Bal­let mod­erne

Akram Khan’s vis­ceral reinvention of ‘Giselle’, which is on its way to Dublin, grap­ples with cur­rent themes of un­rest and mi­gra­tion. Au­di­ences might well feel they’ve ‘been punched around the room for two hours’

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - ED POWER - WORDS BY CHRISTIE SEAVER ■ English National Bal­let presents Akram Khan’s Gisel­leatBordGáisEn­er­gyTheatre,May2-6. bordgaisen­er­

Rein­vent­ing Giselle for con­tem­po­rary au­di­ences

Not a sin­gle white tutu or flow­ery head­dress ap­pears in Akram Khan’s Giselle, and dis­miss­ing these con­ven­tions helps melt away some com­mon per­cep­tions of bal­let as an art form. Dancers in Khan’s Giselle wield weapons. Mu­si­cians chant from the orches­tra pit. Clas­si­cal In­dian move­ments in­fuse the more tra­di­tional bal­let tech­nique pre­sented by English National Bal­let in an as­ton­ish­ing twist on this time­less classic.

Au­di­ences more ac­cus­tomed to vis­it­ing com­pa­nies bring­ing Swan Lake and The Nutcracker to Ire­land may be shocked at this in­ter­pre­ta­tion, yet the col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween chore­og­ra­pher Khan, com­poser Vin­cenzo La­m­agna, and English National Bal­let artis­tic direc­tor Tamara Rojo may prove just as com­pelling as did the orig­i­nal cre­ative team for Giselle more than 175 years ago.

“If we be­lieve that the clas­si­cal bal­lets and the is­sues they rep­re­sent can stand on their own merit, then they can be reinterpreted,” says Rojo dur­ing an in­ter­view at the com­pany’s head­quar­ters near Lon­don’s Royal Al­bert Hall. “I see the dance canon like oth­ers see the theatre canon. No­body bats an eye­lash if they take Shake­speare and re-rep­re­sent it. We must ask, ‘What are the hu­man is­sues in a bal­let and are they still rel­e­vant?’ And most of the time they are. That doesn’t mean we have to throw away the past or tra­di­tion, but we have to con­stantly look at it and al­low it to breathe.”

The orig­i­nal li­bretto for Giselle was writ­ten in 1842 in France, dur­ing a time when fas­ci­na­tion with ro­mance and the su­per­nat­u­ral had reached a pin­na­cle. A story about the Wilis, or young women who died be­fore their wed­ding day, cap­ti­vated poet and nov­el­ist Théophile Gau­tier so much he cre­ated the char­ac­ter Giselle for bal­le­rina Car­lotta Grisi. Chore­ographed by her hus­band Jules Per­rot, the bal­let re­ceived im­me­di­ate ac­claim fol­low­ing its Paris de­but. Not only did it help make Grisi a star (and in­ci­den­tally whisked her away from her hus­band and into the arms of Gau­tier, form­ing their own love tri­an­gle), but it was also one of the first bal­lets to el­e­vate women out of their tra­di­tional bal­let slip­pers and on to the tips of their toes into the now ubiq­ui­tous pointe shoe.

In­stantly Giselle be­came a cov­eted role for bal­leri­nas and has re­mained so ever since. It pro­vides huge artis­tic scope in terms of move­ment but also be­cause of Giselle’s emo­tional range. Dancers rel­ish the tran­si­tion from love-struck peas­ant girl to de­ceived lover un­til Giselle fi­nally goes mad and ul­ti­mately sac­ri­fices her­self for the man who be­trayed her.


In Khan’s bal­let the char­ac­ters re­main recog­nis­able and the be­trayal still runs deep, but his Giselle ex­erts power. Khan’s nar­ra­tive grap­ples with cur­rent themes of un­rest and mi­gra­tion, loosely set amid fac­tory work­ers strug­gling with class in­equal­ity. The score has been reimag­ined with only the briefest nod to Adolphe Adam’s orig­i­nal, and Tim Yip, known for his work on the film Crouch­ing Tiger Hid­den Dragon, de­signed the cos­tumes and set, which in­volves a sin­gle mas­sive mov­ing wall. At one point, the Wilis be­come so un­set­tled they per­cus­sively stomp their feet.

“They make a lot of noise and they use long bam­boo-like staffs as weapons,” says Gavin Suther­land, mu­si­cal direc­tor of English National Bal­let. “It’s sheer anger, be­cause the Wilis are the spir­its of jilted brides, as tra­di­tion says.”

Jen­nie Har­ring­ton, a dancer with English National Bal­let since 2003, says this Giselle pro­vides con­stant chal­lenges, par­tic­u­larly in its re­lent­less pointe­work.

“Akram’s move­ment is very grounded, which can be dif­fi­cult be­cause as bal­let dancers we tend to be very ‘up’,” she ex­plains. “When he cre­ated this, he wanted it to be a join­ing up of bal­let and his kathak back­ground.” Khan, of Bangladeshi de­scent, di­rects his own Lon­don-based con­tem­po­rary dance com­pany, and is in de­mand world­wide as a chore­og­ra­pher. His move­ment vo­cab­u­lary is of­ten in­flu­enced by the clas­si­cal In­dian dance form kathak, an an­cient way of telling a nar­ra­tive through move­ment that em­pha­sises the feet, eyes and hands.

Har­ring­ton re­mem­bers early re­hearsals spend­ing up to three hours solidly en pointe. That in­tense foot­work would push most dancers to the limit, but the mu­tual re­spect be­tween Khan and the cast kept them forg­ing ahead to re­alise his vi­sion.

Com­mit­ment to Khan’s con­cept spread through­out the cre­ative team, as Suther­land re­counts a piv­otal mo­ment search­ing for a com­poser to re-in­vig­o­rate the score. One can­di­date wanted to use “in­stru­ments” such as foil emer­gency blan­kets, brass pieces in an iron bucket, bro­ken china, elec­tric sew­ing ma­chines and a kid­ney dial­y­sis ma­chine to ac­com­pany the danc­ing. Suther­land ad­vo­cated us­ing com­puter sam­plers to cre­ate these sounds in­stead, and even­tu­ally the pair reached a stale­mate.

“That com­poser said, ‘No no, it must be the real things,’” Suther­land ex­plains. “I said,

‘‘ I see the dance canon like oth­ers see the theatre canon. No­body bats an eye­lash if they take Shake­speare and re-rep­re­sent it. We must ask, ‘What are the hu­man is­sues in a bal­let and are they still rel­e­vant?’ And most of the time they are

‘Mate, we don’t even have enough dial­y­sis ma­chines for the pur­pose they are built. You want us to take one on tour with us?’”

Even­tu­ally English National Bal­let com­mis­sioned La­m­agna to cre­ate a new score, af­ter which Suther­land spent up to 16 hours a day trans­lat­ing La­m­agna’s pound­ing, chant­ing and un­usual rhythms into mu­sic the orches­tra could read and play. He fin­ished just in time for open­ing night, and de­spite the chal­lenges of pre­sent­ing live mu­sic, Suther­land and Rojo re­main staunchly com­mit­ted to it.

“Tamara is adamant that live mu­sic has to be a pri­or­ity, and for me that’s the best en­vi­ron­ment to be work­ing in,” Suther­land says. “No mat­ter how small the ensem­ble, it can be done.” Dur­ing Giselle’s run in Dublin, Suther­land con­ducts the full RTÉ Con­cert Orches­tra, with whom he has worked be­fore, coax­ing some un­usual de­mands from the mu­si­cians, such as chant­ing from the orches­tra pit.

Prior to join­ing English National Bal­let in 2012, Rojo, who grew up in Spain, en­joyed a cel­e­brated ca­reer as a prin­ci­pal dancer, in­clud­ing more than a decade with Royal Bal­let. Although she still per­forms, she now bal­ances di­rect­ing, de­vel­op­ing au­di­ences and main­tain­ing a solid foot­ing for the or­gan­i­sa­tion as a whole.

“I think one of the most dif­fi­cult things artis­tic or­gan­i­sa­tions face is how to take risks and how to be given the chance to fail, be­cause suc­cess is not guar­an­teed,” she says. “You also have to be given the chance to do things that don’t work. And there’s so lit­tle buf­fer in an artis­tic or­gan­i­sa­tion fi­nan­cially that any artis­tic risk is a huge risk for all of us. I try to make de­ci­sions that I think are rea­son­able, that I think are not going to put the or­gan­i­sa­tion in an un­nec­es­sary po­si­tion.”


She still makes bold de­ci­sions, and hires some of the world’s lead­ing chore­og­ra­phers to work with the com­pany. While we dis­cuss Giselle in her of­fice, down­stairs renowned chore­og­ra­pher Wil­liam Forsythe works with the dancers in a new piece with con­tem­po­rary mu­sic that thumps through the floor­boards. Rojo has also spear­headed devel­op­ment of the com­pany’s new state-of-the-art build­ing, slated to open in 2019. With seven studios and a pro­duc­tion space in Lon­don’s Can­ning Town, the new space is a coup for any arts or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Rojo fol­lows the il­lus­tri­ous legacy of dancers who pre­vi­ously have led English National Bal­let, in­clud­ing founders Dame Ali­cia Markova and An­ton Dolin, who trav­elled around Eng­land tak­ing bal­let to au­di­ences un­able to travel to ma­jor the­atres. Fast-for­ward to the present day and the com­pany’s re­mit re­mains the same.

“We rep­re­sent bring­ing bal­let to the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence, wher­ever they are, what­ever their means,” says Rojo. “I’m very aware of that re­spon­si­bil­ity, and also of my re­spon­si­bil­ity to the wider art form. I’m pro­tect­ing and car­ing for what has been given to me, but only for some time, as even­tu­ally some­one else will do it.”

Most re­cently the more than 60-mem­ber troupe has toured through­out Eng­land, New Zealand, Scot­land and North­ern Ire­land. The Dublin stop could be­come a more fre­quent one for the com­pany if plans by Bord Gáis En­ergy Theatre gen­eral man­ager Stephen Faloon are re­alised.

Since ar­riv­ing at Bord Gáis in 2009, Faloon has pro­grammed re­li­able story bal­lets from a va­ri­ety of Rus­sian com­pa­nies, sprin­kling in shows by Tony award-win­ning chore­og­ra­pher Matthew Bourne as well as clas­sics by Birm­ing­ham Royal Bal­let. He still be­lieves bal­let is an un­der­nour­ished art form in Ire­land, and re­mains com­mit­ted to ed­u­cat­ing and grow­ing its au­di­ences. That in­volves tak­ing chances on pro­duc­tions such as this one, and chal­leng­ing au­di­ences to think be­yond what they are used to see­ing. He was con­fi­dent bring­ing Khan’s

Giselle be­cause of his be­lief in Rojo as “a great for­ward thinker and cre­ative ge­nius. And be­cause some­times you just have to take a leap of faith.”

Then he saw Khan’s Giselle on tour. “It was one of the most stun­ning pro­duc­tions. It was so vis­ceral. I felt like I had been punched around the room for two hours. I came out emo­tion­ally drained but feel­ing like a much bet­ter per­son.”

Those involved hope au­di­ences equally will be moved by watch­ing Khan’s Giselle, and that it will res­onate in some way. Rojo em­pha­sises there’s no right or wrong in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“Give it a chance. It is not what you ex­pected. Come have a good night out and en­joy.”


Left: Alina Co­jo­caru and Isaac Her­nan­dez in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Above: the Wilis, the spir­its of jilted brides, march into ac­tion. Right: Tamara Rojo, artis­tic direc­tor of English National Bal­let.

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