English National Ballet
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn, New York

June 8 and 11 afternoon, 2022

Jerry Hochman

I’d waited impatiently for English National Ballet to bring its heralded production of Akram Khan’s Giselle to New York. I avoided reading reviews as I usually do (though I couldn’t avoid screaming headlines), wouldn’t watch a streamed presentation, and stopped reading the program notes, which were accessible ahead of time, after the first sentence. My initial exposure to it had to be live, and with a relatively clean slate.

Seeing it live for the first time when ENB brought it’s Giselle to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a five-performance run that ended last night, and without having read the program synopsis, enabled me to evaluate this production with fresh (albeit tired) and unprejudiced eyes. My first view was from orchestra level, very close to the stage; I went a second time to sample the view from BAM’s mezzanine.

Notwithstanding this effort, my ultimate conclusion is probably no different from that of anyone else who’s seen it: everything you may have heard about Akram Khan’s Giselle is true.

Tamara Rojo and Isaac Hernández in Akram Khan’s “Giselle”
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

In case there was any doubt, ENB’s Artistic Director (soon to be San Francisco Ballet’s Artistic Director) Tamara Rojo can still dance and act magnificently; Jeffrey Cirio’s performance of Hilarion is one of the most monumental examples of dance performance art that I’ve ever seen; Stina Quagebeur’s Myrta is both shocking and unforgettable; and the corps as a whole is an outstanding living entity. Viewing the piece a second time enabled me to see things I didn’t see at its opening night performance (though I’m sure there are still more things that I missed), and provided more visual insight into what Khan is doing. And the second cast (with Erina Takahashi, James Streeter, Erik Woolhouse, and Isabelle Brouwers as, respectively, Giselle, Albrecht, Hilarion, and Myrta) was of the same quality as the first, but the emphasis seemed somewhat different – in some ways I thought it was superior.

Overall, Akram Khan’s Giselle, and ENB’s performance of it, is a landmark production that will not eclipse or replace the classic Giselle, but that can stand on its own beside it. The original Giselle (and faithful iterations of it) appeals to a viewer’s heart; this Giselle is far more cerebral – it appeals to a viewer’s brain, its seemingly non-stop action dazzles a viewer’s eyes, and its ingenuity and originality gets under a viewer’s skin and never lets go. Most significantly, Akram Khan’s Giselle is intended to make the viewer angry – and it succeeds.

Credit for this goes, of course, to Khan individually, and collectively to his artistic team, some of whom must be recognized up front. Khan’s choreography requires some getting used to, but that doesn’t take too long. It’s different, vicious when it needs to be, tender when it needs to be, and awesome overall. In perfect sync with the choreography is the score, created by Italian composer Vincenzo Lamagna, abetted by ENB’s Music Director Gavin Sutherland’s orchestration and Susan Gilbert’s sound design. The set (by “visual designer” Tim Yip, who also designed the costumes), is astonishing as well, and somewhat gasp-inducing, and Mark Henderson’s lighting maintains and appropriately enhances the mood, but it’s the choreography, music and the ENB dancers’ execution that make this Giselle as memorable as it is.

That’s not to say that I didn’t find things about and within this production that were not confusing and/or concerning. I’ll mention some later. But confusing as some aspects of it may be (and remain so even after having seen it twice and read the complete story synopsis), and as political a statement as this Giselle is intended to be, in the overall scheme of things they don’t impact one’s appreciation for the work of art that Khan’s Giselle incontrovertibly is.

The story here is your basic Giselle, even though at times it may be difficult to discern. What’s missing from the original story are, among other things, Berthe (Giselle’s Mother), any theological references, any medical issues (e.g., Giselle’s weak heart), a village atmosphere (and a village maiden), a Peasant Pas, a Zulma and a Moyna (except perhaps for an unidentified passing reference that lasts seconds), any airiness or ethereality, and, except for moments in Act 1 between Giselle and Albrecht and the somewhat contradictory smiles of the Act 1 corps in reaction to their apparent romance, any sense of even minimal happiness. What it has in contrast to the original is an ambiance of almost Gothic darkness (as if the original had been cross-bred with the underworld of Orpheus), as well as a vague sense that this all takes place on some planet where no one has gone before. Most importantly, this Giselle carries with it a manifesto-ish emphasis on the inequality and inherent violence of class differences.

Khan’s Giselle is supposed to be a “real world” version of the story, as opposed to the romanticized tenor of the original. Consequently, instead of there being an individual “villain” embodied in the deceitful but ultimately redeemed Albrecht, here there’s a societal “villain” of established class inequality for which this version provides no redemption whatsoever. That theme of class differences and inequality is in the original Giselle as well, but it’s downplayed, with societal and class differences simply being the way it is, or was. Another way to look at Khan’s approach it is to think “Romeo and Juliet” (or “West Side Story”), but with the emphasis on the currents that lead to the tragedy rather than the tragedy itself.

And although feminist “revisions” of Giselle are abundant, this Giselle isn’t that. That Giselle is here portrayed as a strong-willed young woman is significant, but only in the context of her being a victim (one of them; the others are Albrecht and, by ultimate extension, the audience) of the physical and emotional violence of class-based and class-enforced differences.

But conclusory statements such as the above can’t begin to relate the visual brilliance that Khan’s Giselle presents. The best way to do it, to avoid making it more incoherent than it might otherwise be, is to delve into the story as it’s presented. Accordingly, I’ll describe this production as I saw it, interweaving references to the subsequently-read program synopsis that outlines what’s supposed to be happening. Along the way I’ll reference parts of this Giselle’s story that appear unusual by themselves, or inconsistent with (or not supported by) the synopsis provided.

Tamara Rojo and James Streeter (center),
and English National Ballet
in a prior performance of Akram Khan’s “Giselle”
Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan’s Giselle begins with a view of men and women lined up against a wall of sorts that the audience sees descend from the rafters; at first it looks like cotton (at least from my opening night vantage point), then it solidifies into something resembling the Ice Wall in Game of Thrones. It occupies the entire horizontal width of the stage, and at this point is upstage. Whether the people are pushing against it or holding it up so it doesn’t collapse on top of them isn’t quite clear at first, but eventually these people walk back from the wall. Based on the program synopsis, the area within audience view is supposed to represent the exterior of a closed factory occupied by migrant garment workers, called Outcasts, who are trying to get back into the factory to regain their livelihood and security. However, that the factory is closed and has no employment to offer, and that there’s no stage indication of a lack of “security,” makes it apparent to me that this “wall” must be seen as a metaphor for the “wall” that separates one class from another: nothing less, but nothing more.

As the Outcasts pull back from the Wall (which I’ll now capitalize since it’s an essential albeit metaphoric “character,” not just any wall), one sees imprints of hands that remain embedded on its surface. Very nice idea; it illustrates both the struggle to get through the Wall, and that those whose hands they represent are insignificant compared to the forces that created the Wall in the first place: all in all, they’re just another hand on / brick in the wall.

After the people pull back the audience spies a man standing at the upstage edge of the wall. Contrary to the others, who appear to be doing nothing in particular, he’s a man on a mission, looking for someone. Dressed like the others, he looks through the throng as if he were Prince Siegfried looking for Odette, eventually finding Giselle. This is Albrecht. [The synopsis says that Albrecht is looking for his “lover”: the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht, accordingly, is to be considered as an ongoing one. And there’s no indication from what’s presented here that Albrecht deliberately intended to deceive or take advantage of Giselle, as in the original; he loved her from the beginning.]

Upon seeing Albrecht, one of the men emerges from the anonymous throng and gets visibly angry, going physically and emotionally berserk. It soon becomes clear that this man is Hilarion, a vastly different character here than he is in the original. At this point his concern appears to be one of protecting the group as a whole from Albrecht, not just Giselle.

Throughout this exposition, the music is a repetitive series of long percussive phrases that grow in amplitude as the piece evolves – eventually, seamlessly, and somewhat magically, yielding to familiar musical phrases from Adolphe Adam’s original score as if they’re echoes from the past. This particular analogous echo is from Act 1 of the original, roughly at a point in the narrative sequence comparable to a similar narrative sequence in the original. The process recurs throughout the piece, sometimes at points corresponding to narrative moments in the original that featured such music, sometimes with the echoed musical phrases transported to a different narrative location from the original. Regardless, it’s a brilliantly conceived and magnificently accomplished aural coup de théâtre. [This musical transitioning isn’t the only analogue to the original – looked at carefully, the choreography here tracks very closely the corresponding scenic evolution in the original, but in vastly different choreographic form. And like the musical analogizing, this choreographic analogizing recurs throughout the course of this Giselle.]

Things continue in this vein until a blaring sound is heard – like the manufacturing industry fog-horn-like sound that recognizes the passage of a certain time period (e.g., check-in time; lunch time) or some siren-like alarm. It appears here at a time analogous to the narrative point in the original where the nobles arrival is forewarned (and later to when Albrecht summons the nobles back), but it also recurs at various other points throughout this production. [It occurs so frequently that eventually it becomes annoying – a response that I think is intended.]

English National Ballet
in a prior performance of Akram Khan’s “Giselle”
Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Almost immediately thereafter, the Wall pivots horizontally (the visual equivalent of a drawbridge from some fortified castle, or that Ice Wall, being lowered), revealing a part of the Wall’s other side. Emerging from that other side is a group of unnatural and pompous-looking people, identified as Landlords. The arrogant male in charge is berobed as if he were a nobleman from Central Europe in the Middle Ages – looking very much like the leader in the original. His entourage includes one woman (Bathilde, as in the original) dressed in some fashion-show reject gown that makes her appear not so much regal as tasteless. There are two additional women dressed more extravagantly, one in a gold-toned dress shaped something like an upside-down goblet, the other in a white outfit with bizarre appendages stretching horizontally from both sides of her body (one or both of which may have been attempts to mock the bustles evident in the costuming in some versions of the original). All of them look garish and absurd (especially compared to the Outcast’s garb). There are no accompanying Borzois, but the entourage includes ominous-looking male bookends who might have been the equivalent of the master’s hounds.

This entourage (obviously a different, and higher, “class” from the Outcasts – or, since their entry is so strange, visitors from another planet) is resented by everyone in the stage neighborhood (e.g., no one rushes up to offer them fruit, nuts, entertainment, or a cuppa). But the constant corps movement resumes.[The program synopsis describes it as dancing “for the landlord.” I saw nothing to indicate that that’s what the community-folk were doing, but I suppose that’s a way to look at it – especially since the term “landlord” is being used here in order to equate them with the “lords” of the original.] The choreography at first looks freeform animalistic, like a herd of thoroughbred bisons (occasionally one, but more often in bunches) with their heads down and charging back and forth across the stage. From the upper vantage point on my second viewing I saw further examples of Khan’s choreographic brilliance that I’d missed on first view – the dancers move back and forth across the stage analogous to the way the original Giselle corps weaves back and forth in horizontal lines across the stage.

When this Bathilde and Giselle meet, Giselle reaches out as if to touch her garment, though there’s no upper-class envy involved as in the original’s comparable image. [According to the program synopsis, Giselle recognizes the fine dress worn by Bathilde as the product of her own factory labor.] Batty (I’ll call her that) then begins to remove one of her black gloves (while turning her nose up at the seemingly obligatory noblesse oblige) and gives it to Giselle, but Giselle rejects it and throws it to the floor. Hilarion subsequently retrieves the glove and gives it back to Batty. And at this point or later (I don’t recall exactly) Hilarion attempts to force Giselle to bend the knee, or at least her head, to the Landlords, which Giselle steadfastly refuses to do. He then turns to another woman and forces her to comply, then another, and eventually the entire group of Outcasts bows. [We later learn from the program synopsis that Hilarion in reality is not just another Outcast, but a “shapechanging fixer” (wait; what? A shape-shifter?) who enforces the will of the upper-class pseudo-regal Landlords.]

One thing leads to another, and Albrecht is found out. Eventually (and obviously unwillingly) he walks off with Batty, whose nose still is stuck up into the air, while he shakes off Giselle, who is attempting to hold him back by his legs, as if she were a disobedient dog.

It’s at this point that the choreography becomes not just good, but extraordinary. To my eye, Giselle isn’t the only one who goes mad; the entire community does. That is, what’s shown emotionally in the original Giselle (faces and body positions that reflect shock and disdain) is here reflected choreographically as the community mass slowly going collectively mad.

Tamara Rojo and English National Ballet
in Akram Khan’s “Giselle”
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Giselle, of course, goes mad on her own. [The program synopsis describes it as follows: “When he [Albrecht] submits and returns to Bathilde, Giselle is driven mad with grief. The Landlord gives a command, and the Outcasts encircle Giselle. When the crowd disperses, her lifeless body is revealed.”] I did see the Outcasts vividly encircling Giselle, but I did not see them obeying any “command” from the Landlord (or Hilarion); it was a brilliant-looking manifestation of the community’s madness. As if to add additional emphasis to the out of control situation, the Wall thereupon turns horizontally on its axis and doesn’t stop until the Act 1 curtain comes down, as if it, too, was responding to the overall calamity.

During the course of Giselle’s mad journey (which at various points includes imagery analogous to the same scene in the original), and instead of cradling her face or body as might be expected, Hilarion pokes her in the stomach. There’s no explanation for this. Later, Albrecht does the same thing, as if to say: “no, that’s my child she’s carrying, not yours.”  It looks very strange. As I’ll mention below, this “stomach-poking” reference, as well as mutual head-cradling, continues at varying intervals throughout of the dance.

That’s Act 1.

As Act 2 begins, the audience sees Albrecht, having followed the entourage to their side of the Wall, obviously railing against the forces that have now permanently separated him from Giselle – and in the process going somewhat mad himself. He confronts each member of the landlord’s entourage, clearly rejecting a connection with any of them (including Batty). After the entourage departs somewhat in disgust, Albrecht walks back to the other side of the Wall, to where the Outcasts are.

And then the audience is introduced to Myrta.

Stina Quagebeur (standing) and Tamara Rojo
in Akram Khan’s “Giselle”
Photo by Juileta Cervantes

Instead of the introductory “bourrées” across the stage as in the original, Myrta here is first seen pulling Giselle’s lifeless body across the stage into Myrta’s world – while bourrée-ing.  It’s a staggeringly vivid scene, which thereafter leads to the most extraordinary scene in the piece. Unlike the original, in this version the Willis (that’s what they’re called here) aren’t spirits who float on their own because they have no corporeal weight. Here they’re just corpses. [The program synopsis describes the Willis (without explaining why they’re called “Willis”) as “ghosts of factory workers who seek revenge for the wrongs done to them in life.”] Through some mystical force, Myrta commands Giselle to consciousness. As Giselle, the Novice Willi, struggles to learn how to be a walking ghost rather than a factory-floor ghost blob, Myrta, who carries a long stick with her (like a dowel), uses it to prod Giselle, at first wobbly and unable to maintain her balance, to keep herself upright and walk like a Willi without quite looking like a zombie.

The viewer soon learns, however, that this stick does double-duty; it’s also a weapon.

At some point, the rest of the Willis enter, each with her own stick, and dance – a scene analogous to the opening dance of the Willis in the original. The choreography here is as brilliant as it is beautiful to watch, with corps patterning that isn’t the same as the original, but which in many ways is better.

Then Hilarion appears, having climbed down from the landlord side of the Wall. He confronts the Giselle ghost, begs forgiveness, and tries to pull her away with him – to where isn’t indicated. It’s as if he’s attempting to carry her back with him; essentially, to claim, or reclaim, her body. Giselle the ghost despises him and fights him off. It’s a brief but epic battle, and another brilliantly conceived and convincingly executed sequence.

The Willis then encircle the evil (shapechanging) Hilarion, and beat him to death with their sticks – which are now wielded like Willi-sized Little John quarterstaffs. Although it’s portrayed as a vicious act – essentially it’s an execution by multiple blunt weapons – it’s also portrayed as a justifiable one. Unlike the original Hilarion, who loved Giselle and was not so much evil as desperate and didn’t deserve his fate, this Hilarion did. And the Novice Giselle watches with approval (and maybe joins in – I don’t specifically recall). The sequence is overwhelmingly powerful  – and my not-so-subtle references to Jerome Robbins’s The Cage are intended.

As in the original, Albrecht then appears (having walked through to the Outcast side of the Wall), and the ballet from that point proceeds much like the original – except the Willis eventually depart, and only Myrta, Giselle, and Albrecht remain. After trying to break the two up (with her stick poking into Giselle’s stomach), Myrta stands aside (in large part because Giselle has successfully fought her off – at one point by poking Myrta in her stomach with Myrta’s own stick) and watches the scene play out.

The ensuing duet seems to last hours not because it’s boringly long, but because it’s so astonishingly well-conceived, choreographed, and executed. It’s the original’s Act 2 set of duet sequences, consolidated, restructured, and unchained. The emotion expressed by the ghost-Giselle here is clearly expressed rather than implicitly suggested, and far exceeds what the spirit-Giselle is able to show in the original without some purists insisting that she’s not allowed to display emotion. Were this an opera (and in some ways Khan’s Giselle is decidedly operatic), this would be its aria.

English National Ballet
in a prior performance of Akram Khan’s “Giselle”
Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Giselle’s actions save Albrecht until the new day dawns (evident from light emanating from both wings; there’s no church bell). Myrta and Giselle walk back toward their ghost underworld, leaving Albrecht to watch in seeming agony (he’s seen in silhouette at this point) as the Wall retreats upstage, eventually – with an image projected against it – converting from a Wall into the perimeter of a forest. This final image is every bit as powerful, if not more, than the final image in the original of Albrecht sobbing over Giselle’s grave and/or walking slowly downstage in stunned disbelief. To me (and I’m sure to others in the audience), it doesn’t inspire tears of sadness: it’s intended to, and does, make the viewer angry.

A few final comments about the production, and the casts I saw.

In future incarnations of the program synopsis, I suggest rethinking the use of the word “shapechanging.” There’s no evidence of Hilarion (or anyone else) shape changing, and its use contradicts the sense of gritty reality that the piece is trying to convey. That’s not to say that making Hilarion clearly evil is a bad thing, or that such collaborations (implicitly compelled by circumstances or not) between certain workers and management don’t happen. History tells us that they do. But don’t use a loaded and unnecessary word like “shapechanger,” which is far too close to “shape-shifter,” and which only leads to a conclusion that everything portrayed on stage is not just fictional, but fake. Call Hilarion a quisling, or a collaborator, or a traitor to his cause or his people, not a shapechanger. I’ve seen shapechangers / shape-shifters on TV, in Star Trek (and maybe, to an extent, in the filmed version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and Hilarion, the one that’s visualized on stage in this production, is not that.

The Wall is a great metaphor for class division. But lending it a “reality” that doesn’t work as a reality based on what’s seen on stage (the Outcasts pining to get back into a factory that’s already closed, or to seek physical security when physical security isn’t an issue, or possibly to escape confinement when there’s no indication that they’re being confined) isn’t helpful. And the assertion that the Outcasts are being used as “exotic entertainment” for the landlords is a loaded generalization made to support an event analogous to one in the original. Although using migrant workers for “exotic entertainment,” or far worse, may happen in reality, here it’s a political statement; there’s no indication to support that from what’s seen on stage.

Last, the continuing visual incidents of rubbing or poking in the stomach, and cradling of the head require some explanation. Maybe it’s a European thing, but a reference to touching one’s heart isn’t shown by poking him/her in the stomach. And even if, perhaps, it’s supposed to relate to a person’s “human essence,” the image is still too close to a “pregnancy” reference. The head-cradling may carry some sort of “you occupy all my thoughts” meaning – or, considering the “shapechanger” (“shape-shifter”) reference, it might just as easily refer to a proposed (or previously performed) Vulcan mind meld. At least on this side of the pond, clarification would help.

But as noted at the outset, there’s so much that’s miraculous about Akram Khan’s Giselle that ultimately these issues don’t really matter.

Erina Takahashi and Isaac Hernández
in a prior performance of Akram Khan’s “Giselle”
Photo by Laurent Liotardo

As for the casts, both Hilarions were very well done. But Cirio explodes off the stage floor, and inhabits his character, in a way that I think no one else can do. Woolhouse, who was very good, is completely different physically. He’s tall and lanky compared to Cirio’s more compact stage presence; there’s more body to move around, so comparing him to Cirio is like comparing a celery stalk to a bowling ball. When Cirio leaves (he’s reportedly returning to Boston Ballet for the upcoming season), the company’s Hilarion will be in good hands. And legs.

As outstanding as Rojo was as Giselle (and she was), Takahashi displayed one quality that I didn’t see in Rojo’s performance. Both were made of iron with soft points that appear at appropriate times, and both executed in ways that no set of adjectives could sufficiently convey. But as strong a character as Rojo’s Giselle is, Takahashi’s had that, as well as a measure of vulnerability that gave her Giselle another relevant dimension.

Isaac Hernández, the opening night’s Albrecht, looked the part and danced with admirable crispness. But Streeter’s Albrecht was, to me, more nuanced. His wasn’t a cookie-cutter, stereotypical regal-ish Albrecht; rather, his portrayal convincingly revealed the emotional roller-coaster ride that his character endured.

Quagebeur and Brouwers alternated in the roles of Myrta and Bathilde. The former’s Myrta was a vicious, Nordic-looking ghost who would make anyone within eyeshot quake in fear. [According to the program, Quagebeur is Belgian, not Scandinavian.] In contrast, her Bathilde, I thought, was a little less strongly conveyed than was the unrestrainably bitchy Bathilde that Brouwers portrayed on opening night. But Brouwers’s Myrta came across as somewhat nice and relatively calm, at least in comparison to Quagebeur’s. Strange.

Junor Souza delivered a superb portrayal of the Landlord – he was as venomous in his way as Quagebeur’s Myrta was in hers. His performance came across far stronger to me than Fabian Reimair’s was on Wednesday, although this evaluation may be a product of my viewpoint, since most of this character’s action takes place audience-left, and I was sitting audience-right.

Finally, the corps on both occasions deserve to be recognized also, and it’s unfortunate that the program does not identify the dancers, or whether there were changes in corps composition between the two performances I saw. [To my eye, some faces were the same, some not.] Regardless, based on my observation of the two performances these ENB dancers don’t fit a particular physical mold as is the case in many American companies, which, at least here, adds a sense of reality to the imagery on stage. I’m tempted to single out one or two of them who appeared particularly impressive to me based on their stage presence, but at least part of that would be based on prior recognition in social media, and it wouldn’t be fair to the others since all did essentially the same work.

The last time I saw English National Ballet it was London Festival Ballet, and it was in London. With the passage of time, or under Rojo’s leadership, or both, much has changed. It will be interesting to see where the company goes under its as yet unannounced new leadership, but I hope it won’t take another 35+ years for me to find out.