Akram Khan Remakes “Giselle” | The New Yorker
Begin at the wall. A large concrete wall, a Berlin Wall, a U.S.-Mexico wall, an Israeli wall. As the curtain opens on Akram Khan’s “Giselle,” we see a crowd of people pushing against it. Their backs are to us; we feel their weight, see their hands and anonymous bodies cast in shadow and silhouette. One of them is searching for someone. He finds her, and they stand facing each other, without touching, palms open. A moment later, they are separated by a man who roughly claims her, and an intensely physical rhythmic group dance—undulating torsos, fanned hands—engulfs them all. Now herds of people are galloping across the stage, arms thrusting, in a chaos of passage and flight, their seemingly hoofed feet hitting the ground like beating drums as they cross and recross, their bodies strangely bent, half human, half beast.
We are far from the nineteenth-century “Giselle” that is still performed by ballet companies around the world. The Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo, formerly of London’s Royal Ballet, became the director and the lead principal dancer of the English National Ballet, in 2012. Three years later, she commissioned Khan to make this new “Giselle.” It was a bold choice. Khan, a British dancer of Bangladeshi descent, is not a ballet choreographer. Trained in kathak, the northern Indian dance form, he is known for his powerful performances and innovative work with his own troupe, Akram Khan Company, on the contemporary scene. His “Giselle” was first performed, to acclaim, in 2016, in Manchester. I saw it in March, at the Harris Theatre, in Chicago, with Rojo in the title role at its sold-out American première.
Rojo wants to bring ballet out of its too often élite precincts, and she aims to do this in part by reimagining the classical repertoire. She does not share the impulse of many ballet directors to “reconstruct” or cleave as closely as possible to the original music and steps of old dances in the ballet canon. Khan’s “Giselle” is also not a modern-dress staging, like the 1982 version by the Swedish choreographer Mats Ek, in which the second act was set in a mental hospital. Instead, Rojo and Khan have scrapped just about everything of the old ballet, keeping only the barest outlines of the plot. Khan’s “Giselle” has a new score, new décor and costumes, a contemporary setting—migrant laborers in ghostly abandoned factories—and above all a new kind of dancing, which draws on kathak and ballet, on contemporary dance and everyday gesture, on animals and machines. It is a brand-new show haunted by an already haunted dance.
The original “Giselle,” first mounted in 1841, in Paris, with dances by Jean Coralli, who probably had help from Jules Perrot, was a ballet-fantastique, full of pantomime, melodrama, and special effects. The scenario, by Coralli, Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, and Théophile Gautier, told of a sweet girl in a medieval German town who, rather than marry a village boy, falls in love with a duke named Albrecht, who has disguised himself as a commoner in order to woo her. She does not know that he is already betrothed to a glamorous woman of his own social rank, and when she finds out and he returns to his rich fiancée Giselle goes mad and dies. The second act takes place in the kingdom of the Wilis, or “night dancers,” figures inspired in part by the poet Heinrich Heine’s description of mythical brides who die before their wedding day. By moonlight, these “dead bacchantes,” as Heine called them, rise from their graves and “gather together in troops on the roadside” to attack and brutally kill any man who crosses their path, forcing him to dance to death. Giselle, a new initiate into this macabre society, must kill Albrecht, whom she still loves. But she can’t. In spite of herself, she forgives him and releases him to marry. As dawn breaks, she sinks back into her grave.
It was not the plot that made the original ballet so powerful but the Wilis, who were among the earliest dancers to perform on point, appearing to skim the ground and, harnessed to invisible wires, to fly spiritlike above it. These airy creatures, in near-transparent dress, were part of the radical reorientation of ballet in the decades after the French Revolution, away from the courtly and masculine dances of kings and toward a more popular and feminized art of dreams, eroticism, the irrational, and otherworldly flights of imagination. “Giselle” appeared to neatly uphold social hierarchies, but its villagers, and its unabashed use of boulevard-style effects (winged flight!), recalled those revolutionary peasants who, not so long before, had burned to the ground the manorial estates of their overlords. The vengeful women of “Giselle” arrived at a time when male dancers were being shut out of ballet, their roles increasingly taken by women who performed en travesti.
In the ensuing decades, “Giselle” was restaged—and changed—by French ballet masters working in Russia. By the eighteen-eighties, the once free-spirited Wilis had been regimented into strict formations, a development that persists in productions today. It was an ironic turn: this balletic child of revolution and Romanticism was now rescaled to imperial grandeur. In Europe and America in the twentieth century, the ballet changed again. And why not? Dance has always been an oral and a physical tradition, and ballets are constantly forgotten, misremembered, revised, and reinvented. No one knows what the original 1841 “Giselle” really looked like. The idea of an authentic nineteenth-century ballet repertoire that might be accurately reproduced is a twentieth-century myth.
Like ballet, kathak contains deep reservoirs of popular culture and has elusive, often vaguely documented origins. Its characteristic upright stance, precision spinning, and fast, rhythmically complicated footwork, along with its emphasis on storytelling and devotional practices, have been traced to Hindu and Muslim traditions, to court dances and to the entertainment of village storytellers, to religious rituals and to the erotic gestures of courtesans and cross-dressing dancers. Kathak was at times the province of male performers in a hereditary line; it was eventually taken up by non-hereditary female dancers. The scholar Margaret E. Walker tells us that it was only in the years leading up to Independence, under the influence of Indian nationalism and a strong desire to establish a supposed ancient, pre-colonial Indian tradition, that the various threads of this dance were finally gathered and codified. The emphasis was then on Brahman and Hindu Vedic sources, a focus that sent later generations in search of kathak’s other cultural and social roots.
Khan grew up studying kathak, and he has devoted years to mastering both its discipline and its formal vocabulary and to expanding its boundaries. Michael Jackson was an early influence, and in his youth Khan was part of the English theatre director Peter Brook’s controversial nine-hour interpretation of the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. In his work with his own company, Khan has experimented, too, with contemporary dance, to the point that his own distinctive kathak style has at times been overpowered by a more generic postmodern emphasis on arrhythmic pedestrian movement and conceptual abstraction. Khan’s “Giselle,” and the ways that ballet and kathak meld so fluidly in his hands, suggests that ballet, with its attention to formal skill and poetic gesture, is a surprisingly natural match.
The music is by the Italian composer Vincenzo Lamagna and includes lyrical passages for strings and orchestra, along with static white noise, fierce drumming, and human grunting, stamping, and humming. Lamagna, who is not classically trained, worked closely with Gavin Sutherland, the music director of the English National Ballet, who transcribed the music for symphony orchestra. Khan asked Lamagna to keep something of the original charming but slight ballet score, by Adolphe Adam, and the resulting programmatic composition, noted as “after” Adam, is somewhere between edgy electronic soundscape and West End entertainment. Adam’s horn call announcing the arrival of Albrecht’s betrothed and the royal entourage is reinterpreted by Lamagna as an eerie air-raid-like blaring.
The sets and costumes are by the Hong Kong-born designer Tim Yip, best known for his imaginative work with Ang Lee on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Yip’s Wilis are not the pristine white-tulle troops of the nineteenth century but a tattered army that looks as though it has survived the war-torn twentieth century to live among us still. Yip presents us, too, with the wall and, when it lifts, the regal entourage, in their glittering wealth, standing on the other side like mannequins. This tableau vivant of corseted dancers encased in seventeenth-century hoopskirts resembles a painting by Velázquez inflected with contemporary haute-couture decadence. The lighting, by Mark Henderson, bathes the dancers in ruby reds, heavy chiaroscuro, and strong conelike spots of thick, misty air.
The dances seem to grow out of this visual and aural world. As with the original “Giselle,” it is not the plot (worked out with the dramaturge Ruth Little) that carries the ballet. The dancers may benefit from the backstories, explained in the program notes, of sweatshops and the ravages of global capitalism, but what matters to us is the dancing. Hands are perhaps Khan’s greatest tool and metaphor: Giselle trying to find her beloved by following a trail of handprints on the wall until finally their hands meet and hers fit into his. Her hand placed flat across his whole face, a tender but blinding gesture that winds into a mellifluous balletic pas de deux, hand to hand to body. Or the rivals insulting each other with a sharp, arrogant gesture of flicking dust or dirt from their imagined finery. From this single motion, Khan builds an almost martial dance of male preening that opens into mesmerizing circles and percussive ritual rounds of shoulder-to-shoulder men, each flicking at his lapels. Later, Albrecht violently withdraws his hand from Giselle’s and flings her to the ground. In silence—or, rather, in the static white noise of his addled brain—he slowly walks to his betrothed and extends his hand to her in a simple courtly gesture. He escorts her away from the still flung-down Giselle. When they are gone, she rises, and her hand shakes.
Giselle goes mad with her whole body; Rojo performs compulsive contractions and extensions of such force that she seems to be turning inside out. At one point, the movement abruptly catches, and she momentarily freezes in a cross-armed pose of death. As she dances, she is repeatedly yanked in and out of this fleeting physical death wish. She doesn’t writhe: her movement is rigorously controlled as she vainly attempts to restrain her breaking mind with the rules of physical form. Nor does she kill herself—she doesn’t have to. The community circling her becomes the chorus of her sacrificial death. This is the realm of ritual, the Rite of Spring, and the supposed peasant dances that inspired it. The circle gains momentum, and Giselle is a still point at its center, already quietly gone from the world churning around her. As she perishes, the herds begin galloping again.
The Wilis are disorienting: part animal, part ghost, part woman. The first to emerge comes alone, hobbling on point and dragging Giselle’s corpse behind her, like dead prey. As her fellow-Wilis assemble and Giselle revives, we find ourselves in a sabbath of barely clad witches with loosened hair and sharp bamboo canes that they thump loudly on the ground while they jab their toes into the floor like percussive instruments rhythmically beating against the music’s wailing. They are killers, and when the rival lover strays into their midst Giselle watches as they seduce, entrap, and impale him in their own sacrificial dance. Albrecht is next, but Giselle can’t do it. As their lyrical pas de deux comes to an end, the lead Wili forcibly separates them with her cane and occupies herself with the errant Giselle, who must be brought into line. Knowing her fate, Giselle takes the cane and pushes one end into her own gut and the other into the Wili’s, joining them in a secret pact. She has no choice but to follow as she is drawn into the Wilis’ inner sanctum, under the wall, which swivels closed behind her.
Rojo, dancing Giselle, gives us no facile resolution. Her sympathies are not with her sisters-in-arms, and, as she departs, the shadow of her body—this is the kind of dancer she is—seems to remain with her lover on our side of the wall. She is loyal not to the politics of betrayal but to the erotics of love, which in her body has the simple hue of emotional fact. It would have been easy for her or for Khan to wink toward feminine empowerment or #MeToo. It’s all there in “Giselle.” Instead, we realize that the whole Wili act has been not about vengeance but about grief and mourning. We have skipped over his guilt and her rage, been turned away from the difficult facts of their inner lives and brought back to ritual: the wall, the herd, the sacrificial death, the Wilis’ violent collective grief. As anyone who has loved and lost knows, the final image is not of the ghost who is departed. It is of the man at the wall. ♦