An episode of Angel (the sequel to Buffy the Vampire Slayer) featured the ghost of a ballerina, forever condemned to dance the role of Giselle, every evening for eternity. That a popular US TV series should have chosen Giselle as this ethereal ballerina's unending Groundhog Night is more than just a case of art imitating art. It also says something about this ballet's enduring popularity: created in 1841, it is most likely being performed somewhere in the world on any given day of the year. Although, never has it been seen, like this!

Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez © Laurent Liotardo
Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez
© Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan has taken the essential story of Giselle out of its traditional medieval Rhineland setting and into an ambiguous, futuristic, industrial landscape. Reimagining Giselle is nothing new (who could forget Michael Keegan-Dolan's radical reworking for Fabulous Beast Dance Company; a story of rape, incest and Riverdance, set in a small Irish town); but I doubt that anyone has succeeded quite so comprehensively in reinventing this great Romantic ballet while remaining largely faithful to the linearity of the original libretto. Allowing for the excising of one key character (Giselle’s mother, Berthe), all the iconic moments take place, exactly where we expect to see them, in a familiar two-act structure, but not in a way that we have ever seen them before.

Much of Khan’s inspiration for his new ballet came from Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster, when – in 2013 – the Rana Plaza factory collapsed with the deaths of more than one thousand textile workers, mostly women. In an effective opening sequence, Khan’s migrant workers (including Giselle) have become outcasts, staring at a huge wall that separates them from the factory-owning elite. This wall that rises and revolves, like a giant domino on a spit, is the centrepiece of Tim Yip's stunning visual designs, including an extraordinary range of elaborate, pointless, costumes that identify the popinjay avarice and greed of these factory-owning families.

Alina Cojocaru © Laurent Liotardo
Alina Cojocaru
© Laurent Liotardo
Albrecht is part of this entrepreneurial elite but moonlighting as a worker in order to pursue his seduction of Giselle. However, Act 1 belongs neither to Albrecht, nor Giselle, and in the absence of Berthe, it is Hilarion that Khan’s direction brings to the fore. No longer a peasant gamekeeper, the character is reinvented as a kind of go-between – a fixer amongst the workers and their bosses; his special status cleverly indicated by Yip’s symbolism of a bowler hat. As always, Hilarion loves Giselle and it is his jealous rage that exposes Albrecht's deception, invigoratingly described in a muscle-popping, hyper-extended solo, which Cesar Corrales delivers with eye-catching aplomb. Just 20, Corrales has an impressive stage presence; all steely-eyed with shoulders spread wide like a preening cockerel.

The burgeoning romance between Giselle and Albrecht is given relatively short shrift in the first act. It is hard to feel that there is a love here that is worth dying for, let alone coming back from the dead to fight for all over again. The story of Giselle only works if the audience believes that the power of her love for Albrecht is so great that it overcomes her fatal grief at his betrayal and leads to an act of supreme forgiveness from beyond the grave; in Khan’s reimagined world the mortal blossoming of that love is largely left to be assumed, rather than witnessed on the stage.  

That said, Act 2 has all the powerful ingredients, in spades, not least in yet another astonishing performance by Alina Cojocaru in the title role. Unquestionably one of the great modern-day interpreters of Giselle, she takes to this radical facelift of her much-loved role with an emotional zeal that reaches out and grabs her audience’s attention. She joins the Wilis (the ghosts of abused garment makers, perhaps fashioned after those who died in that 2013 factory collapse) and sets about saving the life of Albrecht after Hilarion has been brutally hacked to pieces by the stick-wielding Wilis.

© Laurent Liotardo
© Laurent Liotardo
The ENB dancers deliver Khan’s group choreography with arresting harmony. The corps dancing is always absorbing, developing flowing movement into fascinating imagery that is regularly punctuated by extraordinary tableaux. One is reminded of Khan’s own past work, such as Dust (also for this company) and iTMOi but with pointe shoes; or even the visual splendour of William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar. It was no surprise when Danny Boyle entrusted Khan with a centrepiece for the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, because no-one makes art from moving bodies look quite so compellingly beautiful.

Khan has also fashioned an extraordinary second act duet of powerful sentimentality, danced with delicate sensitivity by Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez (as Albrecht), his highpoint in what was otherwise a surprisingly anonymous role. Cojocaru lays her soul on the stage to convince us of the deepest love imaginable; she needs an Albrecht that can show us why.

Tall, blonde and strikingly imposing, Stina Quagebeur was a revelation as the Queen of the Wilis; and, as Albrecht’s betrothed, Bathilde, Begoña Cao was strikingly beautiful and gorgeously costumed, exuding an unattainable aloofness that explains her fiancé’s waywardness. The moments when Giselle recognises her own handiwork in Bathilde’s dress and spontaneously picks it up to examine her stitching, followed by Bathilde offering a present of her glove before disdainfully dropping it on the floor for Giselle to pick up, are clever references to the original libretto but altered to tell us more.

Isaac Hernandez © Laurent Liotardo
Isaac Hernandez
© Laurent Liotardo
Perhaps the most pleasantly surprising element of the whole enterprise is Vincenzo Lamagna’s delightful score. Brought into the creative team very late in the day, Lamagna – no doubt, hugely helped by Gavin Sutherland’s orchestrations - has succeeded in creating a musical equivalent to match Khan’s theatrical vision. There are occasional subtle hints and references to Adolphe Adam’s original score, with the largest sequence of recognisable music coming early in Act 2. But, for the rest, his mix of industrial sounds and orchestral music is not only remarkably melodic but carries a driving, insistent, compelling momentum. At no time is this a work where you might find yourself thinking absent-mindedly of tomorrow’s chores!

To be a great leader, you have to take risks and, in her comparatively short tenure to date as artistic director of ENB, Tamara Rojo has been a bold adventurer. In Khan’s darkly reimagined interpretation of the greatest of all Romantic ballets, she has surely scored another triumph. Her name may be Spanish for red but everything Rojo touches seemingly turns to gold.