Theatre Review: Akram Khan's Giselle @ Bristol Hippodrome

by Polly Hember

Last night, something utterly magical and frustratingly indescribable took place inside the walls of the Bristol Hippodrome.  Masterful choreography, incredible theatre, breath-taking dance, unforgettable set design and staging all intersected, and exploded with staggering emotional intensity as Akram Khan’s highly anticipated Giselle came to Bristol.

Giselle’s overarching themes of love, betrayal, revenge and forgiveness have a profoundly enduring quality that transcends time and place. Khan’s reimagining of the classic ballet resonates strongly with not only our most private, intimate, inner-most feelings but also strikes chords with our contemporary socio-political polemics. Khan has succeeded in creating a masterpiece that is not afraid to go deep, to tackle the most complex and difficult emotions and interrogate social inequality and injustice.

Khan has taken the bones of Giselle; the story of the peasant girl who is courted by Albrecht (James Streeter) who unbeknown to Giselle (Tamara Rojo) is actually an aristocrat, a “landlord” who is betrothed to another woman from his wealthy background. His presence is detected by Hilarion (Cesar Corrales), who is described ambivalently in this production as “Giselle’s would-be-lover – a shape-changing ‘fixer’”.

Deviating from tradition by introducing a playful and mysterious trickster element to the piece adds a complexity and ambiguity to the age-old love triangle. Albrecht’s wooing is interrupted and his deceit is uncovered when his fiancé and family arrive, forcing him to return to their world. Giselle is descends into lunacy in her grief at her love’s betrayal. In the traditional story, she dies of a broken heart, dancing herself in her mad sorrows to exhaustion and death. In Khan’s reimagining, the Landlord commands Giselle’s own Outcast community to encircle her – and then when the crowd of dancers disperse, Giselle’s lifeless body is revealed. The twists and modern retelling gives Giselle an agency and strength that moves her away from the fragile naivety of a tricked girl and highlights not only the injustice done to her, but also her strength and capacity for resilience and hope. Act II sees Myrtha (Stina Quagebeaur), Queen of the Wilis (ghosts of wronged women who seek revenge for the injustice down to them in their life) summon Giselle from her lifeless body to join the company of the terrifying and remorseless Wilis. A grieving Hilarion is brutally killed, and Albrecht meets Giselle on the threshold of life and death. As Myrtha encourages Giselle to murder Albrecht, the heroine forgives him and defies the Wilis, breaking the cycle of violence and revenge and allowing Albrecht to go back to the land of the living. Her love and capacity for hope and forgiveness has triumphed, allowing for Albrecht’s redemption.

In his modern reimagining, Khan has allowed much more ambiguity and complexity into the dance. The intricate ins and outs of the narrative are left open; Khan leaves the discovery of Albrecht’s identity till the end of Act I, allows a shape-changer into the mix and puts more emphasis on the emotions felt on stage and evoked in the audience than on the narrative. The incredible movements of the dancers convey the feelings so intensely, rendering the emotions paramount to the performance. Cognition and understanding comes later as the dances, the pirouettes and twirls spin around in your head in endless ruminations.

Khan’s choreography and dancing of the company cannot be described as anything other than perfection. Incredible dancing throughout, from the weightless and effortless dances of Rojo and Streeter as they court each other, to the jarring and aggressive dancing of Corrales and Streeter as they clash. Corrales possessed an insurmountable energy that gave his dancing a vitality and rawness that was a sight to behold. Rojo was incredible as Giselle, her dancing faultless and her characterisation and commitment to the character was masterful. The highlight of the show was in the second act, and the dancing and choreography of the Wilis. Almost the entire time spent on stage was en pointe; the effect this gave fed into the ethereal and mythical atmosphere and, in such prolonged time en pointe, almost rendered them grotesque (but beautiful) marionettes. Such clever and artful choreography and practice; this made them not only look like ghostly visions but also towering predators, tall and peculiar, producing an eerie air as they moved with such grace, precision and poise that it was truly as if the dancers were from another world completely.

The only prop was a colossal wall that moved, spun and shifted on stage. Conveying the division, separation and insurmountable power of hegemonic distributions of power and wealth, the set design was simple yet hugely effective – and yet also allowed the focal point to be on the fantastic choreography and dancing. The artful lighting and simple yet bold set design worked to create an almost dystopian and oppressed space for the Outcasts, and another world for the Wilis to inhabit in Act II. Visual Designer Tim Yip’s costumes were fantastic – artfully simple and understated yet, like all visual aspects of the piece, incredibly powerful. Simple dresses and shirts in the first act, and then in the second; the simple dresses torn, subtly mimicking a warped ballerina’s typical tutu style which conveyed the eerie lifelessness of the undead whilst also retaining a simple and elegant beauty. The contrast between the simple and plain dresses of Giselle and the other outcasts and the opulence of the Landlord’s costumes, which were superfluous, glittery and excessive highlighted Giselle’s central theme of division. Vincenzo Lamagna’s music provided a contemporary and surprising edge to the orchestration, incorporating rhythmic drumming, humming and stamping into the score, resulting in a rich, diverse and hugely engaging soundscape that was performed without fault from the live orchestra.

Khan’s Giselle is a magical masterpiece which has reimagined a timeless piece to actively engage with issues of social mobility, gender, injustice and worker’s rights that pervade our contemporary society. Giselle also manages to touch something deep within us. It illuminates the full power of love, and in doing so forces its audience to feel as deeply, as strongly and as forcefully as the lovers Giselle, Albrecht and Hilarion. Incredible theatre, breath-taking dance and a brilliant revival of a classic – book your tickets now.

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