A dreary, heavy percussive drone of Vincenzo Lamagna’s original score fills the atmosphere. The curtain splits and we see a rough textured concrete wall with a group of Outcasts pushing up against it. One at a time they release themselves and face us arms to their sides, palms open.
At a second glance, we see hand prints on the wall-- perhaps the handprints of Outcasts that have passed. A powerful and symbolic image is etched into our minds.
Already at the edge of our seats with our jaws dropped we can’t help but think: Akram Khan’s Giselle is going to be like none other.
With no doubt, Khan stays true to the storyline: Giselle, a peasant - in Khan’s version, a factory worker- falls deeply in love with Albrecht only to find out he is a nobleman already betrothed to another. Upon learning the truth, feeling lost and betrayed, Giselle dies of madness and grief. We see her return in the afterlife amongst the Wilis, an entourage of ghost-women that have also been wronged.
What makes this rendition so unique, in this writer’s view, is that Khan saturates his own story into the original. More, he draws from his personal dance history- Bengali folk dance and Kathak (one of the 8 major classical Indian dance forms) and weaves it ever so perfectly into his contemporary choreography.
We meet Hilarion (danced by Jeffrey Cirio in Thursday evening’s performance), Giselle’s jealous lover. His solo begins as if shocked by electricity; it is full of power and is quite confrontational. He is enraged by Albrecht’s love for Giselle and wants nothing more than to destroy it. It is Hilarion that points us to our Giselle (danced by Alina Cojucaru) and Albrecht (danced by Isaac Hernandez) for the evening.
Giselle and Albrecht appear to be extensions of one another and the partnering is effortless. Hernandez sweeps her up into the air and brings her ever so gently to the ground, never letting her go. She closes her eyes, and touches his face, memorizing everything about it-- a tear jerking moment. The emotions left on the stage linger as Giselle’s fellow Outcasts fill the space. The couple is so obviously eager to be in each other’s arms.
The way that Khan choreographed this Albrecht and Giselle pas de deux is, in this writer’s view, sensational, as are the sections in which the Outcasts dance, perhaps the truest testament to Khan’s genius choreography. Inspired by the current state of Bangladeshi sweatshops, the Outcasts in this version are a group of factory workers. Much of their movement relishes in repetition much like a factory worker’s tasks. We see a group of 20 or so dancers completely in sync.. Their movement is low to the ground and weighted. We see intricate hand gestures jeweled throughout drawn from the choreographer’s Kathak dance training. This choreography tests the body’s range of motion and speed. It is quite impressive to see classically trained ballet dancers execute such complex choreography, especially knowing that they are unfamiliar to this technique and style of movement.
At one point the sound of a horn blares and demands our attention. The concrete wall begins to rotate revealing a slow motion couture fashion show-like entrance of The Landlords. They slither in with their noses turned up from their side of the world. They are dressed in the finest robes and geometrically shaped gowns-- a stark contrast to the tattered and dirty attire of the Outcasts. Bathilde (Begona Cao), Albrechts betrothed embodied high-and-mighty to a tee—her brief but tense interaction with Giselle especially examplng this when she delicately removes her arm-length glove, and instead of placing it directly in Giselle’s hands, she intentionally let’s it drop on the floor.
The first act reaches its culmination as Giselle learns of Albrecht’s betrayal. Hilarion has taken charge and demands everyone’s attention and reveals Albrecht for the Landlord that he is. This moment of conflict between Albrecht and Hilarion is tense and agressive and the movement equally so. Giselle is driven to madness and death. Just before her death, the Outcasts encircle Giselle and lift her above as she takes her last breath, showing that she is not alone in her grief or death.
Myrtha and the Wilis
The final act opens with the concrete wall still half turned, perhaps portraying the threshold between life and death. Myrtha (danced by Stina Quagebeur) on the tips of her toes with a long stick in hand drags Giselle’s limp body across the stage. She breathes death into her lifeless body awakening and welcoming her to join her band of Wilis. Their hair is loose and natural, all armed with long sticks in hand and sometimes in mouth. They had all been betrayed in some way. We feel their rage as they aggressively bourree on stage.
A mourning Hilarion enters-- guilt ridden and begging for forgiveness. The Wilis attack him by viciously beating him with their long sticks as Giselle watches on the sidelines. She has received retribution! When Albrecht comes to mourn, all the Wilis except for Myrtha leave the stage. Myrtha confronts him, raising her stick and points it to his heart. We expect that she will strike him down at any moment. Giselle grabs the other end stopping her. Instead, she confidently asks for his life and one last moment with her love.
Even for those in the audience who had seen Giselle many times before, the power of this final scene was newly deep, touching our core.
The English National Ballet Back at Harris Theater After 30 years
The evening had begun with a short yet important speech from English National Ballet’s Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo. She emphasised the importance of making ballet accessible to everyone as there are many in this world who believe it should not be. She promised that we would be pleasantly surprised with Akram Khan’s reimagination of this classic ballet, as indeed we were.
In this writer’s vide, Akram Khan’s refreshing perspective speaks honestly to today’s world. We saw the blending of cultures-- more importantly the acceptance of new cultures. We saw an honest and bold representation of the economic divide between rich and poor. We saw and recognized strong women. We saw camaraderie within a community. We saw resistance against another. Akram Khan brought Giselle back to life through a new, relatable and welcoming perspective and the English National Ballet embodied it impressively.
For information on upcoming Harris Theater performances visit: Harris Theater Website
All Photos by Laurent Liotardo
Read more stories by Tuli Bera and other dancers and choreographers in the Picture This Post Round-Up, “Choreographers’ Eyes - Dancers Explain Dance”. Watch this video preview of the story here—
Editor’s Note: For more insight on this unique performance read the Picture this Post preview— English National Ballet GISELLE Preview – Meet GAVIN SUTHERLAND, Music Director
Tuli Bera is a performance artist based in Chicago. She received her BFA from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She currently dances with Project Ishti led by Preeti Veerlapati and Kinnari Vora. Most recently she danced in their new work, "Prakriti" which premiered at the 2017 Chicago Fringe Festival. Bera works as Aerial Dance Chicago's program coordinator and is also the director of J e l l o Performance Series housed by Links Hall and Elastic Arts. This is an artistic platform that provides opportunities for Chicago artists to show their work. For more information about The Series Website.