Giselle’s tale of love, betrayal and redemption has been entrancing audiences since 1841, but in Akram Khan’s version for English National Ballet, now receiving a pulsating first revival at Sadler’s Wells, Marius Petipa’s choreography is gone, as is (almost) Adolphe Adam’s original score. Khan provides a contemporary update, setting the story among jobless migrant factory workers. Albrecht is a little rich boy, slumming it so he can be close to his lover, Giselle.

The Wilis © Laurent Liotardo
The Wilis
© Laurent Liotardo

Tim Yip’s designs feature a monolithic stone wall – impressed with immigrant handprints on one side – that acts as a class barrier, shielding the rich factory owners. Albrecht’s wealthy origins aren’t revealed until later, when the frosty Bathilde and her family of grotesques appear through the shadows. The Landlord commands the Outcasts to encircle Giselle and she is killed. Tilting and revolving, the wall leads to the factory hell of Act 2, where Giselle and the Wilis – traditionally ghosts of other betrayed women but here victims of industrial accidents – seek vengeance, bamboo spears clasped between their teeth while they menacingly prowl en pointe. After their frenzied, martial arts-style attack leaves Hilarion a human pin cushion, Albrecht avoids the same fate when Giselle forgives him, leaving him abandoned, now an outcast himself.

Stina Quagebeur (Mytha), Cesar Corrales (Hilarion) and the Wilis © Laurent Liotardo
Stina Quagebeur (Mytha), Cesar Corrales (Hilarion) and the Wilis
© Laurent Liotardo

When I saw the production twice last autumn, I had a few reservations about a lack of clarity to the storytelling. You needed to read the programme notes to know that the workers have lost their jobs because of the factory’s closure. Revisiting it after viewing Tamara Rojo’s excellent BBC documentary Giselle: Belle of the Ballet, some of the elements which mystified before become clearer, although the character of Albrecht is still sketchily drawn. Questions remain. Is Giselle made pregnant by Albrecht? Why is she killed?

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

Poetry infuses Tamara Rojo’s every step, her every inflection as Giselle. In Akram Khan’s version, she is no timid girl with a weak heart; she is proud and passionate – a perfect role for ENB’s tenacious artistic director. You see the scales fall from her eyes when the truth about Albrecht’s background emerges: from recognising her own handicraft in the dress worn by Begoña Cao’s haughty Bathilde to the moment when it’s revealed that Bathilde is his fiancée.

James Streeter partnered Rojo sensitively as Albrecht, but Cesar Corrales made a far stronger impression as Hilarion, a slippery intermediary between the landlords and the migrants. Corrales’ whipped, angular movements portrayed Hilarion’s frustration and disdain magnificently. Stina Quagebeur reprised her towering Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, almost floating en pointe, urging Giselle to take her revenge.

Akram Khan's <i>Giselle</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Akram Khan's Giselle
© Laurent Liotardo

Ensemble dances remain the strongest part of Khan’s earthy choreography, a fusion of contemporary and Kathak influences. The ENB corps is often a seething knot of dancers, visceral and full of attack. The air swirls with dust and the heat almost pricks your skin. If anything, my admiration for Vincenzo Lamagna’s industrial orchestral score has increased since last autumn, throbbing with percussive electronics. It has a folk-inspired Bangladeshi feel, but Adam’s original music seeps through at key points in the most heart-stopping way. The scissor-snapping to accompany the stabbing of the Wilis’ bamboo canes in the ritual killing of Hilarion is terrifying. Gavin Sutherland drove the English National Ballet Philharmonic through the score’s pounding rhythms.

Despite the occasional reservation, Akram Khan’s Giselle is now an even more compelling reinvention of the original and a testament to Tamara Rojo’s bold artistic leadership. Catch it while you can.