English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

Giselle. English National Ballet

1 March 2018, Aotea Centre, Auckland
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Aforethoughts and Afterthoughts.

English National Ballet’s season of Giselle, in an acclaimed new production choreographed by Akram Khan, has just played at the Auckland Arts Festival. The setting has migrant workers stranded after a clothing factory closes down, and the clash between workers and factory bosses echoes the contrast of villagers and nobles in the 19th century ballet by Coralli and Perrot. Dancing is of the highest standard, the set is monumental, costumes inspired, lighting striking and the atmospheric music composed by Vincenzo Lamagna, scored and conducted by Gavin Sutherland, performed by Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra, makes major impact.

Many of us are thrilled by the contemporary relevance of this setting (Khan is Bangla Deshi. He works in the sophisticated milieu of European dance yet does not resort to any conventions and clichés of ballet). The gesture of Giselle’s arms down-stretched, hands slowly, so slowly, turning palms up as she asks Albrecht ‘Why? What is this about? What am I supposed to do? What are you going to do?’ The cast of co-workers repeat her gesture, as well they might. More Asian than European, more baroque than balletic, it is a telling opening to the story about to enfold.

Others are continuing to think about the echoes of the original storyline, the music, the choreography. There are about four fleeting fragments of ‘the old Giselle’ in the ‘new’ one, and they pull at your heart. Good. The ballet is engaging. No one is unmoved, no one denies the power of the production.

Fernanda Oliveira and Fernando Bufala in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Fernanda Oliveira and Fernando Bufala in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act I. English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

In 2016, Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the company, and herself still a performer in the lead role, commissioned this new version of the classic Giselle from Akram Khan, following a one-act work he had earlier made for the company. We have seen some of Khan’s work performed here by Sylvie Guillem several Festivals ago, and there are trailers aplenty on YouTube to give you the strength of his dance-making. It is poignant to learn that just after the Khan premiere season in London, there followed another season of the production by Mary Skeaping of the original ballet. Now that’s imaginative programming.

This is the first ever visit to New Zealand of English National Ballet, formerly known as Festival Ballet. A number of celebrated New Zealand dancers have been members of the company over decades—Russell Kerr, June Greenhalgh-Kerr, Anne Rowse, Ken Sudell, Donald McAlpine, Loma Rogers, Sue Burch, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them. The company was for a time directed by Matz Skoog, former artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, with Fiona Tonkin as assistant. Amber Hunt, New Zealand dancer, is currently in the company’s ranks.

Rosemary (Johnston) Buchanan, a leading dancer with New Zealand Ballet in 1960s, is now a patron of the company, and her artistic opinions are valued by ENB. It is poignant to witness the camaraderie and loyalty this company maintains for its heritage and history. The program essays are as good as you’ll find anywhere. It is reassuring that archivist Jane Pritchard writes about original and earlier versions of the ballet in a way that they do not need to be put down for new versions to be put up. In 1959, I slept three nights in the queue in His Majesty’s Arcade to buy a ticket in the Gods to see the Royal Ballet with Margot Fonteyn performing Giselle. The theatre and the arcade have since disappeared but the memory remains. Mindful of the achievements in that title role of such dancers as Margot Fonteyn, Patricia Rianne, Olga Spessivtseva, Carla Fracci, that ballet is not something I’m going to let go lightly. Fortunately, I don’t have to.

Old productions. New productions. There’s room for all. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Giselle (by the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre) was staged in Wellington several Festivals back—with Albrecht as a two-timing transgender line-dance teacher. (Well, you know the Irish). This man, whose Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring were staged in Melbourne in 2013 (the music played on two grand pianos on stage), is the fearless mover & shaker you won’t want to miss—though you might need a medicinal whisky, before the show and maybe after as well. He is arguably the best communicator about his choreography I have encountered, and he writes his own program essays. Stand by for his Swan Lake Loch na Neal due in the Wellington Festival mid-March. If you don’t like heat, stay out of the kitchen, but no one should write a feeble-minded review of his work.

There’s always much evidence of the well-to-do among ballet audiences, though we would of course claim that you and I are there for the right reasons. Everyone wishes for fairness in the workplace. There’s always been,and will always be uneven distribution of wealth in the world, no choreography will change that. We should think long and hard about this production of Giselle we have just seen, and maybe also about the time we first encountered it. Ask if any garment in your wardrobe was made in Bangla Desh, or in a sweat factory somewhere else?  Also ask ‘Do all ballet companies, worldwide and close to home, treat their dancers fairly?’ since that would be a good place to start, if this remarkable production with its ethos is to be honoured.

Jennifer Shennan, 9 March 2018

Featured image: English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle., Act II. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

Follow this link for a review of Akram Khan’s Giselle posted in 2016.

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', Act I, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan’s Giselle. English National Ballet

15 November 2016, Sadler’s Wells, London

Akram Khan’s Giselle begins in gloom. A grey wall confronts us and the figures onstage are shadowy. Greyness and gloom in fact pervade much of the production. But it is a truly fascinating work in which we are given enough clues, choreographically (a version of the famous ‘cow hop’ crossing of the stage by the Wilis appears in Act II) and musically, to remind us that we are indeed watching a version of Giselle. All the main characters are there and they have the same relationships with each other as they do in traditional productions. But they inhabit a very different world from the peasants and gentry of the Rhineland.

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English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Khan’s Giselle is set in a community of migrant workers, workers marginalised by factory landlords. Albrecht is a member of the wealthy class. Hilarion is an outcast but a ‘foxy’ person who is able to cross boundaries and broker exchanges. Giselle is a former garment factory worker exiled from her home and family. And so the story goes. Act II takes place behind the wall, in a kind of ghost factory where female factory workers have laboured and where many have died. And so the story goes.

But the fascination is in the choreography as much as in the reimagining of the story and the relocation of it in a world in which globalisation and its effects are powerful forces. The factory workers dance in an orderly fashion, even in a militaristic manner somewhat like factory machines. Hilarion, wonderfully danced by Cesar Corrales, is often animal-like as he insinuates himself into the lives of others. He throws himself acrobatically around the stage. He is everywhere. The music, by Vincenzo Lamagna after Adolphe Adam, is relentless, the dancing compulsive.

Cesar Corrales as Hilarion in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Cesar Corrales as Hilarion in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act I. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

When Albrecht (James Streeter) arrives on the scene the music stops and he has a solo in silence. A duet between Albrecht and Giselle (Tamara Rojo) takes place in the shadows. Then at the wailing sound of a siren (referencing the horn of Adam’s score) the wall lifts and the landlords arrive. The party includes a cold and distant Bathilde (Begoña Cao) to whom Albrecht is engaged. The landlords wear outlandish clothes and pose decoratively, or move in a highly stylised fashion. Giselle recognises the dress Bathilde is wearing. It is a dress she has sewn. Eventually Albrecht leaves with Bathilde and chaos ensues. The dancing becomes frenzied, the grey wall turns red, the music gathers in volume and then stops. Curtain.

Act II is sometimes quite balletic by comparison. The Willis dance on pointe for one thing. Myrtha, strongly and impressively performed by Stina Quagebeur, drags Giselle’s body centre stage and reanimates it. The Wilis wield sticks like giant needles—references perhaps to a former life the Wilis have spent in a garment factory. The Wilis are relentless in their dancing and in their torment of Hilarion. They often crouch like witches, hair streaming down.

Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: Lauren Liotardo

Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Giselle and Albrecht have a pas de deux of swirling lifts, of sweeping proportions and of reconciliation. Eventually Albrecht finds himself alone. Final curtain.

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James Streeter as Albrecht and Tamara Rojo as Giselle in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

There have been many different productions of Giselle over the many years I have been involved with dance. I have my favourites. But the Akram Khan version is perhaps the most startling I have seen. It has a deeply searching quality to it that questions life in our time. And yet it also addresses the themes of the traditional Giselle: love, life, betrayal and reconciliation. I guess, however, I would have liked the characters of Giselle and Albrecht to have been more clearly articulated in the narrative, or in the choreography. I’m not sure it was all that clear just who they were, or where they fitted into the world we were seeing. They have a very clear societal position in the traditional ballet but not so much in Khan’s. Or perhaps this is because I have seen so many traditional productions of Giselle that there is no doubt in my mind where they fit into the story?

But I have nothing but praise for the dancers of English National Ballet. They performed Khan’s choreography with stunning success. A ballet to be seen again and again I think.

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2016

Featured image: Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan's 'Giselle', Act II, English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

techne. Sylvie Guillem. Photo by Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem. Life in Progress

19 August 2015, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Sylvie Guillem is an extraordinary dancer, no doubt about it, and her farewell show of four very different works demonstrated her astonishing capacity as a performer. But what emerged most clearly for me was that Guillem is first and foremost a ballet dancer. Her body, with its flexibility, slender frame, beautifully arched feet, impeccable ‘turn-out’, and limbs that extend seemingly forever, is so perfectly suited to the vocabulary of ballet that, whatever other dance style she is performing, she makes me long to see her dancing in a ballet again. Guillem has, for the last ten years or so, focused on contemporary dance and, while I have every respect for her desire to work that way, it is a little sad that not all of the movement we see in her farewell show does justice to her qualities as a dancer.

The program opened with technê choreographed by Akram Khan. Its setting was instantly attractive—a silver mesh tree positioned centre stage and surrounded by a circle of light. Across the upstage area sat a dimly-lit orchestra of three, composer Alies Sluiter (voice, laptop and violin), Prathap Ramachandra (percussion), and Grace Savage (beatbox). And the live soundscape they produced was thrilling.

But, watching Guillem emerge from the darkness in the opening moments—our first sight of her—only to scuttle around the circle of light on all fours like an insect was not thrilling. Sure she scuttles brilliantly and every inch of her body scuttled. But for me it was an uninspired opening moment and it was hard to maintain interest in the movement of technê from then on.

Then followed William Forsythe’s DUO2015, remade from his 1996 DUO and danced by two men, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, to a very sparse score by Thom Willems. They danced together and apart, at times with panache and bravura, and sometimes with a kind of throwaway attitude. It was a communication between friends. They sometimes mirrored each other in their movements, and at other times they maintained their differences—a diverse dancing communication, and a wonderful one.

DUO web. Dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts. Photo by Carl Fox

 Dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in DUO2015. Photo: © Carl Fox

The last piece before intermission was another duet, Here & After, this time danced by two women, Guillem and Emanuela Montanari. Choreographed by Russell Maliphant to music by Andy Cowton, it was pleasant dancing, often sculptural and having a light touch towards the end when the Cowton score included the sounds of a yodelling voice. It was enhanced by a strong lighting design from Michael Hulls, a constantly changing chessboard of squares of light. It added a hard-edged quality that sat well against the softness of the choreography.

By far the most satisfying piece, however, was the closing item, Bye, with choreography by Mats Ek and danced to Beethoven’s Arietta from his Piano Sonata Opus 111. The choice of music was an inspired one given its position in Beethoven’s oeuvre, Opus 111 being his last piano sonata, and given the inventive nature of the Arietta within it.

Sylvie Guillem in 'Bye'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in Bye. Photo: © Bill Cooper

In Bye we first see Guillem peering through a keyhole of a door positioned upstage, which eventually becomes a screen for the projection of filmed images of people and animals. As Guillem emerges from behind this door/screen and begins to dance, Ek’s choreographic style is instantly recognisable. Guillem crosses the stage with long, loping walks, shoulders slightly hunched and head pushed forward. From then on she engages in a variety of moves that often seem to be an examination of the world, including one quiet moment when she stands on the side of the stage and surveys the space. At one point she stands on her head, legs spread in a kind of upside down 2nd position plié. Finally, she joins a growing crowd of men, women, children and dogs who appear in film on the door/screen. In the closing moments she joins them and walks into the distance.

Life in Progress was an interesting experience, and it certainly made me more than aware of Guillem’s astonishing abilities. But I would rather watch beetles scuttle and a clown stand on his (or her) head and watch Guillem dancing a ballet. I feel very lucky to have seen her during her ballet days and, in particular, will always carry with me treasured memories of the most moving Giselle I have ever seen—Guillem’s own production (with Guillem in the lead) for Finnish National Ballet in Paris in 2001.

Bye. Or is it au revoir?

Michelle Potter, 22 August 2015

Featured image: Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan’s technê. Photo: © Bill Cooper