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20th October 2023

Giselle Review: Hardly a pantomime and scarcely a ballet

Only with Akram Khan’s re-imagining of Giselle do we find the full emotional potential of the story laid bare before us.
Giselle Review: Hardly a pantomime and scarcely a ballet
Photo: Laurent Liotardo @ ENB

Akram Khan’s Giselle is certainly one to split opinions on its homecoming to Manchester’s Palace Theatre. For those familiar with the classical repertoire of ballet, the name Giselle evokes images of a ballet pantomime about a peasant woman who falls in love with the disguised and deceitful nobleman Albrecht with disastrous consequences for all involved. Akram Khan’s Giselle is hardly a pantomime and scarcely a ballet. Despite that, I would still prefer it to the original.

Trigger Warning: Mentions suicide

No matter which way you cut it, Giselle’s story is tragic. A frail, naive woman falls in love with a boy who seems to return her affections only for him to turn his back on her when his true identity is revealed. This drives Giselle to madness and ends with her taking her own life.

Unfortunately, Gisselle finds herself tethered to the physical world and in the purgatorial company of the Wilis (ghosts of other betrayals) who try to goad her into killing Albrecht for the wrongs he meted out to her. Only then for Giselle to realise that even in this space beyond life, she still loves him and cannot allow herself to bring him harm. The forgiveness frees her from her tether and from the hold of the wilis, leaving Albrecht’s life intact but his soul destroyed as a consequence of his actions.

There are enough themes in this story to transport the audience to a grim and melancholic place and somehow, the classical adaptations always seemed to sacrifice that in pursuit of technical perfection. Not with this Giselle though, oh no not at all. Everything from the score to the vocabulary of movement is devised from the ground up and for the duration of the performance, you find your breath stuck in your throat as you witness an enthralling and eerie spectacle.

The original, in comparison, feels like it constrained the dancers’ emotional expression. Only with Akram Khan’s re-imagining of it, coupled with his training in Indian classical and Western contemporary dance do we find the full emotional potential of Giselle’s story laid bare before us.

 The musical score too, composed by Vincenzo Lamagna, draws its inspiration not just from the original score but also from industrial sounds of machinery, sirens and static deftly juxtaposed with long periods of silence. If you are looking for the calming sounds of pianos and violins, you are unlikely to find them often in this production.

The tension picks up from the first curtain raise and is unrelenting till the end. The only moments of reprieve in between are the sublime pas de deux danced by Erina Takahashi as Giselle and James Streeter as Albrecht. Even the Wilis Queen (Emma Hawes) solo and the ‘Dance of the Wilis are designed to be terrifying, as they should be. However, I couldn’t help but giggle at the uncanny resemblance to the likes of Japanese horror films such as The Grudge, replete with faces covered by hair and the pointe work adding to the supernatural atmosphere of the scene.

None of this is to say that the ballet is not without its faults. Narrative cohesion is flimsy at best and is only helped by knowing the story beforehand or purchasing the program. The absence of any acting also makes it harder to discern the relations between the various cast members. Critics have been pointing this out since 2016 and even today, these issues plague the performance. However, none of that can take away from the fact that as far as marvelling at the creative capacity of the human mind and the physical capabilities of the human body go, Akram Khan’s Giselle is a prime example of both.
Akram Khan’s Giselle by the English National Ballet company is being taken to Bristol for the duration of October and then won’t share its magic until May 2024 in London, tickets are still available.

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