Tamara Rojo (centre) with English National Ballet in “Giselle” by Akram Khan. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

Giselle Retold

English National Ballet brings Akram Khan's “Giselle” stateside

I have often wondered why few troupes revive the classic story ballets the way Orson Welles restaged Shakespeare—as when he boldly set “Macbeth” in Haiti, or when he put an anti-fascist spin on “Julius Caesar” right on the cusp of WWII. The answer probably lies in funding difficulties: ballet is a hard enough sell that people don’t like to mess with the sacred cash cows. Against the odds, the English National Ballet’s 2016 production of “Giselle,” which had its NY premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week, dares to be timely. Of all the narrative stalwarts, “Giselle”—which depicts a love triangle across class lines, and then across the grave—probably speaks the most to the current political climate. It was ripe for an update. But “Giselle,” of all the traditional blockbusters, has one of the most solid story structures. Mess with it too much and you risk upsetting its intrinsic balance. The ENB’s version, directed and choreographed by Akram Khan, at times excitingly reimagined the 1841 original, but at others it overshot and lost its way.

It was fitting for Khan, a Brit of Bangladeshi descent, to resituate “Giselle” so that it connected the sister manufacturing towns of Manchester and Dhaka in a scathing socio-economic commentary. But Khan overcomplicated things. In the original, Giselle, a peasant, is in love with Albrecht, a nobleman, who has been wooing her in country rube disguise. She is also courted by the frustrated Hilarion, of her own caste. When a group of nobles visits her village during a hunt, Hilarion jealously exposes Albrecht’s duplicity—in front of Albrecht’s proper fiancée Bathilde no less—and Giselle dies from the shock (and her weak heart—a de rigueur trait for heroines of the time).

Khan’s Giselle is a displaced migrant garment worker, a refugee “Outcast” protesting the rich “Landlords” who have closed her factory. Khan divides these factions with a giant wall that is a brilliant piece of stagecraft laden with symbolism: evoking everything from Trump to Berlin to China to “Game of Thrones.” Tim Yip designed the wonderful sets and costumes. But when the wall rose dramatically to reveal the Landlords, it was as if the hatch of an alien ship was opening, and the emerging sect was clad in futuristic couture straight out of “The Hunger Games.” Who exactly were these over-styled Landlords, and what were they doing holed up in their shuttered factory? Why would they choose to walk amongst their angry and desperate workers, whose sooty handprints blanketed the wall’s surface? Their interaction was listed as a “Ceremony” in the long and confusing synopsis. Huh?

And why was Hilarion a social-climbing attaché to the Landlords? He sported a bowler hat in their presence, in what seemed like a nod to the Profiteer in Kurt Jooss’s “The Green Table.” What did his con-artist movement between the groups accomplish? Khan over-specified some plot points, yet he left others too vague. Overall, he muddled the pristine simplicity of the original. I’m a huge proponent of program notes, but this was one instance in which less might have been more. Landlords and ghost factories and refugees and “shapechanging fixers” was a lot to process. It would have been better to leave it in a dystopian realm with Haves vs Have-Nots, or Rich vs Poor, Nobles vs Peasants. Then the audience wouldn’t have had to sweat the details.   

In Act II of the original “Giselle,” Albrecht and Hilarion visit Giselle’s grave to mourn her, and there discover that she has been transformed into a Wili, a vengeful lady ghost. The Wilis are perhaps ballet’s greatest creature features: they are a spirit clan of spurned women who kill any man they encounter by forcing him to dance to death. The conceit for Khan’s Wilis was a little forced. They were a tribe of female garment workers who met untimely ends on the job, and they haunted abandoned factories instead of graveyards.

Stina Quagebeur and Tamara Rojo in “Giselle” by Akram Khan. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

Khan’s greatest stroke, however, was making his Wilis the only people in the ballet to dance on pointe. Pointe shoes are fantastic for signifying otherworldliness, and Khan capitalized upon that. In this way, he cleverly improved upon the original, for now the ballet’s medium was fully aligned with its message. I loved how the mortals’ dances were grounded and earthy, rooted in the Indian kathak style, while the immortal Wilis floated around in bourrées. And Khan’s Wilis were brilliantly styled as if from a Japanese horror film: their wild hair partially obscured their faces like Samara in the movie The Ring. They carried sticks between their teeth or banged them on the floor like warriors. In Giselle’s first solo in Act II she teetered around like a foal, slowly adjusting to her new footwear—and spectral status. Isabelle Brouwers, wonderfully imposing as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, kept forcing her up on pointe and armed her with a bamboo cane.

Khan’s other great idea was to have Giselle be pregnant—a major revision that somehow wasn’t even mentioned in the lengthy synopsis. When Giselle learned of Albrecht’s deceit in Act I, she grabbed her abdomen and writhed on all fours, pelvis bridging up. All the Outcast women in the cast mimicked her, and she got up and ran between them—pushing a few of them violently, at their uteri, to the floor. It was as if she was damning womanhood, not just her personal fate. The men, on the other hand, galloped freely on and offstage. When Giselle crumpled alone center stage, the men passed back and forth over her like a stampede. It was poignant: the women were tethered to the stage, saddled with responsibility while the men were able to flee with the freedom of wild horses. It was a jarring reminder of the current battle over abortion rights. In general, Khan’s feminist messaging was his strongest. When Hilarion entered the Wilis’ realm in Act II, he smothered Giselle with his affections—almost strangling her to death anew. It was a shrewd commentary on consent and domestic abuse. His love was true, but it was the choking kind. When the Wilis did him in, it was duly merited, and it felt pointedly modern.

These were Khan’s best updates, but there was a lot to like throughout the production. The corkscrews and other breakdancing moves performed by the fabulous Erik Woolhouse as Hilarion were awesome—he nearly stole the show. The Outcasts’ dances had cool motifs that supported the plot: crown hands, brushing dust off shoulders, cobra arms. The corps balancéd in a pinwheel at one point, but their daisy-chain linkage was not hand-to-hand but palm-to-head—an oppressive riff on a maypole dance. There was interesting Bollywood and Riverdance imagery throughout. The cast also approximated machinery and looms at times, which was especially effective when Giselle died. Instead of dying from mad hysteria, she was executed by order of the Landlords, and swallowed up by a swirling mob of Outcasts—including Hilarion—in a way that stressed the power of systemic evil. It reminded me of both Balanchine’s “La Valse” and Pina Bausch’s “Rite of Spring.” Khan included quotes from other classic ballets as well: as when Albrecht lost Giselle in the crowd and picked out other women, examining their faces closely á la Siegfried in “Swan Lake.” And Albrecht and Giselle’s reunion pas de deux in Act II was a lot like the culminating pas in “Manon”—though it was infinitely better suited to the story. The counterbalanced lifts and tosses—not to mention the use of pointe shoes—made much more sense here than in MacMillan’s acrobatic treatment of a whore at death’s door.

Tamara Rojo and Isaac Hernández in “Giselle” by Akram Khan. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

Unfortunately, Khan did away with the very best aspect of the traditional “Giselle”: the dancing to death bit. In the original, Giselle entirely forgives Albrecht at her graveside. Together they defy the Wilis and dance until dawn to spare his life, and her forgiveness releases her from an eternity of damnation as a Wili too. Her soul is able to rest in peace. Watching Giselle and Albrecht tire themselves out in the name of love is “Giselle’s” neatest trick. It is a test of technical fortitude and sheer stamina that perfectly aligns with the romance of the tale. As Albrecht jumps and jumps, his exhaustion reads as passionate devotion. In Khan’s retelling, without the Wilis’ dance-to-death sentence, the ending was flat. Myrtha ordered Giselle to stab Albrecht with her cane, but she refused and stabbed herself in the abdomen instead. Then she gently pressed Myrtha in the belly with the stick, and they bourréed off into the bowels of the ghost factory together, linked by the cane at their midsections. It was like a one-sided “Romeo and Juliet.”

Albrecht’s role was particularly problematic in this “Giselle.” When he was found out as a two-timer, he simply walked away with Bathilde and stood facing the back wall as the Landlords and Outcasts killed his pregnant lover. Giselle’s own heart and brain weren’t culpable this time around, and Albrecht made no move to intervene. At the top of Act II, he was given a solo that I think was meant to redeem his character. He seemed to blame the Landlords, plus Hilarion, who were all arrayed around him—sort of like a rich person war crimes trial. But it felt like too little too late. I wasn’t rooting for Albrecht’s life to be spared at the end, especially since Giselle’s forgiveness did not ensure her own spirit’s liberation.

The other weak link was the music, which was often loud and droning. The composition and sound design were by Vincent Lamagna, after the original score by Adolphe Adam. Yvonne Gilbert was additionally credited as a sound designer. Adam’s score was sampled in clunkily. And quite a lot of the soundscape sounded like it was recorded on an airport tarmac, a trend I’m really tired of. The row of elderly patrons in front of me acquired ear plugs for the second half and I couldn’t blame them.

Also, the music and steps were overly repetitive. I felt that every scene could’ve been shaved a little and it would’ve been a stronger show. The love triangle was established right off the bat, so I thought things would move quickly and cover lots of ground. But much of the material was simply regurgitated. I wanted the actual dancing to escalate—the steps could’ve been meatier particularly in the pointe section: the Wilis didn’t do much more than bourrée creepily. But the crowd leapt to its feet at the end. Heck, they stood and cheered at intermission too. This production has been a massive hit for the ENB, who have toured it all over. It arrived with a lot of hype, and perhaps because of this I had higher hopes for it. But it was a fun spectacle—even if I scratched my head a few times. I hope other troupes are inspired by its box office success. “Giselle” could be pulled in many more directions, as could all the fusty classics. And they should be. It’s a big gamble, but for the ENB at least, it seems to have paid off. There’s absolutely no reason ballet can’t be timely: no other art lives so purely in the present.                   

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