Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram’s Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo
When Giselle first opened at the Opéra le Peletier in Paris in 1841 it was heralded as a true spectacle. Anticipation surrounding this latest romantic ballet had been steadily mounting, with frequent press releases tracking postponements due to injuries, illnesses and accidents. But its audience was not disappointed. New (and now basic) technology permitted the Opéra’s latest star, Carlotta Grisi, to fly across the stage, as well as the poetic lighting of the second act which turned the “ballet blanc” — an act filled with girls dressed in white, in that instance ethereal figures in long tulle dresses — into a staple of the romantic ballet era. Much praise was heaped on Adolphe Adam’s haunting music, as well as the dancers: Carlotta Grisi quickly became the highest paid dancer at the Opéra. The story of Giselle, with its rural first act and contrasting, other-worldly second act, quickly became one of the most performed romantic ballets, and indeed it remains so to this day.
The English National Ballet’s 2016 production of Giselle, choreographed by the British Akram Khan, is equally spectacular in its dark and post-apocalyptic setting. Although widely lauded in the press—The Independent called it “a triumph” —this most recent production of the classic ballet unfortunately never achieves the harmony between marvel and romantic love story that arguably made its original so successful.
There is still much to marvel at. Ingenuous lighting turns the first act into a barren borderland and makes the “white ballet” look as if it is taking place on weathered metal. The music by Vincenzo Lamagna, based loosely on the original score, and full of deep, metallic, percussion-heavy rhythms and repeated low fog horns, reinforces the visceral industrial atmosphere, and heightens the sense that we have stumbled into an abandoned warehouse techno party. As he demonstrated in the London 2012 opening ceremony, Khan knows how to move large groups of people on stage confidently, and here once again he sculpts grounded, rhythmic group scenes. Invisible forces seem to move the excellently rehearsed groups of dancers in unison or waves, as if they are fields of wheat under a rolling wind. Particularly memorable is one scene in which Giselle (Fernanda Oliveira), surrounded by three circles of dancers, is set in motion and swallowed up by the group’s potent waves until she disappears. Equally exciting are the so-called “landlords” in their monochrome, rococo-inspired costumes, which are both lush and cold, delicate and pompous. A chill went down my spine when, under the sound of repeated fog horns, they strolled through the peasants slowly, surely and seemingly untouchable.
Beneath the technical feats of the original 1841 production lay a simple but effective romantic story. Giselle is a peasant girl who falls in love with a peasant named Loys. But Loys is unmasked at the harvest festival by the jealous Hilarion as the aristocrat Albrecht, who is engaged to be married to another woman. Driven to madness by the discovery of this deceit, Giselle dies of a weak heart. In the second act, she belongs to a group of so-called “Wilis”, the spirits of virgin women who have died before marriage and who make men dance themselves to death. Out of compassion, Giselle spares Albrecht from the wrath of these creatures, allowing him to return to his betrothed.
Khan brings this story into the timeless, but also indubitably modern realms of refugees and income inequality, turning the peasants into outcasts separated from the lush landlords by a wall. Giselle is, in Khan’s words, no longer a passive and naïve girl but “a real woman” . Together with the piece’s industrial post-apocalyptic aesthetic and deep-bass rhythms, these changes make the ballet feel incredibly current. But the romance must also be current in order for the production to succeed. Giselle might start off as a strong woman more interested in resistance than love, but that she nevertheless falls quickly and meekly into the arms of Albrecht (Fernando Bufalá) is deeply problematic. The fate of the outcasts becomes but a backdrop to this love story. As such, when in the second act their rhythms all but fade, one wonders whether we weren’t more honestly served by an idealised peasant setting. Oliveira and Bufalá deliver intelligent, sensitive performances that are unfortunately swamped by the industrial music and dark setting. Only Jeffrey Cirio as Hilarion stands out, his quick and cunning movements aptly matching the ballet’s mood.
What we are left with, then, is either a great abstract spectacle with a story that never quite comes to be meaningful, or a romantic ballet whose main couple’s more tender moments fade against the shadowy and industrial backdrop. Like Albrecht, who at the beginning and end of the ballet is seen trying and failing to topple the wall that separates outcasts from the elite, so too Khan has tried and — I believe — failed to break down the boundaries between his own visually striking works and the generic demands of the romantic story ballet.
Seen 21 September 2017 at 2pm, Sadler’s Wells, London.
Khan’s Giselle can still be seen this season in Auckland and Dublin.
Meindert Peters  is reading for a DPhil in German at New College, Oxford. He is a former professional ballet dancer.