Forget the merry folk jigs and wispy waltzes; Akram Khan’s “Giselle” entertains none of the levity associated with its 1841 predecessor, one of the most famous ballets to emerge from the Romantic era. The new production, created for English National Ballet, is an angry rebuke of inequality and social stratification, perceptive in its condemnation and admirable in its intensity. Khan has preserved the broad strokes of Théophile Gautier’s original narrative—the lovers from different worlds, the devastating betrayal, the supernatural revenge—but overhauled its setting and tone to present a dark parable about the failures of globalisation. The first half reveals our protagonist as a former worker in a now-desolate garment factory, a world away from Gautier’s Arcadian country setting, with its sunny peasants and bucolic harvests. The second thrusts her into an ugly underworld haunted by ghosts of workers past, their supernatural wiles less entrancing than they are vicious.
Aided by a turbulent score from Vincenzo Lamagna that remixes Adolphe Adam’s original composition with the menacing din of subjugation—growls, bangs, the faint clinking of chains— Giselle and her fellow workers (known as Outcasts) navigate an impoverished existence in which their main recourse to income is entertaining the rich ruling class (the Landlords). The allegory is multi-layered and well conceived, harking to hegemonies both past and present, including European feudalism, India’s infamous caste system, and the West’s enduring stronghold on sweatshops in Bangladesh and elsewhere. That the workers are designated as migrants is a clear allusion to Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis, while the giant looming barricade that separates the two classes is eerily resonant of Donald Trump’s calls for a wall at the Mexican border.
Giselle takes refuge in her illicit relationship with Landlord Albrecht, though little time is spent building up their romance, a decision that elevates the impact of Albrecht’s rejection of Giselle in favour of the wealthy Bathilde. Instead of a personal slight, it comes to symbolise the systemic dispossession of the Outcast class at large, painting them as curios to be enjoyed, exploited and disposed of at will.
It’s this level of discernment, coupled with a tense, convincing atmosphere, that fuels the ballet’s potency. The scene in which the barricade opens for the first time, a klaxon blaring ominously as the Landlords are revealed in all their glittering excess, is as nail-biting as the forced minstrelsy of the Outcasts—manifest in a puppet-like dance of claps and skips and forced cheers—is repulsive. Violence lurks at every turn: Hilarion (reimagined as a ‘fixer’ who moves between the two worlds at his own profit) thrusting down Giselle’s neck in deference to Bathilde, head Wili Myrtha yanking her lifeless body by the arm. Khan’s refusal to sugarcoat the story’s brutality comes to a head in Giselle’s death scene, in which she’s enveloped by a skein of bodies and swallowed up whole. There’s no bemused wandering or hysterical handwringing, just helplessness through and through.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Giselle and Albrecht’s duets both before and after her death are high-spirited swirls of desire and passion, emotive and tender in their full-body abandonment. And amid their struggle, the Outcasts too show glimpses of optimism, through lively waltzes and folk steps that envisage a life beyond poverty. They frequently revisit a hypnotic rocking motion, as if compelled by forces beyond their control, but their ‘free’ sequences are focused and powerful, and they take great care with Khan’s vibrant choreography, which includes nods to his Kathak background, like rhythmic stomps and cupped hands raised to the sky.
These and the ballet’s many more choreographic highlights are helped along by some exceptional performances from ENB. Alina Cojocaru dances a bold, resilient Giselle, her tiny frame vulnerable to trembles yet ultimately robust in the face of crushing emotional and physical pain. Stina Quagebeur’s Myrtha, on the other hand, is staunchly, disquietingly detached, an icy phantom who scuttles rather than glides. With his anxious chugs and expressive mien, guest artist Oscar Chacon pulls off the improbable task of eliciting pity for the shifty Hilarion, while Isaac Hernández’s Albrecht is persuasive in his desire and eventual contrition.
Factor in Khan’s economical application of divertissements, which he uses to convey crucial truths about the hardships and injustices of this dystopian universe, and the value of this new work becomes clear. It’s not simply a successful addition to Khan’s oeuvre but also an important gift to the ballet world at large, where real-world politics are so often eschewed in favour of fantasy. ENB just finished its current run but already has plans to restage “Giselle” in autumn 2017—get thee to the box office, I say.