AKRAM KHAN’S GISELLE at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House

Judith Zeng

Review: AKRAM KHAN'S GISELLE at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House

Brooklyn is haunted by broken-hearted (and quite possibly broken-footed) women. After touring the world, the English National Ballet’s seminal production of Akram Khan’s Giselle, starring Artistic Director Tamara Rojo in the leading role (for two nights only), graces the stage of BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House.

It’s a tremendous challenge to attempt to intellectualize something so profound in its physical and emotional expression. Symbolic depth is paired with an austere simplicity and executed with almost inhuman ability in physical and emotional storytelling. At the end of Act I, when the curtain hit the stage, I turned to my companion, a dancer and teaching artist, to ask her thoughts. “I have no words, just feelings,” she responded. That sentiment pretty much sums up the experience of watching Akram Khan’s Giselle.

I first encountered the work of Khan, an English dancer/choreographer of Bangladeshi descent, in the flesh last year at The Sibiu International Theatre Festival (FITS) in Sibiu, Romania. The piece was called Outwitting the Devil and featured a much smaller cast than Giselle but was no less physically or emotionally demanding.

Like Giselle, it dealt with similar themes of ghostly realms, a sort of purgatory in this case, which makes me sense Khan’s interest and ability to bring aspects of fear and otherworldliness into his works. The punishing physicality and humanity beyond the horror made Outwitting the Devil blaze into my memory and stir my emotions. I knew this was a choreographer I wanted to keep a keen eye on.

Giselle is a collaborative effort, and it shows. It was commissioned in 2016 by accomplished Spanish prima ballerina Tamara Rojo as a newly appointed Artistic Director of the English National Ballet. Rojo wanted to create something that would make a mark and become a signature piece for the company under her vision. Khan, whose background is Kathak, Indian classical dance, and contemporary dance instead of ballet, was not a likely choice.

But great risks can bear great rewards, and Giselle became a global sensation. Khan’s lack of familiarity with ballet’s sometimes rigid structures and styles offered freedom to not only invent a new lexicon of movement but add a new accent to a pre-existing vocabulary. Rojo, with her exceptional technique paired with extraordinary emotional depth and physical storytelling ability, further sculpted the work by taking on the role of the tragic heroine. Rojo, now 48, has chosen this part and tour as her swan song. She’ll take her final bow as a dancer in Giselle this October in Paris.

Rojo and Khan’s Giselle for the English National Ballet is not the traditional Giselle like the one that premiered in Paris in 1841, nor is it a dreaded “updated version” where the company dons urban garb and dances to pop songs. One major shift, though, takes the timeless themes of love, betrayal, judgment, and vengeance and makes them more relevant today; instead of peasant villagers, Giselle and her community are migrant garment factory workers dubbed The Outcasts.

Review: AKRAM KHAN'S GISELLE at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House
Tamara Rojo as Giselle and Isaac Hernández as Albrecht in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Photo by Juileta Cervantes.

As Act I opens, when the smoke clears and the dim lights (courtesy of the exquisite lighting design by Mark Henderson) lift, The Outcasts are revealed, the corps de ballet with the overture. The women wear frayed, threadbare dresses, and the men are clothed in tunics and trousers. They are closed in by a menacing “wailing wall” from the imagination of Tim Yip, who is also responsible for the costumes. The wall separates the Landlords from The Outcasts and is decorated with dirty handprints, a sad reminder of attempts to escape or pleas for help from the absent providers who care little for the community’s needs. Each gets their moment in the spotlight before they pull back to reveal the leads — Giselle (Tamara Roja), her paramour Albrecht (Isaac Hernández), and Hilarion (Jeffrey Cirio), who desires her for his own.

But a wolf lurks among the flock. Albrecht is one of the elites who disguised himself to go “slumming” and take on Giselle as a lover. Hilarion senses this and confronts Albrecht through aggressive yet elegant, vibrant movements executed by Cirio with flawless technique and expressiveness that set the tone for the entire production. Instantly one recognizes balletic moves juxtaposed with elements of contemporary dance and Khan’s signature classical Indian Kathak. The fusion never feels messy but instead demonstrates the range of human passions.

But Giselle refutes Hilarion’s advances for Albrecht’s attention. The lovers separate themselves from the crowd, and with limbs intertwined, they explore the acrobatics of how bodies balance while holding a constant embrace, as if trying to merge into one entity. Carefully chosen components of classical (European and Eastern) and contemporary dance weave together to express lovemaking in the most exhilarating and enchanting pas de deux I’ve ever seen. The lovers’ (re)union is repeated in the second act under much sadder circumstances and is even more excruciatingly beautiful.

Coitus interuptus is caused by the entrance of The Landlords, altered by an ominous, pervasive tone provided by Vincenzo Lamagna, Composition and Sound Design, after the original score by Adolphe Adam. In Akram Khan’s Giselle, the music is less a sweeping score than a harrowing soundscape that echoes the feelings of what’s to come, often unsettling and foreboding.

The fate of these migrant workers is in the Landlords’ hands in multiple ways, but they are viewed as subhuman, visually demonstrated in their movements, which include an intense and rapid trotting across the stage while thrashing their arms; like a horse or “workhorse.” While Albrecht hides, fearing his dalliances with Giselle will be unveiled, the scorned Hilarion yields to his role as a sort of henchman for The Landlords, donning a bowler hat that gives him a Clockwork Orange vibe — dashing yet dangerous.

The Landlords starkly contrast The Outcasts in every way. Their gestures are slow and deliberate, upright and coming from stillness. They move like barely animate statutes or chess pieces, which leads to a sense of elitism and looking down upon the other. The Outcasts’ movements are folksy, feral, and earthy, potent with emotion, broad and symbolic. Yip’s costumes reflect the divide strikingly; The Landlords’ elaborate garments resemble the Capitol families’ lavish adornments in the Hunger Games and Comme des Garçons’ or Alexander McQueen’s wildest couture creations.

The lovers are discovered, and Albrecht’s infidelities to his elite fiancée Bathilde are revealed. Giselle, bearing the fruit of their affection, is consumed with grief. She’s driven to madness as The Landords look down upon her. Albrecht spurns her, refusing to forsake his life of privilege for love. Hilarion attempts to comfort her and bear the burden, but both worsen her fate. She is encircled by The Outcasts who mimic a sea of sorrow and dies of a broken heart.

While concerns of love and betrayal date back to when humans first comprehended emotions, recognizing the injustices caused by inequality and dehumanization are age-old issues to which society is finally waking up. The faces and races of the oppressed may change, just as migrants in 2016 might look different from a new wave of refugees fleeing their homes today in 2022, but the problem persists. Giselle offers a hefty load to process all before the first curtain falls.

Review: AKRAM KHAN'S GISELLE at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House
Stina Quagebeur (Myrna, Queen of the Wilis) hovers over the lifeless body of Giselle. Photo by Juileta Cervantes.

Act II takes place in the underworld, where the complexities of society and roles are reduced to more singular, haunting, and all-consuming feelings. Judgment is cast upon Albrecht, whose fellow elites stand motionless while he pleads his case with physical fervor. Giselle is trapped in purgatory for women who perished from broken hearts; not only from betrayal in love but from lives unfulfilled by their arduous lives as factory workers, human beings reduced to mere cogs in a machine. These poor souls are dubbed the Wilis, led by Myrtha (Stina Quagebeur), their queen.

As Myrtha, the Belgian-born Quagebeur with her pale pallor and platinum blond hair, seems to glow. She floats too, as do the other Wilis who remain en pointe or in bourrée — the ballet move where the legs are straight, and a series of tiny steps are taken en pointe giving the appearance of gliding — for nearly the entire act. Myrtha drags a limp and lifeless Giselle into her new reality carrying the weight of a woman and all her sorrows from the tips of her toes. These women, to whom life has been so unforgiving and cruel, teach Giselle to harden her heart.

There is a density in their loftiness; they are lifted yet tethered. The result is otherworldly and creates the ghostly illusion of being undead. The Wilis carry sticks. Rather than offering support or relief from their painful position, they pound these bamboo rods on the ground as their fluttering feet become thunderous. The pointe work is taken to the floor, and they contort into positions that evoke the demonic spirits from The Exorcist. It’s genuinely frightening to witness!

As painful and punishing as the movements are, it’s impossible to look away, like peeking through your fingers to catch a glimpse of the scariest moment in a movie, knowing that it may bring nightmares. But the choreography isn’t based on horror-show magic tricks meant to provoke a shallow thrill but to stir the soul profoundly and make one ponder the horrors of humanity, of what dehumanization does to a person.

By holding a mirror to our ugliest aspects as a society where division and imbalance reign, Giselle offers a choice to continue down that dark path or break the cycle of violence and separateness. The forces that end Giselle and Hilarion’s life ultimately reunite her with Albrecht, who joins her as an Outcast in eternity once she rescues him from the fury of the Wilis. The tragic tale offers a shimmer of hope and redemption, even in the afterlife.

Khan is uncompromising in his choreographic vision. He brings his roots in classical Kathak training and contemporary dance to the piece and uses balletic movements in fresh, new ways that broaden their impact. His lack of experience with ballet made him watch the performers differently and make new, bold choices. The alchemy of all of the elements combined creates pure gold. The difficulty and unnaturalness of the movements make the performers appear otherworldly because they are pushed to the edge of the boundaries of what is physically possible. Like Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring for Tanztheater Wuppertal, it marks a seminal work not only for Khan, Rojo, and the English National Ballet but for dance in the 21st century.

Akram Khan’s Giselle leaves one speechless, breathless and gasping for air. The piece transcends the rigidity of any genre or style and elevates the story of heartache and consequences to a spiritual level. It’s a testament to the possibilities of the human mind, body and spirit. Talking about it could never do it the justice it merits. It must be witnessed and allowed to wash over you, sink beneath the surface, and enter your soul. Giselle is the art that wakes up the dead parts inside of you and kindles them back to life again.

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