English National Ballet (ENB) are fast becoming one of the most intriguing companies at work in the UK today. Under the artistic direction of Tamara Rojo, they have collaborated with choreographers from a variety of different backgrounds, the latest being celebrated contemporary-kathak choreographer Akram Khan. Khan was invited to re-imagine the romantic ballet Giselle, and it is refreshing that for once, a choreographer has fully embraced an opportunity to transform a work from the past. Unlike others, Khan does not merely change the costumes and ‘add a bit of floor work’ to contemporise Giselle. Instead, he completely reconfigures the movement language, musical score and thematic concepts to create a harsh, theatrical work which is influenced by, yet still severely contrasts its predecessor.

Khan re-contextualises Giselle, setting it in an oppressive textile factory run by an affluent family of exploitative industrial tycoons. Inspired by Manchester’s textile industry and Khan’s roots in Bangladesh, he seeks to explore imbalance of wealth, power and labour in industrial settings. Giselle undeniably explores these themes, presenting a stark contrast between the community of migrant factory workers and their omnipotent overlords. The peasant masses are costumed simply. The females are clothed in plain dresses reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring (parallels to Bausch can also be made regarding the intensity of emotion displayed throughout the work). Conversely, the factory landlords are adorned with lavish, opulent clothing similar to the eccentric fashions displayed by Capital-dwelling characters in the Hunger Games. They appear otherworldly as they glide forward from underneath the concrete background – designed by Tim Yip – which seems to metaphorically symbolise the class divide between workers and employers. This concept of divisive walls is also mirrored in Khan’s choreography, as the dancers execute impressive spatial patterns that morph, dissipate and reform to create divisions between the eponymous Giselle and her lover Albrecht, who are doomed to separation due to their contrasting roles in the capitalist hierarchy.

The sound score – composed by Vincenzo Lamagna – is extremely industrial, reflecting Khan’s thematic concerns. Harsh, elongated noises are comparable to factory horns or machinery. One repeated sound is reminiscent of a pickaxe, and conjures images of laborious physical labour befitting the dancer’s chain-gang like movements. At other moments, the music feels almost Balkan in genre, and greatly facilitates Khan’s folk dance inspired choreography. Although at times the staccato wrist flicks feel as if they are emulating the trademark style of Hofesh Shechter, it is stimulating to witness Khan embracing stylistic exploration opposed to resorting to repeating the same choreographic formula that permeates his oeuvre.

The influence of folk dance is most notable during a section in which the peasant workers unite in ritualistic dance in front of their bourgeois employers. They appear to be performing monkeys, transitioning between quirky folk motifs and harsh phalanxes of subservient floor work. In line with the theme of division, there appears to be a strong sense of gender segregation. Whilst there are many moments when both sexes come together, the testosterone fuelled display of masculinity lead by Hilarion, followed by the desperate female unison phrases appear poignantly disparate. This notion is also visible in the second act, in which there is a tension between the supernatural Wilis – whom Giselle has joined through death – and the two males who discover them in their “ghost factory” dwelling. The Wilis themselves are like the warrior princesses of the Roman goddess Diana, and aggressively command the stage in a display of feminine strength and supremacy. They violently beat sticks rhythmically on the floor, creating a ritualistic atmosphere that unsettlingly suggests their murderous intentions.

Giselle, more than anything is a visual spectacle. The accumulation of Khan’s transformative vision, a severe, effecting musical score, Tim Yip’s breathtaking design, and the sheer athleticism and emotional intensity of ENB’s performers creates a work that presents the audience with a tour de force of human emotion and the effects of capitalist hierarchy on human relationships.

Akram Khan’s Giselle is running at Sadler’s Wells until 23 September 2017. For more information and tickets see The Giselle website. 

Photo: Laurent Liotardo