Akram Khan’s elegant Giselle astonishes once again – review

Words by Izzy Rogers. Performed Wednesday 18th September 2019, Sadler’s Wells.

Akram Khan’s Giselle is strange and beautiful. This revival of the award-winning 2016 commission by English National Ballet and Manchester International Festival draws on classical choreography from previous eras, including world famous versions by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.

Khan sets the story in a non-specific modern land of high, grey, impenetrable walls. The ENB ensemble show blistering power as refugee-like fabric workers, who are all scattered outside the factory where they work. The men and women join in one large composition which spans the first hour. Their collective, synchronised-swirling make them appear in the hundreds rather than tens. A feat indeed. 

Khan is a master of visual geography. He creates vast landscapes of gesture with the entire breadth of the space. Mesmerising waves of Kathak-ballet are enticing but challenging to the eye. In clever part-canon, ripples of a twist or hop become a dozen incarnations, echoed at angles within the group. Lead Principle Jeffrey Cirio, as love-rival Hilarion, performs stand-alone dance amidst them. He turns in opposing directions, or exceeds the others with impact, his movements longer, deeper, stronger. 

Occasional phrases in Act I are entirely floor-based, hands sliding across the floor in a bold transfer from release-based contemporary dance which is performed in flat shoes. The contrast lends a special potency to the rarer moments on pointe, which portray such fragility it’s hard to look away. 

Tamara Rojo is exceptional as Giselle. She meshes seamlessly with her company, exuding a dynamism which defies her small frame. In a section repeated in both halves, female dancers arch-up their backs, shoulders resting on floor, one foot propped on the other knee.  Giselle’s lover will marry another; Albrecht has decided on the simpler path, to live without her. Her rage is palpable. Rojo pushes a chosen few down flat, in turn in grief and frustration.

Tim Yip’s costumes are dazzling. The hated landlords wear exaggerated diamond bodices, wide skirts and shining headdresses. They impose their statuesque presence, unwanted. The thick wall stands heavy behind them all, adorned with handprints symbolising the need of the workers to escape from this place. 

image: Laurent Liotardo.

In Act II, Khan realises his choreographic vision with greater refinement. The ghost women are full gothic — not ambiguous waifs but intentionally haunting. Stina Quagebeur, as their Queen, is compelling: truly unsettling and disturbing.

The orchestra – plus electronic sounds – is over-amplified. Khan should trust in the ability of Vincenzo Lamaga’s score to affect us. The drums and strings build to relentless crescendos, the noise too imposing on the raw humanity of the interplay. This Giselle is a well-crafted, exciting fusion, and the company’s performance is an emotive spectacle. Time will tell how the interesting mix of ballet and Indian dance will age. I’m confident its undeniable elegance will endure.

Akram Khan’s Giselle runs at Sadler’s Wells until 28th September. For tickets, see the ENB’s website. All images: Laurent Liotardo.