Bristol Hippodrome theatre review: Giselle

Vivienne Kennedy reviews Akram Khan’s Giselle, performed by English National Ballet at Bristol Hippodrome where it plays until Saturday 22 October

If I had to describe director and choreographer Akram Khan’s new production of Giselle in one word I would probably pick “sublime”, despite having to admit that much of the time I had no idea what was going on!

Created in 1841, Giselle was originally set in medieval Germany, a classic romantic ballet telling a story of love, betrayal and forgiveness. Khan has moved the action to the current day, emphasising the imbalance of wealth, power and labour and the plight of economic migrants and refugees, using a huge wall to make the divisions clear.

The programme notes are excellent and perhaps I should have arrived at the theatre a little earlier to give myself time to read them before the curtain went up. That said, I followed enough of the plot to have my emotions thoroughly wrung out and although I didn’t quite get it all, it didn’t matter one iota because the dancing and music is spectacular and actually it was good to focus on that without worrying about the story.  There is so much to see, so much to take in, by the end of Act One my eyes were aching from the effort of trying not to blink.

Led by principals Tamara Rojo, James Streeter, Cesar Corrales and Stina Quagebeur as Giselle, Albrecht, Hilarion and Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, the company made Khan’s choreography look effortless, blending classical steps and techniques with North Indian Kathak and contemporary dance to produce something that looks very new, rather unusual, and, quite simply, beautiful. I imagine any dancers in the audience would have left the theatre champing at the bit to get into the studio, full of inspiration for their own work.

The music, composed by Vincenzo Lamagna after the original score by Adolphe Adam and played by the English National Ballet Philharmonic, conducted by Gavin Sutherland, is equally spectacular – the sort of music that gets properly into your head while surrounding you at the same time, almost playing with your sense of hearing. It combines melodies, bars and whole short sections from the original with industrial sounds, building from a gentle hum or buzz to great crescendos but also incorporating moments of silence when the audience held its collective breath to listen to that of the dancers.

Academy Award winning designer Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) has mainly kept things simple, but oh so very effective. The only scenery is the wall I mentioned earlier. It gets pushed backwards…it slides slowly forwards…and at the end of Act One it spins on its axis, symbolising Giselle’s journey from life to death. The costumes for Giselle and her fellow workers are light, almost ragged but he’s gone to town on the costumes for the landlords, the rich people who hold all the power; they wear rich, sumptuous fabrics – clothes that are definitely not for working in…clothes that influence the way they hold themselves and move.

It is impossible to do justice to this production in one short review so I’ll end by saying that it plays at Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday and I’d love to see it again.

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Image: Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez in Akram Khan’s Giselle (c) Laurent

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