As the English National Ballet prepares to bring its stunning take on Giselle to Ireland, Ellie O’Byrne hears how the production has been informed by the Bangladeshi origins of the choreographer.
Pastoral scenes of German peasants at harvest time in the Rhineland are replaced by migrant workers in a desolate world of ghost factories in choreographer Akram Khan’s electrifying 21st century reimagining of Giselle, as performed by the English National Ballet.
It’s the classic doomed love story of Giselle and Albrecht, the nobleman who falls in love with her, set in a bleakm landscape laden with geo-political commentary and a series of breath-taking visual tableaux: the moment at which the ruling class, dubbed “The Landlords” by Khan, make their entry is accompanied by an audible intake of breath from hushed audiences.
Soloist James Streeter, who plays the part of Albrecht, says audience responses create a magical atmosphere for the performers on stage.
“You can hear a pin drop,” he says. “That tension and energy from the audience makes it onto the stage with us; we feed off that. There’s nothing like it, and we feel it throughout the whole show.”
There are so many visual moments of surprise for the audience in this production that describing some would constitute a spoiler.
Chinese costume designer and art director Tim Yip, best known for his Academy Award-winning work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is the man with the vision: his costume designs for the authoritarian figures of the nobles are fairy-tale, but the stuff of nightmares too.
Set to an ominously industrial score by composer Vincenzo Lamagna, and orchestrated by ENB’s musical director Gavin Sutherland, it’s a stunningly original and contemporary work.
But ballet fans will be familiar with the tragic plot of the ballet, which remains unchanged: after Giselle dies of a broken heart, she is resurrected to save her high-born lover, before returning to the grave. Albrecht is left alone.
Each performance is both emotionally and physically taxing for Streeter: “It takes me two hours to get over what we’ve just done. I’m left there at the end with nothing, and it’s quite hard.”
Physically, Streeter has been pushed to his limits by the choreography of London-born Khan, whose family is of Bangladeshi origin.
Khan is a classically trained Kathak dancer, and the fusion of movements born of Kathak tradition with ballet and contemporary is one of the most exciting things about this 21st century Giselle.
But they require the dancers of the English National Ballet to push themselves to extremes and work on an entirely new visual language. For Streeter, who worked with Khan on the critically acclaimed Dust, this challenge is a treat as well as a trial, a life-changing encounter that has changed his perceptions of dance.
“We worked a lot on gestures and did hand exercises and stretching,” Streeter says. “It’s amazing to see the precision and detail, and what can be achieved with the hands. I think anything like this makes you a more complete dancer. Taking what I’ve learned from this, and putting it into such a classical role, changes what I think of that role.”
There’s a satisfyingly dynamic machismo in what this fusion of styles brings to the male dancers’ roles: in particular, the character of Albrecht’s love-rival Hilarion, danced with animalistic fervour and extreme physicality, and with whom Albrecht shares an explosive — and physically taxing — fight scene.
“Overcoming the pain can be a challenge,” Streeter says. “But speak to any dancer: there’s never a day where you wake up and feel ‘great, everything’s fine today with my body,’ because you’re putting your body through extremis, the limits of what you are capable of. We push ourselves to achieve and achieve and achieve, striving for the impossible, which is perfection.”
Khan’s social commentary in the ballet is clear: the new peasant class are the dispossessed, the migrants, and the world they inhabit is one of ghost factories closed by globalising forces.
Almost a character in its own right, and dominating the stage, is a vast wall. What lies behind? We don’t know, but it’s home to “The Landlords”, the noble class to which Albrecht belongs: engaged to Bathilde, a member of the upper orders, Albrecht’s dalliance with Giselle is a transgression.
It seems no coincidence that Khan, with his Bangladeshi heritage, has hit upon the modern setting of factories.
His terrifying reimaging of the ghostly Wilis in the ballet blanc of act two sees them portrayed as dead garment makers: sweatshop labour.
It’s a powerful and pointed message. In Bangladesh, 3.5 million workers work in sweatshops, stitching the type of clothes that Giselle’s audiences, safe in the land beyond the wall, wear to the theatre each night.
Streeter, though, steers clear of political commentary, the better to focus on his task of interpreting Albrecht.
“My concentration is on Albrecht, and using the original as an influence as well as what Akram Khan wanted to put across,” he says.
It’s Albrecht’s willingness to dabble in infidelity in the first place that causes him to fall in love with, and ultimately cause the death of, Giselle.
In the mid-19th century, it was regarded as a noble’s right to take their pick of pretty peasant girls, but against a 21st century backdrop, this hardly makes him a likeable character, does it?
Streeter is keen to point out that Albrecht is as much the victim of social stratification as Giselle herself is.
“I don’t think he means bad: he’s been put in a situation,” he says. “He didn’t choose who he was going to marry. I think he believes that we’re all equal, and he’s found his true love. He also does try to tell Giselle who he is, but she doesn’t listen.”
The role of Giselle in the production, which premiered in 2016 and has toured the UK and internationally since, was originally danced by Spanish lead principal dancer Tamara Rojo, also the English National Ballet’s artistic director and a formative force in the decision to enlist Khan for Giselle.
Now, it’s shared by lead principal Erina Takahashi, who is also Streeter’s wife, and two other lead soloists, Alina Cojocaru and Crystal Costa.
Although his first choice of partner in all roles is Takahashi, he says, he’s also full of praise for Rojo.
“Because we’ve worked a lot together, I can read her really well so even with one look, I know what she’s saying,” he says of Rojo. “It shows what an incredible artist she is, that she can convey so much feeling, even through that first touch between Giselle and Albrecht that leads us through the ballet.”
It’s a role that will live forever for 31-year-old Streeter, and a formative experience in his dance career.
“The great thing about what I’ve learned from working with Akram is to never go into a show with any expectations as to what’s going to happen,” he says. “Just allow yourself to be truly in the moment, and let that carry you through the performance. You can’t help but go deeper then, when you’re on stage.”
Akram Khan’s Giselle is presented in association with Dublin Dance Festival. It runs from the 2nd – 6th of May at Dublin’s Bórd Gais Energy Theatre. Tickets: www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie