Economic strife fuels English National Ballet’s 'Giselle'

You may think the ballet “Giselle” is about love, betrayal and redemption, but in Akram Khan’s modern reimagining of the classic tale for the English National Ballet (ENB), economic strife fuels the story.

You can catch a performance of ENB’s exclusive North American premiere of “Giselle” Feb. 28 through Mar. 2 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Acclaimed dancer/choreographer Khan has built an international reputation for his innovative fusion of the kathak form of Asian dance and modern dance. In “Giselle,” his first full-length ballet, he nods to the original 1841 classic, choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.

"When I decided I wanted to bring 'Giselle,' one of the most traditional pieces of the classical repertoire, into the 21st Century,” says English National Ballet artistic director and dancer Tamara Rojo on the ENB website, “there was only one choreographer I believe had both the knowledge of tradition and creativity necessary for this task.”

Dancer/choreographer Khan, born in London of Bangladeshi parents, began studying kathak dance at the age of seven. He began his stage career in a 1984-85 tour of “The Adventures of Mowgli,” a production of the Academy of Indian Dance, and by the age of thirteen, he was cast in Peter Brooks’ Shakespeare Company production of “Mahabharata,” touring the world from 1987-89.

His later training led him to study contemporary dance at DeMontfort University and performing arts at the Northern School of Concert Dance. He began performing his own solo work in the 1990s. He established The Akram Khan Dance Company in 2000. One of his company’s greatest milestones was the creation of a section of the 2012 London Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.

“The rules were simple,” he is quoted on his website. “Take risks, think big and daring, explore the unfamiliar, avoid compromise, and tell stories through dance that are compelling and relevant, with artistic integrity.”

Today Khan, a Member of the Order of the British Empire, is an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells Theatre and at the Curve Theatre in Leicester, England. “Giselle” is a co-production between the English National Ballet, Khan’s own company, and Sadler’s Wells Theater. It was first produced as part of the Manchester International Festival in September, 2016.

In choosing “Giselle,” Khan and his collaborators saw a perfect opportunity to model a modern-day story that would resonate with today’s audiences. The economic disparity that separates the privileged class from the impoverished dictates the quality and scope of relationships and the social injustice that ensues. These themes are present in the original, although love and betrayal are traditionally emphasized. Even so, whether you are looking at 18th-century European feudalism or 21st century industrial injustice, parallel issues underscore the tale of unrequited love.

The original story has Giselle, a peasant girl of fragile emotional constitution, falling in love with Albrecht, a nobleman moonlighting as a peasant. Betrothed to a noblewoman whom he neither loves nor cares to marry, Albrecht’s aristocratic station prohibits his hobnobbing with lower social strata. When Hilarion, a peasant lad in love with Giselle, discovers Albrecht’s deception, he reveals the betrayal. Shocked by the revelation, Giselle goes mad and dies.

In Act Two, Albrecht grieves at Giselle’s grave and is confronted by the Wilis, a tulle-clad species of supernatural forest creatures reincarnated from jilted virgins who take their revenge on any man they encounter by dancing him to death. Giselle, now a Wili candidate herself, rises from her grave, intervenes on Albrecht’s behalf, forgives him and saves his life.

In Khan’s 21st century “Giselle,” the class difference, love, betrayal and redemption remain intact. Giselle and the peasant villagers are now migrant garment factory workers, “The Outcasts.” Albrecht is a wealthy landlord of the now-closed factory, pretending to be a migrant. The Wilis, according to The New York Times’ Roslyn Sulcas in her 2016 review of the premiere, evoke sheer terror with their anger, embodying “a collective female rage that feels far from the gauzy prettiness of the traditional ballet.”

Production dramaturg Ruth Little sees “Giselle” as the story of how economics dictates relationships. In a video interview on the ENB website, she asks, “What would happen if you remove romance?….You have people of great power and privilege versus people of poverty and powerlessness….These stories of inequality are the great prevailing problems of our times.” Khan is familiar with the terrible working conditions that led to tragedy in the Bangladeshi garment industry. “The Wilis have been betrayed by industry and industrialists who have put them in these horrific and dangerous conditions,” Little explains.

Composer/sound designer Vincenzo Lamagna’s music, after Adolph Adam’s original score, combines elements of Indian tabla, classical music, drumming, vocalizations and ambient soundscapes. The eclectic combination of textures, rhythms and sounds reflects and partners dramatically with the choreography, which is big and forceful. The pelvis and the upper torso’s huge spirals whip arms and legs across space and propel locomotion to and from the floor and into the air. Khan melds the gestures of kathak dance with the deep contractions, level changes and upper-body isolations of modern dance to create epic tension in his storytelling.

Sulcas describes Khan’s “Giselle” as “a beautiful and intelligent remaking of the beloved 1841 classic, and probably—and improbably—the best work Mr. Khan has created.” In doing so, he took many risks, she says, including a style not suited to classical ballet, a new score and attempting his first-ever full-length ballet. “What is most powerful….is its abstraction into the elemental: the love between the principal pair, the community’s vitality….”

Lighting design from Tony Award-winner Mark Henderson and set and costume design by Academy-Award winner Tim Yip place Khan’s “Giselle” in front of a huge, rotating wall. Neutral dresses and slacks make these migrants a global symbol of the underclass.

The Harris Theater brings 95 members of the English National Ballet to this exclusive Chicago engagement, with live music by the Chicago Philharmonic Society, for the company’s first trip across the Atlantic in 30 years. We can thank Harris Theater President and CEO Patricia Barretto, Harris trustees Caryn and King Harris, as well as the Harris Family Foundation, Abby McCormick O’Neil, and D. Carroll Jones for this extraordinary event. Thanks indeed!


"Giselle" takes place Thursday, February 28th and Friday, March 1st at 7:30 PM, and Saturday, March 2nd at 2 PM and 7:30 PM at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 East Randolph Street, Chicago. Tickets are nearly sold out. For more information, click the event page below.