Akram Khan’s arresting revision – or reimagining – of Giselle for English National Ballet has captured the public imagination to an extraordinary degree. Premiered in 2016, it has sold out not just across the country but around the world, from Moscow to Chicago; it has been beamed into cinemas and immortalised on DVD. It’s now receiving its second revival at Sadler’s Wells and tickets are like gold dust once again. And deservedly so, for Khan has created an outstanding piece of theatre that deserves the widest possible audience.

Tamara Rojo (Giselle) © Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo (Giselle)
© Laurent Liotardo

The story is translated in time and place, moving from harvest time in the medieval Rhineland to a contemporary Industrialist landscape. The merry peasants of Act 1 become unemployed migrants, Khan making a telling point about ugly economic forces and mass human movement in pursuit of cheap labour. The handprints of these workers spatter the monolithic stone wall that dominates Tim Yip’s set – evocatively lit by Mark Henderson – a class barrier that separates them from the Landlords, factory bosses dressed in peacock-proud costumes. Albrecht is one of these Landlords, but is slumming it as a migrant to be close to Giselle. When Hilarion, the Landlords’ “fixer”, betrays Albrecht’s real identity as Bathilde’s fiancé, he is ordered to end Giselle’s life – no weak heart and mad scene for her here. Her relationship with Albrecht makes her a liability; she must be disposed of.

Act 2 is not the usual ballet-blanc set in a mossy moonlit glade, but a ghost factory, haunted by the spirits of women, victims of industrial accidents such as the Dhaka garment factory in 2013, which resulted in the deaths of over 1000 textile workers. Stabbing their steps mechanically on pointe, the wilis’ bamboo canes – sometimes clamped between their teeth – seem to represent the handlooms of the pre-industrial era. These canes turn into lethal weapons to spear the repentant Hilarion amid the clatter of gnashing scissors. Terrifying.

Stina Quagebeur (Myrtha) and Jeffrey Cirio (Hilarion) © Laurent Liotardo
Stina Quagebeur (Myrtha) and Jeffrey Cirio (Hilarion)
© Laurent Liotardo

Once again, Tamara Rojo leads from the front. ENB’s Artistic Director danced the title role with such passionate expression that it was impossible for tears not to prick the eyes. Her Giselle clearly loves to dance, her fluidity of movement and sense of abandon in Act 1 was infectious. The sincerity of her acting devastates: curiosity when she recognises her own handiwork in Bathilde’s dress; the tenderness of her duets with Albrecht; the hurt when he betrays her.

James Streeter has grown well into the role of Albrecht. I’ve previously found it to be the sketchiest role in Khan’s version. I’d never really believed Albrecht was ever in love with Giselle, but he and Rojo shared a partnership that was extremely moving, particularly when she reveals she is carrying his child. Jeffrey Cirio strutted and preened as Hilarion; an athletic performance bristling with energy. Stina Quagebeur was once again a terrifying Myrtha, towering on pointe, fierce, resolute.

Tamara Rojo (Giselle) and James Streeter (Albrecht) © Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo (Giselle) and James Streeter (Albrecht)
© Laurent Liotardo

Khan’s most inventive choreography is for the corps, full of machine-like syncopations, Karthak-inspired gestures and knotty interactions. His wilis – stuttering on pointe – are the stuff of nightmares. ENB’s corps danced with breathtaking energy.

It helps that Vincenzo Lamagna’s score is so brilliant, peppered with industrial, percussive power – although over-miked here – and cleverly referencing Adolphe Adam’s Romantic score. Gavin Sutherland and the English National Ballet Philharmonic balanced rhythmic drive in the ensembles with quiet eloquence in the duets. They should commit Lamagna’s to disc; I’d buy it.

Giselle is back on the road this season, travelling to Madrid, Barcelona and Paris. And the exciting news is that in 2020 Akram Khan creates another new full length ballet for ENB – Creature, inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Here’s hoping for another monster success.


*****