Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Akram Khan's Giselle


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English National Ballet, Giselle, Palace Theatre, Manchester 27 Sept 2016


I wanted to like Akram Khan's Giselle for English National Ballet so much. I love that company having followed it for ever since I was first taken to the Festival Hall to see The Nutcracker as a child some 60 years ago. As I said in Manchester's Favourite Ballet Company 29 Nov 2015 the company danced its first ballet in Manchester on 5 Feb 1951 and I am mindful of the compliment that ENB has paid my native city by premiering an important new work there. I am glad that virtually the entire audience (or so it seemed from my position in the centre stalls) was able to give it a standing ovation - though I was not one of those who stood.

Now I have to choose my words very carefully for I don't want to condemn a work that has much merit with faint praise.  There was some exciting, energetic and in the final duet between Giselle and Albrecht, quite beautiful dancing. Vicenzo Lamagna wrote, and Gavin Sutherland orchestrated, an interesting score with frequent allusions to Adolphe Adam's. Equally interesting were Tim Yip's designs. Two of my favourite dancers, Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández, danced Giselle and Albtrcht and there were other favourites in other roles. The dancers worked hard contorting their bodies in unusual shapes and positions. The courou on pointe by Stina Quagebeur, who danced Myrtha, and the corps at the beginning of Act II must have been exhausting and for some excruciating.

I am glad I saw the work. I hope to see it again and perhaps pick up some of the nuances that my companion (who is of Gujarati heritage) appreciated but which passed me by. I recommend it. It was a good show - though not a great one - and it certainly was not one that swept me to my feet in the way that Brandsen did with Mata Hari (see Brandsen's Masterpirce 14 Feb 2016), Maillot with his Shrew  (see Bolshoi's Triumph - The Taming of the Shrew 4 Aug 2016), Dawson with his Swan Lake  (see Dawson's Swan Lake comes to Liverpool  29 May 2016) or Meisner with his No Time Before Time (see Dutch National Ballet's Opening Night Gala - Improving on Excellence 8 Sept 2016) earlier this year.

To understand my critique of this work it is worth looking at The Story on the special website that ENB has created for this ballet. At first sight it is Gautier's libretto with a modern twist - perhaps closer to that version than the Dance Theatre of Harlem's Creole Giselle and certainly Mats Ek's for the Paris Opera - but it does not unfold that way. In Gauthier's libretto, which is explained so beautifully in the following Dutch language


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animation, the story builds. The audience can understand Hilarion's hostility towards Albrecht which is the only reason why he has to die. In Ruth Little's version that hostility is taken as read. The scene opens in the factory with Albrecht seeking out Giselle. Hardly any of the cues - the hiding of the sword, the picking of the petals, Giselle's heart tremor and so on - remain.  Surprisingly there is still the dance of the vignerons where Giselle playfully runs from Albrecht as the dancers wheel round stage but it seems to serve no obvious purpose in Little's version.  It is the absence of those cues that prompts my companion's question "Why does Hilarion have to die in act II?" As she said, he has done nothing wrong. Or at least he was not half as bad as Albrecht who seduced Giselle and then abandoned her for Bathilde. In Gautier's libretto there is a logic. In Little's it seems so unfair.

As I wrote in Reflections on Giselle 29 Jan 2014 I have problems with the second act. I have to treat it as though it were an abstract work by Balanchine in order to sit through it. In reworking Giselle the creative team had a golden opportunity to ditch the superstition as Ek did by settling act II in a psychiatric hospital. Had they done something like that it might have strengthened the show but they kept it spooky. However. Khan's choreography for act II was quite different.  Instead of those mesmerizing arabesques as the corps crosses the stage the girls couroured on pointe for what for them must have seemed ages. Instead of forcing their victims to dance themselves to death through exhaustion the wilis dispatched them with sticks to the accompaniment of grinding and crackly noises.  Instead of facing the whole company of wilis Giselle had only to fend off Myrtha who stood scowling with her stick as Giselle danced with Albrecht for the last time.

That final duet was for me the most beautiful part of the ballet and also the most impressive. At one point Hernandez held Cojocaru by the legs and she seemed to revolve in the hold in a most amazing fashion. That last dance is what I most want to see again. With some ballets it is only a single pas de deux that survives in a company's repertoire and perhaps that will be the case with this duet.

My companion and I discussed the sticks on the drive home. "Were they supposed to be tasers?" I asked myself. Whether intended or not they were the only allusion to the Sub-Continent that registered with me for they reminded me of the sticks carried in a Punjabi folk dance that I had seen at a Bhangra festival in Huddersfield Town Hall some years ago. My companion, who is fortunate enough to have grown up in two cultures, told me that there was so much more in the rhythms of the music and the dancers' steps.

My all abiding impression of the work was unremitting darkness. Dark in two senses. Every scene was very dimly lit. So dark that I could not recognize the faces of the dancers until the reverence. I had been looking out for Sarah Kundi who is one of my favourites - but I never saw her until that curtain call. However, my companion recognized Sarah from her movements that were quite different from those of the other dancers - perhaps because of her heritage, my companion suggested. Even darker than the lighting, however. was the story for it was one of constant grind. At least in the traditional Giselle there are some happy bits such as the crowning of Giselle as harvest queen. There was nothing like than in Khan's. Just a morose folk dance for the landlords who were heralded by blasts that sounded like factory sirens or perhaps fog horns. Very intense and just a little depressing.

How does Giselle compare to Khan's other work?  I regret that I have not seen much of it but of the works that I have seen I much prefer Ka'ash (see Akram Khan's Kaash - contemporary meets Indian classical 7 Oct 2015) and indeed Dust which was the highlight of last year's triple bill (see Lest we forget 25 Nov 2015).  However, as my friend said "Giselle is a work in progress that can only improve." She did get up to applaud at the end of the show and shouted "Go on Akram!" Maybe in time I shall be able to do the same.

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