Akram Khan’s Giselle – poetry in motion

Akram Khan’s Giselle, Sadler’s Wells

Giselle, which took Paris by storm in 1841 and did the same in another incarnation in St Petersburg fifty years later, has in more recent times gone through startling transformations. It’s been placed in a Mississippi bayou in the American Civil War for Harlem Dance Theatre; it’s been set in post-First World war Austria, and in a German mental asylum, and the Fabulous Beast company have set it in Ireland. Albrecht has been presented as a bisexual line-dancing teacher from Bratislava who two-times Giselle with a butcher’s son.

Akram Khan has made out of this story a semi-abstract drama in which the Wilis have worked as migrant-slaves in a sweatshop which might equally be a Mancunian factory in the nineteenth century or Dakha today, and as such it has toured the world to universal acclaim over the last three years. Having not seen it, and, as a devotee of the Parisian original being curious to find out how it’s weathered these sea-changes, I decided to catch it at Sadler’s Wells before it went off on yet another European tour.

And of course the beginning is a shock: Vincenzo Lamagna, credited with ‘composition and sound design after the original score of Adolphe Adam’, opens with a barrage of heavily amplified industrial sounds, while the dancers push vainly against a massive stone wall on which the handprints of other denizens of this prison have imprinted themselves in times past. The choreography, as it unfolds, is an amalgam of Kathak, European classical, and Khan’s own personal language of movement. You need to have read in advance about the concept and social context, because that composite language is limited in what it can convey: fine for emotion, but no good as a conduit for concepts and ideas.

Then comes a massive coup de theatre: the wall slowly lifts away to reveal a group of gorgeously apparelled figures – an eighteenth-century royal family whose son, Albrecht, is Giselle’s secret lover. Disappointingly little is made of the this pivotal culture-clash, but after this point the line of the original plot is discernible, Hilarion and Albrecht fighting, Giselle going melancholy-mad, and dancing herself to death.

The second act takes place not in an enchanted glade but inside the now–ruined factory, where the Wilis are the ghosts of dead slaves. And when Giselle – the delicately expressive Erina Takahashi – joins the ghosts’ dance on pointe we suddenly get a snatch of the Wili-melody from Adam’s score, and though – or because? – the sound is smudged and crackly, it makes a magical moment.

From this point on the production strains every sinew to continue the story, but what we get is a skilfully-lit and essentially painterly feast of movement from a company at the top of its form. And this alone is worth the price of a ticket. Twenty-four hours later my brain is still teeming with images, most particularly that of bodies hurtling soundlessly across the stage without seeming to touch the ground as they go. Catch this unique show next time in surfaces near you.

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