Giselle review: Akram Khan and English National Ballet put on breathtaking Act 1, second act lags behind
Khan’s reimagining of the classic ballet leads the audience on a roller-coaster ride in the first act, with Crystal Costa shining in the title role, although the sombre lighting sometimes made it hard to make out the dancers on stage
As soon as the curtain rises on a dramatic image of desperate people beating against the massive wall that bars them from freedom, it’s easy to see why Akram Khan’s Giselle has been a smash hit for English National Ballet with critics and audiences alike.
The first half is Khan at his very best: physically thrilling and visually compelling, it’s magnificent dance theatre that more than vindicates artistic director Tamara Rojo’s bold move in inviting Khan, with no classical ballet background, to re-imagine one of ballet’s best-loved classics.
The four sold-out shows were testimony to Khan’s huge popularity in Hong Kong. The Saturday matinee brought the added pleasure of seeing Crystal Costa – who began her career with the Hong Kong Ballet – return in an outstanding performance of the title role.
Khan and his dramaturge Ruth Little have transposed the original 1841 tale of a peasant girl who falls in love with an aristocrat to a nameless place where dispossessed migrants are trapped behind a massive wall by a ruling class who emerge from time to time to demand that the migrants dance for their amusement.
The treatment, particularly Tim Yip’s exaggerated costumes and make-up for the rulers and drab colours for the migrants, along with the vision of a strong, rebellious Giselle, is reminiscent of The Hunger Games and works well.
Act 1 is packed with Khan’s trademarks: spectacular theatrical effects and choreography distinguished by its visceral energy and power, impressive use of group work and the exceptional use of hands that harks back to his training in classical Indian dance. A roller-coaster ride from start to finish, it leaves the audience breathless.
Act 2 is less successful – the pace lags (not helped by overly dim lighting – the mood may be dark, the audience still needs to see what’s going on) and there’s a lack of balance in structure, with a low-key, anticlimactic ending.
Viewed as a take on the original Giselle (which Hong Kong Ballet will perform in October), Vincenzo Lamagna’s reworking of Adolphe Adam’s score, combining the original themes with menacing modern passages and heavy use of percussion and even transforming the familiar music into a tribal style for the migrants’ dances is dazzling.
Aficionados will also appreciate Khan’s occasional artful references to the original choreography. Accepting this radical re-interpretation is easily done in Act 1, where not only is the choreography completely modern, but only the barest bones of the plot have been kept, presenting a drastically different version of the characters. Giselle’s suitor Hilarion, in particular, is transformed from a naive rustic who resents the aristocrats to a “fixer” who collaborates with them – the role has become more striking than that of Albrecht, who remains oddly muted.
Act 2, danced on pointe and following the original more closely in terms of plot, invites comparisons it doesn’t live up to. Turning the Wilis into martial arts inspired stick fighters is clever, Hilarion’s brutal murder of Giselle (apparently a flashback to the end of Act 1, where her actual death is not shown) is powerful, and Giselle’s defiance of Myrthe’s authority, echoing her attitude to Albrecht’s fiancée Bathilde, is moving.
However, at the heart of Giselle lies Albrecht’s remorse and Giselle’s forgiveness of his betrayal. In the original, this is expressed in one of the most beautiful and poignant pas de deux ever created and here Khan falls short – romantic duets, the very core of classical ballet, are not his forte and this scene, which should be the high point of the piece, is disappointing.
The whole company’s passion and commitment to the work were evident throughout a consistently impressive performance.
Costa’s Giselle was vividly acted and beautifully danced – every movement was expressive and the glorious fluidity of her back and arms brought modern and classical together to stunning effect. Erik Woolhouse was electrifying as Hilarion, with sharply angular, disjointed movements and an almost manic energy.
The Hong Kong Sinfonietta was on top form with a full-blooded account of the score under the baton of Gavin Sutherland.
Akram Khan’s Giselle
English National Ballet
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre
Reviewed: June 2018 (matinee)