Three very different dance performances of Giselle are showing in London this autumn. Akram Khan’s modern interpretation, infused with Indian dance, is followed by Dada Masilo’s contemporary choreography with a dose of traditional Tswana dance from Africa – and a classical performance by the Birmingham Royal Ballet. The first to London, Akram Khan’s Giselle, catapults the popular ballet into a present-day dystopia, leaving the audience to decide how closely it sits to reality.  

Dancers: Erina Takahashi and Isaac Hernández
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan’s Giselle Story

Act I

While the Giselle story ballet (1841) traditionally takes place in Germany, following a group of peasants during autumn harvest, Khan’s Giselle lives among dispossessed migrant workers – labelled as ‘the Outcasts’ in the English National Ballet’s Act I synopsis. Giselle dances with Albrecht, who poses as an Outcast, until Albrecht is spotted by his wealthy fiancé Bathilde. When confronted, Albrecht leaves Giselle behind; so Giselle turns mad with grief and dances to death.

Act II

A remorseful Albrecht chastises his wealthy, unfeeling companions. Meanwhile, Myrtha – Queen of the Wilis – resurrects Giselle in the underworld. She commands the other Wilis, ‘ghosts of factory workers who seek revenge for the wrongs done to them in life’, to murder Hilarion while he mourns at Giselle’s grave. When Albrecht arrives, Myrtha plans to kill him, too; but Giselle forgives Albrecht and allows him to return to the world of the living. Albrecht is sent back, now an Outcast himself, grieving alone where he and Giselle once danced.

Read about Dada Masilo’s Giselle another contemporary piece with a completely different take!

Dancer: Alina Cojocaru
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

English National Ballet: Giselle Review

London’s English National Ballet (ENB) may not seem particularly suited to working with modern dance choreographer, Akram Khan, and vice versa – but the company performs the movement well. They’re not too stiff or too airy as they gallop around the stage.

Perhaps, if you looked at the legs in isolation, you wouldn’t notice this is a contemporary ballet – since most of the modern dance and Indian dance influences are seen in the torso and arms. Their legs plié, carrying their pelvis forward in an under curve, while their torsos topple over in fervent undulations. Occasionally hands stop in defined mudras, symbolic hand gestures.

During the first act, Jeffrey Cirio steals the stage as Hilarion as he breaks up the two lovers. His aggressive and magnetic energy matches the intensity of the entire corps. From standing, Cirio swirls down into the floor, his hands hitting the movement so hard that he’s simultaneously tutting and popping. (Well, he does have a background in hip-hop, after all.) He’s aggressive and articulate – magnetic, and yet mysterious, since the audience isn’t given much information about his character motivations.  

If you enjoyed Akram Khan’s Giselle, you might also be interested in his evening-length Until The Lions show.

Dancers: Erina Takahashi and Isaac Hernández
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

The tone changes when an alarm sounds and the wall flips vertically, ushering in a cadre of well-heeled Landlords, including the resplendently dressed Bathilde (Isabelle Brouwers). They parade into the space, slowly transitioning into poses that would fit into a Vogue magazine.

When Giselle (Tamara Rojo CBE) comes to inspect the glittering garment she helped to produce, Bathilde rolls up a glove and offers it to her. Bathilde misses Giselle’s outstretched hand, purposefully dropping the glove on the floor; then she icily waits for an Outsider to fetch it for her. Hilarion tries to press Giselle’s head down into a bow to Bathilde, but she won’t budge. Instead, he forces the rest of the Outsiders to show respect.

Giselle pleads Albrecht (James Streeter) to stay with her and places their hands on her lower abdomen. He withdraws, stepping over Giselle’s body to clasp hands with Bathilde, promenading her around the floor. Hilarion pulls a despondent Giselle to her feet, and then she shoves him away. Other Outsiders crowd around Giselle as she dances, choking off her expansive movement.

The orchestral music becomes frenzied à la Rite of Spring (another story dance during which a woman dances to death), but the build up happens much more quickly. Giselle angrily shoves her peers on the floor and becomes caught in a wavering sea of bodies. As the crowd pulls away, she remains still, and Hilarion cradles her lifeless body.

Bad boy of ballet, Sergei Polunin danced a solo version of Rite of Spring (or Sacre du Printemps), called Sacré, by Japanese choreographer Yuka Oishi.

English National Ballet dancers
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

The second act of the ballet shows Myrtha (Stina Quagebeur) bringing Giselle aboard as a Wili. She breathes life into Giselle and connects her abdomen to Giselle’s with a stick, like an unyielding umbilical cord. Despite her ferocity, the scene is reminiscent of a mother duck, presiding over her little one. In this case, Myrtha teaches Giselle to move like the other female ghosts on pointe.

Unfortunately, Hilarion is not welcomed like Giselle. A lithe Myrtha stands tall, challenging him as she thrusts her stake onto the ground. The Wilis mercilessly entrap Hilarion in a web of sticks and dispose of him in the shadowy background when a distraught Albrecht makes his entrance.

Giselle steps in front of Myrtha to shield Albrecht, and the two join in a sober duet. They repeat some phrases from before, but there seems to be a chasm between them, dancing between the two worlds. She rapidly bourrees backwards away from him, and he prostrates himself on his knees before her. Giselle protects Albrecht from Myrtha and he returns to the world of the living, pining for what he once had.  

The ballet powerfully illustrates that while some things can’t be made right, it’s still possible to make peace and move on.

Dancer: Tamara Rojo
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

Khan’s choreography is engaging and visceral, but the ballet is escalated to another level by its thoughtful pairing with other production elements. The theatre comes alive with live music from the English National Ballet Philharmonic, and the Tim Yip’s costumes are not only showcased in movement, they speak of the characters’ very identities. His rotating wall, freckled with handprints and lit by Mark Henderson, quickly transforms the space; and all of the elements combined with the dance coalesce into a magical show that resonates strongly with its audience.

Akram Khan’s show, Until the Lions, only has three main dancers, but the Roundhouse production is equally cinematic.

I met a man during intermission, whose wife runs Chelsea Ballet Schools. Although interested in classical ballet, he hadn’t expected to like modern dance interpretation of Giselle; but it spoke to him – and he’s not the only one.

“Since its premiere in 2016, over 330,000 people have watched Giselle in theatres, cinemas, on TV and on DVD… This is a production that the whole Company is immensely proud of, and we continue to be overwhelmed by the out-pouring of appreciation that we have received from audiences around the globe.”

– Tamara Rojo CBE, English National Ballet
Star Rating:

Dancers: Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

If You See ENB’s Giselle Performance

Dates: 18 – 28 September

Please see the venue’s What’s On page for show times, as some performances are matinées, while others run in the evening.

Run time: 2 hours, including one 20-minute interval

Price: £15 – £75

Theatre: Sadler’s Wells

Address: Rosebery Ave, Clerkenwell, London EC1R 4TN

Nearest tube/ train station(s): Angel, but walkable from Barbican and Farringdon

Ticket office phone number: +44 2078 638000

All information accurate and up-to-date at time of posting.

Dancers: Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

Disclosure: Dance Dispatches received free admission to provide an open and honest dance show review of Akram Khan’s Giselle, as performed by the English National Ballet.

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