Great dance goes beyond its music, characters and story. It expresses essential truths but always in visceral, bodily form. We feel it in our own bodies as we watch. It is enthralling. Akram Khan's new Giselle, for English National Ballet, is great dance.

Tamara Rojo (Giselle) and English National Ballet © Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo (Giselle) and English National Ballet
© Laurent Liotardo

This version keeps the familiar narrative structure. In Act 1 we meet poor-girl Giselle who is in love with Albrecht, one of the oppressive rulers trying to escape his life and impending marriage by pretending to be poor. The affair continues, despite the efforts of local boy Hilarion who wants her for himself. When other members of the elite arrive unexpectedly, Giselle’s people show them respect and dance to entertain them. Hilarion seizes the moment to reveal Albrecht to his fiancée Bathilde. In the ensuing conflict, Albrecht is forced to abandon Giselle and return to his family and responsibilities. The betrayal drives Giselle to insanity and death. Act 2 sees Giselle in the afterlife. 

She joins the wilis – a band of vengeful female spirits – after she is found and changed by Myrtha, their Queen. The wilis murder Hilarion, out at night mourning Giselle, but when Albrecht arrives, Giselle forgives him and stops the willis from harming him, ending the cycle of revenge and death as she fades away.

Some elements of the story have shifted. Giselle’s people are no longer peasants living in the nobility’s forest, but migrants shut outside a huge wall.  As the oppressive wall swings up, to the chilling sound of a brutal klaxon, the elite emerge like aliens from a space ship. Their ostentatious costume and frozen movements emphasise the unbridgeable gulf and complete control they have over the migrants and the rigid order of their society. 

Some traditional ambiguities are resolved: Giselle is pregnant with Albrecht’s child, explaining the depth of the betrayal and making sense of her insanity. Hilarion is a complex character compromised by his position between outcasts and masters. He murders the jilted Giselle to get rid of an embarrassing problem for his masters. This makes more sense of the wilis’ brutal revenge on him, and Giselle’s subsequent forgiveness and tenderness for flawed and trapped Albrecht. 

© Laurent Liotardo
© Laurent Liotardo

Khan uses this story to create a wealth of brilliant dance. The invention, clarity and freshness of the choreography is breathtaking throughout, made even more so by outstanding performance. Traditionally, Act 1 “folk dance” entertainments for the rich visitors are skilful but light-weight. Here they are magnificent with power and energy, for the women as well as the men: danced with fierce joy by every one of the fifty performers. I have never seen so many creative and exciting ways to move dancers across and around a stage: echoing apes or machines as much as people. More intimate scenes are layered with complex, unexpected interactions.

Khan’s Kathak influence is ever-present with rotations, fast feet and expressive hands, but so is ballet tradition. The selective use of pointe to make the wilis ghostly is inspired and there is glorious use of extension and line. The choreography is so rich that it is almost too much. I found my mind racing and my eyes wide, seeking familiar landmarks. The amazement sometimes kept me slightly distant emotionally, though the work is powerful, building tension and fear to high levels, before releasing it.

The stand-out characters and performances, among many, were Cesar Corrales as Hilarion and Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha, both quite exceptional. He seemed ever-present as a malevolent, complicated and manipulative catalyst for the whole story. He jumped, slid and oozed through many registers of dance and commanded the stage whether fast and fluid or menacingly still. She was awe-inspiring, conveying single-minded, cold vengeance through almost perfect poise and control. Tamara Rojo as Giselle and James Streeter as Albrecht were convincing and often deeply moving. Tamara Rojo is a commanding presence on stage. The whole company were excellent,especially the women as the wilis:  terrifyingly half-alive and all evil, precise and horrific. 

Stina Quagebeur (Myrtha) and Cesar Corrales (Hilarion) © Laurent Liotardo
Stina Quagebeur (Myrtha) and Cesar Corrales (Hilarion)
© Laurent Liotardo

All these performances were strongly supported by Vincenzo Lamagna’s excellent score using hybrid electronics and orchestra, drawing on themes from Adolphe Adam’s original. The English National Ballet Philharmonic under Gavin Sutherland performed this flawlessly. Tim Yip’s design and Mark Henderson’s lighting were inspiring. 

Under Tamara Rojo’s leadership, English National Ballet have supported Akram Khan and his team to create a great Giselle, which takes this company to new heights. It’s a masterpiece and I loved it. This run is sold out, but it returns to Sadlers Wells in September 2017.