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  • Chris ORourke

Dublin Dance Festival 2018: Akram Khan's Giselle

Akram Khan's Giselle. Photo by Laurent Liotardo


A Harmony of Opposites

Since its first performance in 1841, “Giselle” has undergone many subtle and not so subtle transformations, including a ‘definitive’ version choreographed by legendary choreographer Maruis Petipa. Yet Akram Khan’s multi award winning “Giselle” performed by English National Ballet, which opened the Dublin Dance Festival 2018 at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, might very well lay claim to that accolade. From its opening moments to its dying seconds, from its sublime ballet absorbing collaborative forms to its superlative score, stirring set, splendid costumes, and superb lighting, Akram Khan’s “Giselle” is nothing short of breathtaking.

In Khan’s 21st century reimagining of “Giselle,” love may still be the force that drives us, but other, darker forces, globalisation, immigration, see economic hardships withering the best for the benefit of the few. Melting out of the darkness, a small throng press relentlessly against an imposing grey wall that towers above them, their exhausted labours captured by the imprints of their hands etched into its unforgiving surface. These are the outcasts, the less than. Immigrant factory workers robbed of their chance for a better life by the factory Landlords who reside safely on the other side of the wall.

Akram Khan's Giselle. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Disguised amongst these exploited souls, the wealthy Albrecht woos the innocent Giselle, who, unaware of his true identity, and of his fiancee Bathilde, falls deeply in love. But the course of duplicitous love never runs smooth, and always it’s the innocent who suffer. When Albrecht’s rival, the opportunist outcast Hilarion, challenges Albrecht during an unexpected visit from the Landlords, Albrecht’s secret is exposed and his choice is made. One he comes to regret too late, with the frail Giselle dying from his betrayal at the hands of the Landlords. But death proves no barrier when it comes to love and justice. Her spirt now moving amongst the Wilis, the ghosts of those women wronged by the Landlords, Giselle, under the guidance of their vengeful queen, Myrtha, is faced with a choice when both Hilarion and Albrecht come to mourn her. Yet both revenge and redemption come at a price, paid as the impenetrable wall between the living and the dead melts back into the darkness.

From its opening moments, Khan’s sumptuous choreography announces itself as a harmony of opposites. With an ensemble informed by individual personalities as much as by formal technique, the resulting experience is far richer and much more colourful. One whose choreographic expression arises less from a rigid determinism, and more from a sense of organic inevitability. Throughout, ballet is both foundation and tradition, an astonishing sequence of sustained en pointe and pas de bourrée couru in the second act being one of the most impressive displays to ever grace a stage. But tradition here is a living tradition, one that embraces whatever it enriches and is enriched by. Flickers of what appear to be breakdance, contemporary, folk, and Bollywood, along with signature “Giselle” moments, inform movement sequences throughout. Khan’s juxtaposed opposites of strength and delicacy, stillness and movement, ease with wild frenetic energy, converge perfectly, whether in beautifully swirling sequences involving artists of the company, or during some of “Giselle’s” powerful and poignant solos and pas de deux. Visually, Khan’s cinematic sensibility crafts wonderfully telling images from the most throwaway details. A bowler hat, a palm pressed to a wall, or a surreptitious smile, unpacking so much thematically, as well as in terms of character and narrative.

Akram Khan's Giselle. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

This fruitful harmonising of opposites extends to all elements of this remarkable production. Performed live by the RTÉ Orchestra, conducted by English National Ballet Musical Director, Gavin Sutherland, a haunting and powerful composition and sound design by Vincenzo Lamanga, after the original score by Adolphe Adams, marries key elements of the original with an industrial soundscape. Droning, lapping waves, stylus’ stuck in grooves, ticking clocks, and the terrifying call of the klaxon all inform Lamanga’s sublime score. As well as moments of exquisite silence, where the body alone becomes the sole vehicle of expression. A body accentuated by Tim Yip, whose simplicity in costume imbues the Outcasts with a sensual elegance, whilst the Landlords resemble monsters in their garish, monstrous attire. Yip’s oppressive, yet simple, revolving grey wall evokes images of hell, prison, Auschwitz, perfectly complimented by Mark Henderson’s stark, yet stunning lighting design. Both of which contrast perfectly with the living, breathing, movements of the dancers

Where, once again, a harmony of opposites is reinforced courtesy of Khan’s brave, choreographic choices. Which include Bathilde, performed by principal, Begoña Cao, and Landlord performed by first soloist, Fabian Reimair, along with the remainder of the Landlords, barely dancing. A contrast which infuses the exuberant dances of the Outcasts, and later the Wilis, with even greater vibrancy. Whether swooping likes swarms of bats, pulsating like waves, or revolving in wonderfully intricate patterns, sequences involving artists of the company are simply spellbinding. As are “Giselle’s” solos, pas de deux and trios. Scuttling, spider like, in his hunt for Giselle and Albrecht, guest artist, Oscar Chacon, is utterly riveting as the power hungry Hilarion, defiantly proud in his obsequious service to the will of his masters. First artist, Stina Quagebeur, as the haunting angel of vengeance, Myrtha, is the stuff of nightmares, crafting a complex character from what might otherwise have been a throwaway device through an impeccable attention to the expressive detail in every movement, right down to the coiling of fingers around a switch. The duo of soloist, James Streeter, as the duplicitous Albrecht, and lead principal, Erina Takahashi as Giselle, are individually astonishing, never more so than during Streeter’s solo preceding Albrecht’s exile and Takahashi's rendering of Giselle’s death and exquisitely executed resurrection. Yet together their chemistry is irresistible, delivering sequences filled with the joyous, youthful enthusiasm of an aspiring first love, set against moments of unrelenting heartache, never more potent, or poignant, than during their final, heartbreaking farewell.

Akram Khan's Giselle. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

If social commentary enriches the experience, at its heart Akram Khan's "Giselle” still remains a cautionary love story. In Akram Khan’s “Giselle” even the most hardened of skeptics unmoved by tales of romance and betrayal will be stirred to both joy and tears. Forget what you’ve heard. Forget what you think you know. Forget the rumours. Akram Khan’s “Giselle” exceeds all hype and expectation. Choreographed from the heart, danced from the soul, in a production for the history books, Akram Khan's “Giselle” is a first love never to be forgotten. The perfect way to launch Dublin Dance Festival 2018, with a production not to be missed.

Akram Khan’s “Giselle” performed by English National Ballet, runs as part of Dublin Dance Festival 2018 at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until May 6th

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