“Giselle”: redoing (and updating) a classic and finding success

LONDON – It’s a roll of the dice. Ballet audiences love complete narrative works, but unlike opera, ballets with enduring stories don’t...


LONDON – It’s a roll of the dice. Ballet audiences love complete narrative works, but unlike opera, ballets with enduring stories don’t make a long list. Ballet directors need more but shudder at the investment of money and time they demand, knowing that the chances of long-term success, both financial and critical, are not great.

When Tamara Rojo, director of the English National Ballet, asked Akram Khan to create a new version of the much-loved 19th century classic “Giselle”, the bet had particularly high stakes. Rojo, a Spanish-born ballerina, had only been two years in her post as artistic director of the English National Ballet and was trying to establish an identity for the troupe that would differentiate it from the larger and better-funded Royal Ballet. , where she had been a principal dancer. Khan, a Bangladeshi-born British dance designerwho had come to prominence in Britain through the fusion of classical Indian kathak and contemporary dance, had little interest in ballet and had never created a complete work.

“There was about a one-in-a-million chance it would work,” Khan said.

But he did. “Giselle”, who opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday (and lasts until Saturday), was an immediate success when the English National Ballet performed it at the Manchester International Festival in 2016. In Khan’s version, Giselle is among the migrant workers who have set up camp behind the high walls of a shuttered garment factory where they had worked. Albrecht is a wealthy factory owner who poses as a migrant; necessary deceit, betrayal and death ensue. (Wilis – spirits of dead women, abandoned before reaching the altar – remain wilis, albeit with more horror movie connotations.)

In a telephone interview, David Binder, the artistic director of the BAM, declared: “Akram transforms the work into something totally new, which still speaks to our time and to the original, much like the recent production we had of ‘Cyrano.'”

He added: “If you come with expectations of a traditional ‘Giselle’ you will have a fantastic evening; if you don’t know ‘Giselle’ at all, you will have a fantastic evening.”

Since its creation, the piece — with a score by Vincenzo Lamagna and a design by Tim Yip — traveled internationally, establishing the company as an agile vehicle for adventurous contemporary ballet and cementing Rojo’s reputation for bold vision and drive. (At the end of the year, she succeeds Helgi Tomasson as artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet.)

Rojo, 48, will dance the role of Giselle twice at Brooklyn Academy – one of the last times she will perform, before bowing out in October with a ‘Giselle’ finale in Paris.

In a video call, Rojo and Khan explained why ‘Giselle’ was a particularly relevant work for English National Ballet, the pain of peak work and the impact of ballet on their careers. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Why a reworking of “Giselle”, one of the few 19th century ballets that still seems perfect?

TAMARA ROJO “Giselle” is a particularly relevant ballet for the English National Ballet, as the company was founded in 1950 by Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, famous for their partnership in this work.

I had seen Björk’s film, “A Dancer in the Night,” and I felt like it was the story of Giselle in a contemporary context. Akram’s first piece for the company, “Dust”, was transformative for us, and I knew he had an incredible storytelling ability and an abstract, spiritual side. I honestly thought he was the choreographer who could do it.

Akram, you said you saw very little ballet at that time. How did you approach “Giselle”?

AKRAM KHAN It’s not just about stepping into a world – it’s who holds your hand, and Tamara has done that. She explained to me, like an embodied tourist guide, all the details of the story. It became clear to me that the second half was my entry point, perhaps because I invest a lot of curiosity in the intangible things that you can’t talk about, whereas the body can. But I didn’t know what to do with the spikes.

Then Tamara explained the story of the pointe work to me and I realized that it made the spirits and ghosts more believable on stage. This was probably the most exciting part of the process for me. I was totally naive – I had no idea it was so hard, really torturous, to be on point all the time, and I would keep women on their toes while I was thinking things over. When someone started crying, Tamara had to explain to me. I still feel bad.

In your “Giselle”, the original villagers become migrant workers. Did you want to make a political point?

KHAN The migrant crisis has been huge for me. I remember being in a pub and seeing on television images of this little boy washed up on the shore of a Greek island. In fact, the migrant crisis was just beginning; look what is happening with Ukraine now. In the original version of “Giselle” and this one, it is the tension between the powerful and the powerless that drives the story.

What impact has the success of ballet had on your career?

ROJO For the English National Ballet, it has been transformative. There are sometimes works that inevitably become associated with a company, such as Pina Bausch’s “Rite of Spring” and the Tanztheater Wuppertal. “Giselle” helped me define the identity of the company and what I thought it could be.

When I announced that I was commissioning Akram to do “Giselle”, I received a lot of criticism from the ballet world; that I would ruin the technique of the dancers, that classical dance did not interest me. But afterwards, people understood that it broadened their vocabulary, their strength, their knowledge. And the success of the ballet gave me the confidence of my board of directors and my supporters, as well as the energy and the strength to continue on the path of risk.

KHAN Working with the English National Ballet reminded me of the importance of structure, discipline, technique. I felt the story of the dancers, the beauty and the power of the corps de ballet. There is something very powerful in this idea of ​​being a single entity, dedicated to a common goal.

I feel like we’ve lost that a bit in contemporary dance, at least in Europe. New voices and new talents are important, but we need respect for knowledge, wisdom and tradition. If you want to know who you are and where you are, you have to look to the past.

The history ballets seem more popular than ever. Why do you think that is?

ROJO It is by telling stories that we create society, that we recognize ourselves, that we learn life and moral lessons. Dance has the great advantage of being a language that anyone can understand, and movement can say things that words cannot.

Of course, there are modes; right now we have a wave of new narrative ballets, and maybe a wave of abstract ballets will follow. But humans find meaning in everything, and I don’t think storytelling in dance is going to go away.

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