An exhilarating night at the Harris for Akram Khan's 'Giselle'

Last night’s North American premiere of the English National Ballet (ENB) and Akram Khan’s “Giselle” at the Harris Theater was, hands down, the most exhilarating night of ballet I have ever seen. 

Situated within the Romantic ballet canon, "Giselle" has been staged, reworked, and reevaluated countless times by hundreds of companies since its original debut in 1841. Khan’s version, which originally premiered with ENB in 2016, offers a truly unique interpretation of the classic tale. Its strength is not so much related to its reimagining—set in a dreary community of out-of-work migrants, emphasizing the relatable divide between the haves and have-nots who, in this case, are literally separated by a massive and insurmountable wall— but in its approach to the physical vocabulary of the ballet. Contemporary, yes, but even beyond that technical classification this piece thumped with a physicality that had me bowled over, pinned to my seat, holding my breath. 

It is a thrill to see classically trained ballet dancers who are generally taught to be light on their feet and upright in their stature, sink deep into their joints and plant themselves firmly in the ground. It’s a rare dancer who can do both and it turns out the English National Ballet is a company full of dancers who do it exquisitely. Their collective visceral energy was expertly tempered; harnessed inward and down when executing the assembly line-type grind of labor, then exploding outward and beyond when demonstrating their will to not only survive, but thrive past the confines of their class. Khan’s choreography utilized deep second position squats, puffed and tilted torsos, broadly stretched arms with craggy bent elbows, snarled wrists and splayed fingers to emphasize the presence of both power and other-ness in this group of disenfranchised workers. The ensemble dominated the stage, sweeping wide and low, at times scurrying and galloping like animals, at other times standing tall and proud in their folk-dance formations and unison step demonstrations. Shifting seamlessly from one way of moving to another, their performances remained energetically super-charged. With the help of the tremendous score adapted by Vincenzo Lamagna—after the original by Adolphe Adam—played triumphantly by the Chicago Philharmonic, tensions escalated to such an extreme that the entire auditorium was transfixed to the stage. 

Alina Cojocaru in the title role of Giselle, was specifically marvelous in her resilience. A deviant among the pack, she was unabashedly proud of her lover Albrecht—tenderly performed by Isaac Hernández—and unafraid to dream about the incredible life ahead for their unborn child (pregnancy being another new twist to the tale). She played her character with sharp vivacity, not to be touched or directed against her will. This was a woman who knew precisely what she wanted and would be damned if she didn’t get it—sadly, she was. Cojocaru’s spirit was barely contained in her petite and ferocious body. She executed Khan’s choreography as if it had originated in her own skin, transcribing complex feeling into equally complicated motion. It’s about time we saw a refreshing take on the sometimes coy and frequently naïve Giselle of productions past.

This was also a ballet of strong, unforgettable imagery. One of the best scenes involved the slow reveal in silhouette of the “landlords,” the group of one-percenters who rule over the workers keeping them mercilessly in their place. The formidable, aforementioned wall spun upward to reveal this group of absurdly dressed aristocrats, their fantastic opulence similar to those of the fashionable capitol dwellers in the Hunger Games. Both the visual and costume design in this piece is the work of Tim Yip, an award-winning designer notable in part for the closing ceremony of the Olympic games in Athens and Christian Dior’s 60thanniversary exhibition. Khan fleshed out these grotesque characters with splendidly subtle choreography. Barely moving, it was as if they couldn’t be bothered to exert themselves any more than the fraction of an inch required to assert their destructive power. Their facial expressions and postures alone spoke volumes. 

Not to be outdone, the infamous Wilis of Act 2 conjured all the delicious witches, demons, and nymphs of our nightmares (and dreams). Looking creepily like a group of Brian De Palma’s pig’s blood-drenched Carries on prom night, these terrifying women bourréed their vengeful hearts out, at times with bamboo canes bitten tightly in their mouths. The canes were used as weapons to torture and kill Hilarion —wonderfully performed by Jeffrey Cirio— and to threaten Albrecht who had the audacity (stupidity?) to show up looking for the lover he had scorned.  But the canes were also used as a sort of chain that binds one Wilis to the next, condemning them to an eternal afterlife of revenge and grief. Again, the ensemble was breathtaking. Whether they were floating expertly across the stage on pointe or crouching deep and disturbed on the ground, their unfettered feral femme-ness was somehow utterly modern and effectively raw.  

Just when I thought the imagery and movement couldn’t get better, the grand pas de deux between Cojocaru and Hernández stunned. Khan managed to devise new lifts and partnering techniques that highlighted the lovers as individual equals all the while maintaining a sense of romance without cliché. I could have watched this duet for hours. In fact, I wish the entire ballet had never stopped. Despite the tragedy in this classic narrative, Akram Khan’s “Giselle” managed to invite a sense of triumph over degradation, of compassion over violence, and yes, love trumping hate. 


"Giselle" runs through Saturday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 East Randolph Street, Chicago. Tickets are sold out; call the box office at 312-334-7777 for standby information. For details, click the event page below.