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Akram Kham’s Giselle

Credit: English National Ballet


The English National Ballet are world famous for their performances and the choreographer, Akram Kham’s interpretation of ‘Giselle’ did not disappoint.

The original story of Giselle is based on a love forbidden by society and follows the life of Giselle, who has just lost her job due to closure of the garment factory. She is separated by a high wall from her hopes of livelihood and security and is an outcast. She is in love with a wealthy aristocrat, Albrecht, who disguises himself as an ‘outcast’ to visit Giselle. However, an unexpected arrival of the wealthy side of society, including Albrecht’s fiancée, turns into a nasty fight, and Albrecht submits and returns to his fiancée leaving Giselle driven mad with grief. A dramatic circling dance occurs around Giselle and after the crowd disperses Giselle’s lifeless body is revealed.

The second half of the performance is set in a wrecked, abandoned ghost factory where Giselle and many of her female co-workers have laboured, and many died. Here Albrecht is grieving for Giselle, but the Queen of the ghost workers who seek revenge enters driving Albrecht away. She summons Giselle from her lifeless body into the realm of death. Albrecht returns and suddenly becomes aware of Giselle’s presence. The lovers are briefly reunited on the threshold between life and death. The ending shows the Queen of ghosts departing with Giselle and Albrecht, now becoming an outcast from his own community, left alone by the wall.

Akram Khan had revised this classic narrative ballet through the lens of globalisation and its imbalances of wealth, power and labour. Khan’s version of the story draws a connection between Manchester, centre of the global textile industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries and Bangladesh, birthplace of Khan’s parents and a key location of the factories and beneficiaries if the contemporary global garment assembly industry.

Sitting in row C, close to the orchestra and absorbed by the powerful music, I wasn’t expecting the more contemporary feel to this classical ballet. Of course with any ballet the music and the dance tells the story to the audience, there are no words, and usually it is easy to follow and understand what is happening. But with this version of Giselle, it was fundamental I read the programme before it started. It was interesting that the dancers uses a wooden stick as a prop, which enhanced the intensity of certain dance routines performed, such as when the crowd were circling Giselle. This broke the traditional conventions of a ballet show.

It just so happened that to my left was a lady from South Africa and her daughter was in the performance. It was interesting, as a dancer myself, to hear about what happens backstage and during rehearsal. It is incredibly hard work and demanding!

The contemporary feel to the story enabled each member of the audience to connect to the dance and interpret the story subjectively, and after the performance I felt emotionally drained from what had just happened. It was a very emotive piece of work, reinforcing that speech is not necessarily essential for a story to be portrayed to a large number of people. If it is on in Liverpool or anywhere near you again, I would definitely recommend that you go and watch it as it is a break from the tradition of tutus and pointed shoes!

Lucy Baxter
Arts and Culture Team

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