My first thought watching Akram Khan’s Giselle: “This isn’t the sort of thing I normally like.” My second thought: “But I really like this!” English National Ballet has brought this production to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a short stint. I usually dislike modern reworkings of 19th-century classics, but I found Khan’s Giselle simultaneously thought-provoking, frustrating and, in the end, touching and beautiful.

Tamara Rojo (Giselle)
© Julieta Cervantes (8 June 2022)

Khan’s Giselle does not use any of Adolphe Adam’s original score or the ballet’s standard choreography, although he does quote the choreography on occasion (his Wilis do the same forward arabesque chugs). Instead, the score by Vincenzo Lamagna takes motifs from Adam and mixes it with loud, pulsating electronica music.

The overarching theme of Khan’s Giselle is class. In the classical Giselle, the villagers are happy peasants, while the aristocrats (except for Albrecht) are essentially benign. Khan’s Giselle has overt tension and exploitation by the ruling class. Giselle and her friends are migrant factory workers (called the Outcasts). Albrecht is a Landlord pretending to be an Outcast. Hilarion is an Outcast in love with Giselle.

Tim Yip’s set is a huge, rotating wall that separates Giselle from Albrecht’s ruling class. One of the ballet’s most striking moments is when Albrecht’s fiancé, Bathilde, and her friends emerge from behind the wall. They are dressed to the nines and Bathilde pulls rank over Giselle by taking off a glove and dropping it to the floor. Hilarion is flattered by the bowler hat the Landlords give him.

Tamara Rojo (Giselle) and Isaac Hernández (Albrecht)
© Julieta Cervantes (8 June 2022)

The first act is somewhat preachy – the Landlords’ oppression of the Outcasts has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Khan is overly eager to show Giselle as a Victim of the System, even in the Mad Scene where she is surrounded by, trapped and killed by the Landlords and the Outcasts. Hilarion delivers the fatal blow. This makes Hilarion’s death in Act 2 more justified. Hilarion is described in the program as a “shape-changing fixer” which is... what exactly?

But the more abstract second act with the Wilis (in Khan’s version, a disheveled sisterhood that kill men with sharp sticks) has a poignant beauty and simplicity. Khan signals the switch from the earthy to the supernatural by use of pointe shoes: in the first act, all the dancing was done on flat slippers. The Wilis, however, are on pointe. The Wilis in this production are truly terrifying with their huge sticks and palpable anger. Albrecht and Giselle dance a tender, passionate pas de deux. In the end, Giselle saves Albrecht by preventing Myrtha from impaling him with the stick. She instead impales herself and joins the Wilis. Albrecht is left alone on the “Outcast” side of the wall.

Khan’s choreography mixes modern dance with Indian kathak. There is little that can be called “classical” other than the bourrées en pointe for the Wilis. The main feature of kathak is the expressive arms and Khan’s choreography for the Outcasts uses the arms to convey anger, despair, heartbreak.

Stina Quagebeur (Myrthe) and Tamara Rojo (Giselle)
© Julieta Cervantes (8 June 2022)

The performances were excellent. Fernanda Oliveira is almost 42 years old, yet had no problems conveying the youth and innocence of Giselle. Stina Quagabeur was even more remarkable as Myrtha. This production’s portrayal of Myrtha is deeper than the standard Giselle’s Myrtha – here, it’s clear that Myrtha’s homicidal nature is borne of pain. Quagabeur was frightening, full of white-hot rage, yet vulnerable.

The men were a little less amazing, if only because their characterization was not as rich. Aitor Arrieta’s Albrecht was limited by Khan’s vision – there was none of the superficial charm that is usually part of the character. He’s lecherous and mercenary from the word go. Daniel McCormick’s Hilarion also suffered from opaque characterization – why does he kill Giselle in Act 1, and then appear to kill Giselle again in Act 2?

In the end, despite the modern touches and class warfare point of view, Khan’s Giselle works for the same reason any production of Giselle always works: the power of love and forgiveness always makes for a compelling show. Khan gets the essence of Giselle.