Thursday 16 June 2022

A Nineteenth-Century Ballet Reimagined: Akram Khan’s Giselle, Brooklyn Academy of Music

I’ve written about ballet through a Victorianist’s lens quite a few times over the course of the last nine years on this blog, but, thanks partly to the pandemic, it’s been a while since I was able to review a live performance. I blogged about Coppelia and Anna Karenina in 2018, Le Corsair and The (ever-popular) Nutcracker in 2016, and Jane Eyre back in 2013. This time I’m back to talk about one of the greatest nineteenth-century ballets—Giselle—having just seen a very different production.

Giselle, with music by Adolphe Adam and a story by librettists Theophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, was first performed in 1841 in Paris, starring ballerina Carlotta Grisi in the title role. The ballet is in two acts—the first tells the story of the peasant girl Giselle’s betrayal by her lover, Albrecht (a nobleman in disguise), and her subsequent death; the second reanimates Giselle as she joins a host of wilis (spirits seeking revenge against the men who wronged them). 

I’ve seen traditional Giselles several times (most recently, the ABT’s production was my first live theater experience post-Covid lockdowns in October 2021). But last week I was lucky enough to watch Akram Khan’s innovative version by the English National Ballet. This production premiered in the UK in 2016, but the short run at BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music) marked its first performance in New York City. I saw the Saturday matinee, with Erina Takahashi as the lead. 

Gone is the pastoral setting of the traditional first act, with Giselle and her peasant girl friends skipping outside cottages and responding to the hunter’s bugle call. The production instead invites us into a stark and industrial setting. The nobles here are the “landlords” and the peasants “outcasts” who work in the condemned factory. Dressed in gray rags, Giselle and her community flit around stage, their movements often synchronized, to percussive music from Vincenzo Lamagna.

Ballet fans will recognize strains of the original score coming in and the basics of the storyline remain the same, but the contrast between two acts is dampened—this is a Giselle that’s dark throughout. I enjoyed this tonal shift from the original: Act II of the ballet is often considered stronger and was often performed alone even in the 1800s. But audiences may find themselves asking if Giselle’s death is so terrible given the miserable, dystopian existence she experienced before. 

I was pleased however that the bleakness is heightened by genuine spookiness in Act II, thanks in part to a wonderful performance by Isabelle Brouwers as Myrtha, the queen of the wilis. The production uses pointe work (largely absent from Act I) to convey the ghosts’ ethereal movements to great effect. So far, so traditional, but these spirits also brandish large sticks as weapons, bringing martial arts style choreography to the all-female corps de ballet on their tiptoes. This sticks are also used to act as physical barriers between the living and the dead, leading to an ending I found genuinely emotional, as Giselle forgives Albrecht and returns, divided from him, to her grave.

There are plenty of clips of the production online, but, if you can, do try to see this ballet live—it’s a theatrical experience I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

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