Giselle, English National Ballet, directed and choreographed by Akram Kham, co-produced by Manchester International Festival and Sadler’s Wells; September 27 2016.
The English National Ballet’s re-working of the 1841 ballet sees its landscape change from a peasant village to an industrial workhouse, where Giselle (Alina Cojocaru) and her community become the redundant migrant workers of a garment factory. According to Ruth Little, the dramaturg for Akram Khan’s (director-choreographer) company, this reimagining focuses on “the violence of inequality” in the original narrative, as well as in the city of the world premiere: Manchester’s historical global textile industry, and of the birthplace of Khan’s parents, Bangladesh, where she outlines the plight of millions of people currently working in “5,500 garment factories and sweatshops in Bangladesh (80-90% of them women).”
The class and gendered aspects of this violent inequality are apparent in the plot: Albrecht (Isaac Hernández), one of the Landlords of the factory, disguises himself as a factory worker in order to seduce Giselle. Hilarion (Cesar Corrales), an admirer of Giselle, dislikes this new rival, and so clashes with Albrecht. The landlords arrive, and Albrecht hides because he is engaged to Bathilde (another landlord played by Begoña Cao) and does not want to be discovered. He is discovered, and decides to re-join Bathilde, leaving Giselle to die under the orders of the landlords. Act two sees the wilis, the ghosts of the women who have died in the factory, summon Giselle from the dead in order to enact revenge on the men who were responsible for her death. The wilis succeed in murdering Hilarion, but Giselle saves Albrecht from Myrtha (Stina Quagebeur), Queen of the wilis, in an act which the programme argues “break[s] the cycle of violence.”
The first act begins with the factory workers slowly and laboriously pushing a wall, leaving hand prints behind them when they move away. The hand prints became a visual trace of the labour of these workers, the fruit of which is represented through the enormously extravagant costumes of the landlords, in which Giselle recognises her own handiwork. Hands as representative of labour continued as a motif within the choreography which included flexed, stretched and intricate hand movements – one of the great details of Khan’s training in Kathak dance, and splayed hands upon the face also became the signature of the choreography.
The highlight of the first act was the group choreography, as the musical score – an adaptation by Vincenzo Lamagna of the original score by Adolphe Adam – switched to a 2/4 rhythm thrashed out with the clash of hammer on metal. The harsh, repetitive banging worked extremely well with the rhythmic monotony of movement as the dancers reflected the movement of machinery: a rotating wheel, pendulum-like alternations from contraction to high release, and different pockets of repetitive synchronised dance.
The gendered violence became apparent when Albrecht is discovered as one of the landlords; it is Giselle who is punished and shamed by her fellow workers, as the men pull at her and throw her between them. Ultimately, Giselle is killed under the orders of the landlords in order to maintain the reputation of Albrecht. In her dance of death, the women sympathise with Giselle, taking on her anguished motifs of reaching over-extension and collapse whilst the men either stand and watch, or leap between the dancers stretched out on the floor.
If act one was characterised by hands, act two drew attention to feet. In, what Khan calls, the “ghost factory,” the wilis move around the stage with bamboo sticks. As the only characters who wear pointe shoes in the ballet, the way that pointe is utilised in the wilis’ sections highlights the violence inflicted upon ballerinas’ bodies in order to achieve the “ethereal” aesthetic. The strictly learned aspect of this quality is shown in Giselle’s struggle to go up onto pointe, as Myrtha pulls her up onto her toes and places a stick in her mouth to use as balance. The wilis’ thwarted this aesthetic by breaking from their eerily steady and silent courus by occasionally beating down heavily on their pointes, so that you can hear the wooden blocks at the end of the shoes impact the floor in unison.
Although the ending follows the original plotline, it felt, considering the production’s emphasis on class and gendered violence, that to keep this redemptive ending of “love transcends all” was somewhat politically problematic: it left the sacrifice of the female worker for the male landlord untroubled, whilst at the same time Hilarion, a migrant worker, is murdered with no remorse. Fantastically critical and well thought through as the piece was (and wonderfully designed and choreographed) it lost its nerve towards the end by not allowing the worker women to enact their revenge upon the symbol of their violent oppressor – Albrecht.
Despite this, there were stand out performances from Alina Cojocaru whose pas de deux with Isaac Hernández was danced and choreographed spectacularly, and Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha was eerily engaging. Overall – a fantastic production from Manchester International Festival and Sadler’s Wells.