English National Ballet – Akram Khan's Giselle
Folk classic re-emerges as urgent and compelling new ballet
It's not until the interval that you realise your whole body has been responding to the first act of Akram Khan's Giselle. From the moment the curtain rises, revealing 30 dancers with their backs to us pushing hard against a vast grey wall, to its slow closure an hour later on Giselle's lifeless body, Khan has us caught firmly in his grip. Eyes wide, jaws slightly open, bodies leaning forward in expectation – that's what's happening in the audience. On stage, movement hitherto unseen on a classical ballet company is proving once again that Khan is one of the most interesting dancemakers of all time.
Narrative-wise, it's Giselle, but not as we know it. Khan has relocated the folk tale from a small rural village to an urban garment factory, where workers (the 'Outcasts') are locked outside their former place of employment. In the midst of this anguished community, the love affair between Giselle and Albrecht (a wealthy noble disguised as an Outcast) continues to flourish. Until a loud factory claxon sounds (a hunting horn in the original) announcing the arrival of the 'Landlords', who emerge dressed in their finery from behind the moveable wall. This, like many other moments in the ballet, is heart-stoppingly brilliant.
If the storyline feels a little lost in Act One, it is more than made up for by Khan's choreography, Tim Yip's design and Vincenzo Lamagna's stunning re-working of Adolphe Adam's score. Yet there is a price to be paid for the lack of narrative clarity – namely that Act Two packs less of a punch. Albrecht's 'big reveal' as a Landlord feels lost, thereby rendering Giselle's heartbreak less powerful – all of which bleeds into the second half, when the couple are reunited. Here too Khan has changed the location from a spiritual after-world filled with women wronged by their lovers, to a disused factory populated by female workers who died there. Khan's ghosts are not to be messed with, and if the sticks they carry don't get Albrecht and Hilarion (a gamekeeper now re-imagined as a go-between), then their feisty pointe shoes will.
There is so much to savour in Khan's re-working, that you have to hope it will evolve over time into the monumental work it longs to be. Themes of inequality and injustice now loom larger in this ballet than love and betrayal, and it's all the richer for it.
English National Ballet: Akram Khan's Giselle is on tour until Sun 22 Jan 2017. Reviewed at Palace Theatre, Manchester.