To say that my expectations for Akram Khan’s Giselle at Barcelona’s iconic Liceu was high would be an understatement. Since its World Premiere in Manchester in 2016 Khan’s fully reimagining of this beloved classic ballet has gained exceptional notices international. Several years ago when I lived in London and trying to get tickets for “Giselle’s” run at Sadler’s Wells was akin to a Battle Royale, but now, in my home city, I have a opportunity to finally attend a production I have so eagerly wanted to see for such a long time.
“Giselle” is a ballet staple that is performed all over the world. To reinvent such a well known and well loved classical ballet is no an easy task, it could become a creative endeavour where one could easily fail. To reimagine a ballet like this one needs commitment, faith and vision. After three years as lead principle dancer and director of the English National Ballet Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo commissioned Khan to create this new version of “Giselle”. By trying to reimagine classical ballet Rojo’s aim was to dust off the stuffy elitism of ballet, or this perception that this high art has, and make it more accessible. Rather than simply reconstruct a ballet like “Giselle” what Rojo and Khan have done is daring by completely ditching almost everything related to the old “Giselle” only maintaining the smallest outlines of the original plot.
Khan introduces a contemporary setting of migrant workers in a somewhat eerie factory. There is a new score and stunning set and costumers by Oscar Winning Costume Designer Tim Yip and Mark Henderon’s powerful light design draws you into heart of the piece. Moreover it is Khan’s choreography that so beautifully marries the tradition and skill of ballet and kathak that is truly captivating.
When “Giselle” was first staged at Ballet du Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris in 1841, it was an instant sensation and retains its title as one of the most popular classical ballets. In Act 1 the scene unfolds with the workers pressing against an enormous and imposing wall that is covered with dirty hand prints. The wall, a giant physical division of class, separates the workers who are now reduced to simply entertain the rich landowners. Giselle, Rojo, a migrant worker falls in love with Duke Albrecht, Isaac Hernández, who has cunningly disguised himself as a migrant worker. Hilarion, Jeffrey Cirio, who still works for the landowners discovers Albrecht plot and aims to separate him from Giselle. When Albrecht’s seduction is interrupted by the arrival of the landowners he tries to hide when he sees his fiancee. The arrival of the landowners is extremely powerful and is presented by a loud siren sounds, followed by the wall twisting in a way that fully reveals the landowners. Their costumes are a stark contrast to those worn by the workers they are full of grandiosity and vibrant colours. Alas unbeknownst to Giselle, Albrecht is already betrothed to a woman from his own class, on discovering this Albrecht leaves her in which Giselle goes mad and die.
Giselle’s death at the end of Act 1 is unforgettable and gut-wrenchingly powerful. As the dancers surround a dying Giselle they create a shape of varying levels that mimics the look of a beating heart. One can not help but, in this moment, feel fully immersed in this production, almost as though they have broken the Fourth Wall and we, the audience, are invited in to mourn this death.
Act 2 take place in the Kingdom of the Wilis, led by their Queen Myrtha, Stina Quagebeur, which is perhaps the most completely reimagined aspect of Khan’s production. The Wilis, or danseurs de nuit, are inspired by poet Heinrich Heine's De l’Allemagne. At night these ghosts arise from their graves and attack any man who dare cross their paths. They, like Giselle, are spurned heartbroken women intent on revenge and they inform Giselle that she must kill Albrecht, even though she still loves him, but she is unable to. And though hurt and heartbroken she forgives him, releasing him to marry and as dawn breaks she returns to her grave. There is a violent danger to Quagebeur’s Myrtha but impassioned and feminine. Instead of the delicate women that are usually in ballet blanc here they are authoritative, united and strong.
The Wilis, though evil embittered spirits, are also former young women who have died before their wedding day but even in this ‘otherworldly spirit like’ presence Khan and Yip have been able to reinstate some of their former humanity. Like much of this production they too are far removed from the traditional Ballet Blanc. At points in Act 2 the Wilis occasionally shout in very specific ways as they perform the ritual of taking Giselle from he dead world into there magical place in between. The use of precaution give added depth to the ritual putting them brilliantly in-sync the orchestra.
2016 was a challenging time with social and political rhetoric about walls and migrant workers increasingly causing divisions. By counterpoising “Giselle” in this way Khan forces his audiences to be more aware and somewhat self reflecting on the times we are living in. There is something uniquely metatheatre about this production that manages to discreetly include its audiences in the performance. Rojo’s desire to make ballet accessible does not, in this instant at least, simply mean adapting or reworking classic ballet. By including subjects, like migrant workers, exploitation and abuse, they are connecting their audience to wider societal conversations. The wall, which at times twists in the air, itself is a statement, a simple and effective statement that has an indelible role in this ballet. As “Giselle” comes to a close we see Albrecht, now completely alone, being pushed by the wall. Usually the ballet finishes with a grand finale with everyone on stage and yet Khan leaves us with this powerful portrait of Albrecht, left alone with his anxiety and despair, left to push against a wall, a wall that he should be on the other side of but has now he has been placed in a kind of limbo by the Wilis. As the performance end Albrecht, now being pushed closer towards the audience, has become an outcast in his own community.
Akram Khan “Giselle” has opened up this classic to new audiences by touching subjects that are quite current. The ballet retains the essence of the classic story but it is brought into a darker and much more relatable universe. The music by Vincenzo Lamagna, based on the original sheet music by Adolphe Adam also sets the tone. The use of factory sounds created by the orchestra and antiquated sewing machine sounds helps to creates an agony that goes hand to hand with the choreography and Yip’s set design which works incredible well with each movement. The lighting is dark but not so dark that one misses anything on stage. This dark lighting plays an incredible role later on when the brightness, colour and beauty from on the other side of the wall is introduced adding new depth by the way the costumes of the landowners shimmer magically in this light.
This was one of Tamara Rojo last outings as “Gisele” before leaving the ENB to become director of the San Francisco Ballet. I was at Rojo’s final performance at the Royal Ballet in 2013, before she took the helm at the ENB. Witnessing Rojo get a 30 minutes standing ovation at the end of this final performance was a near out of body experience, even thinking about now still makes somewhat emotional. This was an unforgettable moment seeing the love and appreciation this audience had for such an accomplished and skilled ballerina. For her to leave the Royal Ballet and got to the English National Ballet could have been a risk, but how many opportunities can one be offered to work with Khan and create this modern masterpiece? I’ll confess, I was unaware that Rojo was going to performing “Giselle” at the Liceu, and what a surprise it was. To be sat in the splendour of the Liceu to witness one of Spain’s most remarkable prima ballerina’s was a joy, and as with all great performances I left feeling a sense of awe and admiration.
The power and strength of Khan’s “Giselle” isn’t just his daring reimagining but the creative space that it was created. Rojo took a risk, perhaps one of the biggest risks a Creative Director can take and it paid off spectacularly. Works of this calibre do not just happen because a Creative Director has an idea to challenge the wider publics understanding of what ballet is and what it can be. Does ballet have to be static? Should it always be done in its tradition style without much change? And how much change can you make before one goes too far? Rojo is perhaps better placed than most to ask these questions and be willing to take these risks. Other institutions like Shakespeare Globe wanted what Rojo was doing at the ENB yet did not give their Creative Director Emma Rice the freedom she need to take ricks and create change. Though Rice’s seasons where a profound success the Globe preferred to stick to tradition and as such they lost a creative pioneer. By willing to rework one of ballet’s considered masterpieces Rojo, Khan and the ENO have set a high creative bar that other institutions would be wise to follow. Nothing is sacred or untouchable and tradition is, in these modern times, a myth that is perpetuated by gatekeepers of institutions that do not want change and would rather have empty houses than fresh new audiences. “Giselle” is what is possible when everyone is willing to put in the work to realise their visions and creatively support the central principle of creating new, more fluid traditions.