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

‘Lest we forget’. English National Ballet

5 April 2014 (matinee), Barbican Theatre, London

Tamara Rojo’s recent mixed bill program, Lest we forget for English National Ballet, was created to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Having spent the ten days preceding my viewing of Lest we forget researching Ballet Rambert’s wartime experiences as a touring company during World War II, I was very curious to see what this program had to offer. Unfortunately I had to leave without seeing the full program (I didn’t want to miss my plane back to Australia!). However I was particularly pleased that I didn’t miss No Man’s Land, a commissioned ballet from Liam Scarlett, whose work I have never seen before, and whose Serpent will be seen in Sydney in May as part of the program being brought to Australia by BalletBoyz.

Scene-from-Liam-Scarlett's 'No Mans' Land'.Photo © Dave Morgan

Scene from Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. English National Ballet. Photo © Dave Morgan

Scarlett was moved to create a work that showed how men and women were involved in the war effort and how they related to each other and amongst themselves. A multilevel set (design Jon Bausor) had the women on a raised platform at the back of the stage where they carried out their work in factories making ammunition, explosives and other items. The men occupied the front of stage, the trenches of war, and a ramp linked the two areas. Evocatively lit by Paul Keogan, the work took place in what seemed like the shadow of the past. Although there was a simple storyline of men leaving the women behind as they went off to fight, with only six of the seven returning at the end, the lighting made it seem as though we were watching not a story but a series of hazy vignettes from the past.

I found the choreography, created on seven couples, sometimes complex and acrobatic with the highlight the concluding pas de deux between Tamara Rojo and Esteban Berlanga as her ghostly partner, the man who did not return. Rojo’s body language before the pas de deux even began told it all—the sorrow, the loss, the longing. The three pas de deux that took place in the battlefield area were also powerful. I especially admired that between Ksenia Ovsyanick and Laurent Liotardo with its anguished, flying bodies.

But some of the most hypnotic material was really very simple. The touch of a hand on the face as the men left for the battlefield; the women wrapping their arms over the shoulders of the men, simulating the straps of a burdensome backpack; the toss of dust in the air by the women as they worked at their factory benches, for example. Strong imagery works wonders especially when it contrasts with more complex movements as the men face their battles. Music was an arranged and orchestrated selection of material from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses.

Second Breath from Russell Maliphant relied on the visual power of strong and ever-changing groupings of the cast of 20. The work was danced to a background score by Andy Cowton drawn from material in the Imperial War Museum. It was basically an audio compilation of voices reciting the numbers of the dead. Quite chilling material to juxtapose against those beautiful, spiralling groups of bodies. The other work that I was able to see on the program was something of an oddity, unrelated it seemed to me to the theme of war—a restaging of George Williamson’s reinvention of Firebird. Unfortunately I had to miss Akram Khan’s Dust,

A persistent thought occupied my mind as I thought about the program. I kept wondering if the Australian Ballet had considered bringing back Stephen Baynes’ 1914, with its original score by Graeme Koehne and those outstanding designs by Anna French? Although it seems not to have been a favourite with many, I really liked it and what a cast it had with Steven Heathcote and Lisa Bolte in the leading roles. I would love to see it again, perhaps with revisions that Baynes might like to make? It might have been more fitting for the 2014 Australian Ballet season than, say, Manon (of which more later).

Michelle Potter, 15 April 2014

English National Ballet. A new director

Having spent the past few days mulling over the latest issue of the New York-based dance journal, Dance Chronicle, which has as its lead article a piece entitled ‘Where are all the women choreographers in ballet’ and whose first sentence is ‘And women artistic directors, we might add’, it was something of a surprise to discover that the English National Ballet has appointed Tamara Rojo as its new artistic director. Ismene Brown’s take on the situation is available on the Arts Desk site. The comments are already interesting.

As for Dance Chronicle, I was immediately reminded of Linda Nochlin’s seminal article ‘Why have there been no great women artists’ written some four decades ago. The Dance Chronicle question deserves comment from an Australian perspective I think, which I am planning.

Michelle Potter, 14 April 2012

Dance diary. March 2012

  • Kristian Fredrikson in New Zealand

In March I spent a week in Wellington, New Zealand, looking into the work made by Kristian Fredrikson for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Wellington City Opera. I have nothing but praise for the staff of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Film Archive of New Zealand, the Dowse Art Museum and the National Library of New Zealand (despite the fact that the Library is currently closed to the public due to renovations) for their generous help with my research activities.

I was especially interested to see a recording of Swan Lake (that ballet again) from 1985—a production by Harry Haythorne who was at the time the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s artistic director. It linked up nicely with some designs for this production I had recently been examining in the National Library’s Fredrikson collection and it is always a bonus to see designs transformed into costumes and worn by dancers. Not only that, Haythorne’s production was quite different from anything I had seen before concentrating as it did on the character of Siegfried more than Odette, making something quite different out of von Rothbart and making a strong distinction between reality and fantasy. It was then a further bonus to see some of the costumes themselves, with their quite astonishing layering of fabric to achieve a textured look, at the Dowse.

It was also a pleasure to speak to former Australian Ballet principal, Greg Horsman, currently ballet master with the Royal New Zealand. His recollections of working with Fredrikson complemented those I recorded last year with Miranda Coney. Coney and Horsman are pictured below in the pas de deux from Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, in its first staging of 1992.

Greg Horsman and Miranda Coney, 'Nutcracker' 1992Greg Horsman and Miranda Coney in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, the Australian Ballet 1992. Photo Don McMurdo. Courtesy National Library of Australia

  • Bruce Morrow (1928–2012)

I was saddened to hear of the death in March of Bruce Morrow, whose career included performances with the National Theatre Ballet and the Borovansky Ballet. He danced in some ground-breaking Australian productions, including Rex Reid’s Corroboree and the Borovanksy Ballet’s full length Sleeping Princess. Following his career as a performer he was for many years a highly regarded teacher at the Australian Ballet School and elsewhere. He is seen below as one of the Three Ivans in the 1951 Borovansky production of The Sleeping Princess. I interviewed Bruce in 2000 for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. Here is the link to the catalogue record.

The Three Ivans, Borovansky Ballet 1951(top to bottom) Bruce Morrow, Ron Paul and Tom Merrifield as the Three Ivans in The Sleeping Princess, Borovansky Ballet, 1951. Photographer unknown. Courtesy National Library of Australia

  • Stanton Welch’s Tapestry

I have been a fan of Houston Ballet since visiting Houston last year where, as in Wellington, I was treated more than generously by everyone with whom I came into contact. There’s a lovely clip available on YouTube from Welch’s newest work Tapestry.

  • The Ballets russes tribute programs continue

I read with interest Ismene Brown’s review of a recent English National Ballet season.

  • Site news

With Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet playing a season in Brisbane during March interest has been revived in the posts and comments on this site relating to that production. In addition, Brisbane for the first time was one of the top five cities in terms of numbers of visitors accessing the site. It came in third behind Melbourne and Sydney and was followed by Canberra and London. The top post for March was the review of the Australian Ballet’s Infinity program.

Michelle Potter, 30 March 2012

‘Swan Lake.’ English National Ballet

The English National Ballet has just concluded a season of Swan Lake that can only be described as a triumph. As much as I admire, and love watching Graeme Murphy’s production of Swan Lake, and this is the Swan Lake Australians now see regularly, there remains deep down a craving for the traditional version, and this is just what ENB delivered.

ENB’s current Swan Lake is choreographed by Derek Deane. This season gave us not his probably better known in-the-round version seen in Australia some years ago, but a glorious, dramaturgically strong, proscenium version that moved from palace to lakeside and back again capturing attention from the moment the curtain rose until it fell.

A beautifully rehearsed and coached corps de ballet danced to perfection in the white acts, moving as one and conjuring up a sense of another world. The dancers were just as impressive as courtiers, always aware of the underlying narrative, never standing around uncertain of how to behave. From a more technical point of view, the corps demonstrated in particular just how expressive the upper body can be when actually used. Such fluidity above the waist seems a little rare to me these days.

As well as dancing brilliantly, the soloists and principals brought to the stage quite outstanding skills of characterisation. This was a production where Rothbart was a significant character (not always the case) and the relationship of Rothbart, Odette and Siegfried to each other was powerfully realised to the extent that I sat on the edge of my seat agog as the final act unfolded. This last act, which so often disintegrates into nothing more than a pretty finale, had great dramatic intensity as Odette struggled against the opposing forces that Rothbart and Siegfried represented.

I saw two casts and was most affected by the cast led by Vadim Muntagirov as Siegfried. Muntagirov, still a very young artist, dances with so much care for the details of ballet technique. He moves with elegance, he executes jumps with the lightness and grace of a panther, and his turns and tours en l’air are beautifully placed and yet exude bravura. In his solo in Act I where he ponders his predicament as a young man, who has been told he must marry but who yearns for something he can’t quite yet articulate, he displayed his refined line and his ability to show emotion through technique.

Muntagirov partnered a very secure Daria Klimentova as Odette/Odile—fragile as Odette, cunning and ultimately triumphant as Odile. Rothbart was danced with flair by Fabian Reimair. Others who stood out to me included Shiori Kase in the Act I pas de quatre at both performances I saw, and Esteban Berlanga who acquitted himself well as Siegfried in the second cast partnering Erina Takahashi.

Apart from having the pleasure of watching some really good technical dancing, and seeing a company so well rehearsed and coached, the greatest joy was seeing a performance that gave full reign to Swan Lake’s brooding Gothic character. Peter Farmer’s design helped but nothing can take the place of intelligent staging. Many bouquets to ENB. Is ballet dead? Certainly not at English National Ballet.

Michelle Potter, 3 April 2011