REVIEW | Giselle, Palace Theatre

Joan Davies on a breathtaking interpretation of a classic ballet

Written by  Joan Davies | Follow @ | Thursday, 29 September 2016 11:54


AKRAM Khan’s new interpretation of classical ballet Giselle, premiered by the English National Ballet at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, is gloriously stunning: visually, aurally, the audience imagination and emotions through an exceptionally well-performed fusion of dance styles.

The whole creative team have produced a vivid, exciting world.

This re-imagining captures the essence of the well-known story of betrayal, belonging, power, loss and loyalty culminating in an ethereal world between life and death, while migrating the tale from a rural peasant and aristocratic landscape to an industrial world of mass production. The peasants become industrial workers, essential to the machine, until cheaper options appear, and the aristocracy becomes the ‘Landowners’, lives sustained by their workers’ efforts.

Albrecht, a young member of the landowners class, falls for Giselle, a migrant factory worker, his courtship aided by worker Hilarion, who can adopt the stance of power with ease. Eventually, Albrecht returns to his betrothed, Bathilde, and a broken Giselle dies. In Act 2 Giselle enters the ghost world of the Wilis, whose Queen, Myrtha, propels revenge from her remorseless group of wronged women. Giselle defies this role, ultimately forgiving Albrecht and releasing him to whatever life remains for him.


Khan, London-born of Bangladeshi heritage, is probably Britain’s most viewed contemporary choreographer, having brought us the red-clad dancers accompanying Emilie Sandie’s Abide With Me at London2012’s Opening Ceremony. His ability to combine contemporary dance with Kathak, an Indian dance form studied in his youth, unleashes a modern vibrancy to Giselle’s highly energetic yet haunting first act: workers flee oppression finding a chance to survive. The scene where the corps de ballet dance as a textile machine is fluid, fierce and surprising while the circling undulating support for the dying Giselle, another scene of impressive fluidity and strength, recalls Khan’s red-clad Olympic dancers, then enhances the emotional charge through a sustained deeper complexity of movement.

The whole creative team have produced a vivid, exciting world. Composer Vincenzo Lamagna reworks the motifs of the original providing reference points for those who know Adolphe Adam’s composition and realising a modern dynamic score with great moments of stillness, silence, and interruptions of the factory klaxon summoning workers to their fate. Lighting Director Mark Henderson, and designer Tim Yip, who also designed the costumes add weight to the presentation, creating an absorbing, at times breathtaking, experience.

Akram Khans GiselleAkram Khan's Giselle


Act 2, danced en pointe, as a message of strength not fragility, shows Khan’s impressive range and his maturing ability to work outside his own dance experience and expertise.

Manchester International Festival and Sadler’s Wells, both co-producers, are happy to support original concepts and imaginative reinterpretations. It’s a fine collaboration, providing practical encouragement of the vision of Artistic Director of English National Ballet, dancer Tamara Rojo, who sees this production as an important step for the whole art form and who commissioned Akram Khan to bring a modern sensibility to one of the most highly regarded works of classical ballet.

Manchester’s Press Night audience, many of whom had little previous experience of the original ballet work, were absolutely certain of its qualities and excited to see such work in Manchester. It will be interesting to see how far it captures the heart of purists. The Manchester run is too short, though so including me, are managing to fit in a second visit. After Saturday, it’s off on tour, Manchester’s name attached to it via the MIF logo. Let’s hope it returns. Soon.

Akram Khan’s Giselle is performed at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until Saturday 1 October, before going on national tour.

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