Thursday 19 July 2018

Haunting Giselle to visit in springtime

A mesmerising new production of the classic ballet enchants our reviewer

Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez in Akram Khan's Giselle
Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez in Akram Khan's Giselle
Madeleine Keane

Madeleine Keane

'The iconic ballet, reimagined' runs the strapline for English National Ballet's new production of Giselle. The words matter because this is a beloved classic and it has been turned inside out. The result is breathtaking.

A romantic two-act ballet, Giselle was first conceived as a vehicle for dancer Carlotta Grisi's Paris debut. Rapturously received, it became very popular and was staged in Europe, Russia and America. In the traditional tale our titular heroine goes mad with grief, dying of a broken heart after discovering her lover, the aristocrat Albrecht, is betrothed to another. The Wilis, spirits of virgins who have died of unrequited love, summon the peasant girl from her grave. They target Albrecht, but Giselle's great love saves him.

Down the decades, Giselle has been variously reimagined in a Mississippi bayou, set in Austria after Word War I and placed in a modern asylum. When this new interpretation was being created a couple of years ago, the refugee crisis was at its apotheosis and consequently, under the uncompromising vision of choreographer Akram Khan (described as 'the king of contemporary dance'), tonight's cast in Liverpool are migrant factory workers, dispossessed and dominated by a landlord class.

Enhanced by Vincenzo Lamagna's extraordinary music (which nods to Adolphe Adam's original score), with dramaturgy from Ruth Little and costumes and set by Tim Yip (whose sumptuous designs on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won him an Academy Award), the result is haunting, unforgettable. The corps de ballet take on animalistic shapes which combined with the curiously compelling mechanical, high-pitched music lend the work an opiate quality: you feel drugged and drawn into this world, a grey and painful place but an authentic one.

Giselle is danced by the great Tamara Rojo who joined ENB in 1997 as a soloist and was promoted to principal dancer within a year. Since 2014 the indefatigable Madrilena has served as both star ballerina and artistic director of the company: as she recently told the New York Times, "juggling between dancing and directorial duties." A decade ago the Spanish government approached Rojo with the idea of establishing a national ballet but though she did her research, ultimately it came to nothing. Spain's loss is England's gain.

Founded in 1950 by two great exponents of the art - Dame Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin - with the idea of taking ballet to the provinces, under Rojo's direction, ENB has expanded artistically, adding brave new work to their classic repertoire, such as this production which had its premiere last summer in Manchester. It has enchanted the critics who variously hailed it 'an electrifying triumph', 'staggeringly beautiful and utterly devastating' and 'an intelligent remaking of the beloved classic'.

The next morning the theatre is becalmed; class is about to start and the stage pulses with the supple bodies of the ballet dancers, dressed down now in leotards and leggings. I catch up with principal James Streeter who played Albrecht to Rojo's Giselle. Rochford-born Streeter started dancing as a three year old. Personally too, he's married to his work: his wife is beautiful lead principal Erina Takahashi and the couple have an eight-month-old son Archie.

He describes the collaborative creation that went into this Giselle: "We came back early from our holidays to work with Akram, to define the role and to build a character through movement. The dancers were hugely involved - it felt like a collaboration and it was great to be a part of something from the beginning."

This visceral version is dramatic and different. Streeter agrees: 'I think what is truly fantastic about it is it's so relatable, so it doesn't matter what your background is, who you are, where you're going, where you are in your life. At some point you've been affected by what's happening on stage and everyone knows that feeling of betrayal or loss or a love that you couldn't quite have or you thought you were in love with someone and then your world was destroyed and most of us have experience of that."

English National Ballet's visit next May will be their first to Ireland. Don't miss the chance to witness an unforgettable introduction to this innovative, dynamic company.

English National Ballet's Giselle runs May 2-6, 2018 at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Tickets from www.bordgaisenergytheatre.

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