous sweatshop factories, victims not of men but of the capitalist system of production. But as well as changes to the big overall concept, there are, as you might expect, plenty of other individual, quite specific alterations to the on-stage action. Hilarion, for example, becomes something of a class-traitor – a kulak, perhaps? – who is awarded a bourgeois bowler hat by his superiors in recognition of the way he manages the Outcast community on their behalf. Meanwhile, the previously-referenced episode of the generous gift of the necklace is transformed into one where a tight-fisted Bathilde offers a single glove (not even a pair!) to Giselle, only, in a gesture of utter contempt for her social inferior, to drop it deliberately to the ground as the girl reaches out to take it.

As you might expect, the nature of the characters is also affected by the new scenario. Significantly enough, Mr Khan himself has observed that he now finds Hilarion to be the most interesting person depicted on stage. That, though, is hardly surprising given the production’s terms of reference, because, as an Outcast with managerial/capitalist aspirations, he now becomes the most conflicted character of all in his motivation. Giselle and Albrecht, on the other hand, are comparatively straightforward representatives of their own economic classes. Giselle’s actions are no longer driven simply by uncomplicated romantic love, for the observant viewer will notice several suggestions that she is already pregnant, presumably by Albrecht, which might suggest that her fixation on him is now motivated by the need to secure his acknowledgement of, and some provision for, her child-to-be. Similarly, Albrecht gives little hint of any real romantic attachment to Giselle (indeed, he remains pretty stony-faced throughout) which might again suggest that any intermittent interest that he does have in her is merely as the woman carrying his possible son and heir. There’s not, I think we can conclude, a great deal of romance or even affection on offer on that rather bleak stage.

The dark nature of the themes being explored in this production is reflected in both its music and its choreography. Very little of Adolphe Adam’s original score for Act 1 is referenced – which, given that its often rather jaunty rhythms depicted merry peasant life, is, I suppose, hardly surprising. However, some rather more appropriately sombre episodes from Adam’s original Act 2 do survive and resurface at odd moments, though now overlaid to varying degrees by what I take to be mainly electronically-generated sounds. Anyone hoping to find long stretches of melody in Vincenzo Lamagna’s “sound design” (yes, that’s a new one on me too) will, I’m afraid, be disappointed – but the mixture of music and generalised “industrial” sounds, including factory hooters, undeniably makes a very effective setting for the on-stage action. In an accompanying film, Mr Lamagna refers to his aim of balancing noise and melody and I think we can say that he has achieved that with some success. Almost invariably angular, jerky and often very forceful, his score/sound design will certainly show off the capabilities of a sound bar if you have one hooked up to your TV. I ought also to add, however, that it is quite characteristic of this production to find that some of the moments of highest emotional impact – Albrecht’s rejection of Giselle at the end of the first Act, for instance, or the first time that the pair are reunited in Act 2 – are marked by a complete absence of any music at all, though it is a convincing mark of the production’s strength and impact that those episodes remain very powerfully conveyed even when watched in near silence.

Akram Khan’s choreography – described by ENB First Artist Isabelle Brouwers as “an amazing fusion of classical, Indian and contemporary dance” – is similarly uncompromising in its forthright angularity. While the gracefulness that typically characterises classical ballet is absent, the almost mechanised style of movement that replaces it seems utterly appropriate when supporting a storyline set in such a hideous environment. One or two aspects of the story do, moreover, stand out as being particularly effectively managed. Giselle’s death is depicted rather beautifully, for example, as she almost appears to drown amid the gently undulating arms and bodies of a crowd of outcasts. I also enjoyed the way that the massed wilis have been made more threatening than usual by being equipped with weapons – lethal rods, looking like bits of machinery cannibalised from their factories – that also prove dramatically and choreographically useful in the exchanges between Giselle and Myrtha.

Having discussed the nature of any production at some length, I’d normally turn to assessing how effectively the dancers execute it. In a traditionally-mounted performance that process would have been relatively straightforward, with the characteristic styles of 19th century Romantic and classical ballet offering obvious benchmarks and Giselle’s long history allowing useful comparisons with past performances, many of which have been preserved on film. Such a critical process is, of course, impossible with Akram Khan’s Giselle, for not only is this its premiere production but any comparison (with what?) is well-nigh impossible given its unique choreographic style and delivery. It is surely fair to surmise, however, that Mr Khan’s close personal involvement in the production, repeatedly attested to in the documentary film, gives it a genuinely convincing degree of authenticity, and it is undoubtedly true that the dancers on stage convey in their unanimity of style the impression of complete commitment to the story.

While all four principal dancers are undoubtedly excellent technicians, I’d pick out Tamara Rojo as the most compelling, even when she is not dancing. Her acting is highly skilled – not something that can be said of all dancers – and she uses her eyes, in particular, to great effect as she repeatedly and unblinkingly stares Albrecht down in an attempt to shame him into responsible behaviour. Ms Rojo’s strong performance adds immense credibility to the whole performance.

Akram Khan’s Giselle may not be Giselle as we know and love it but it emerges in its own right as a stunning and powerful piece of theatre. I am still not certain that I necessarily agree with Ms Rojo’s assertion, as quoted above, that ballet needs to be relevant, for what, after all, is so wrong with a bit of pure escapism in times like these? But, on this occasion at least, she and her company have delivered a gripping production that anyone prepared to leave their preconceptions behind will undoubtedly find a challenging and thought-provoking experience.

Rob Maynard

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