Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: September 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

English National Ballet, Akram Khan’s Giselle, Sadler’s Wells, September 18

Akram Khan's Giselle for English National Ballet
Tamara Rojo and the Wilis in Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet (photo: © Dasa Wharton)

Akram Khan created his transposition of Giselle for English National Ballet in 2016; this is its second return to a London stage since then. Giselle, as Jane Pritchard writes in a program essay, is the earliest (1841) of the ‘canon of ballets’ and one of the cornerstones of the classical repertoire. Set in an ‘idealised, picturesque arcadia’ it ‘tapped into the fashion for Romanticism with its emphasis on exoticism, irrationality, other worldliness and danger’. Khan and his dramaturg Ruth Little have updated the context of the ballet while allowing its historical timeframe to remain vague, somewhere in a colonial economic era with Giselle as a redundant garment worker in a closed factory (an ‘outcast’) and Albrecht as the scion of an overseer family (a ‘landlord’). Albrecht’s duplicity, Giselle’s naivety and Hilarion’s jealousy still drive the narrative, but Khan’s appropriation of the romantic ballet seems to get in the way of his overarching theme of migrant labour, landing his cast in a narrative no-man’s land undermined by a contrived dramaturgy and a choreographic language that fails to take advantage of the expressive strengths of either Khan’s kathak or ENB’s classical technique. 

As Khan’s dramaturg, Little is aware of the connections and correspondences at work in this creation and coherently disentangles the various references in a program essay. But on stage, where it counts, the coherence is unresolved. The first act follows the broad sweep of the original scenario but conjoins the love story with social inequality. The stage is divided horizontally by Tim Yip’s monumental, moveable wall that hinges like an overhead garage door, dividing a small number of landlords on one side from the outcasts on the other. The wall is not so much a background as an overpowering metaphor of uncompromising power and social separation that underlies Khan’s vision; the attempt to fit this vision to the story of Giselle becomes especially problematic in the tenuous link between the two acts. Little writes that the second act is set in a ‘ghost’ factory (which looks uncannily like the first act) where the Wilis have become ‘the female migrant workers of Act 1 [who] have laboured, and too many have died, victims not of betrayal in love, but of industrial accidents…’ The original Wilis, having died of broken hearts, were a natural advocacy group for Giselle who had suffered a similar fate. In Khan/Little’s version the Wilis’ revenge is aimed at the callous manipulation of the owner class rather than against dissembling men; love has been transposed — and sidelined — by socio-political sanctions. 

Khan’s choreographic vision is rooted in the collective and it is in the corps de ballet that his imagery is most successful, coinciding at times with Vincezo Lamagna’s high-decibel score to suggest repetitive, mechanical gestures and formations of migrant factory workers, while the feral quality of the company scampering on all fours across the stage signals the breakdown of humanity under brutal subjugation. Even Giselle’s madness and death at the end of Act 1 are overshadowed by the seething circle of outcasts who mill around her like a black hole into which she disappears. Despite the narrative fault line in Act 2, the Wilis form a powerful image of unified revenge with their bamboo sticks banging out the musical rhythm like devilish warriors. 

Khan is less successful in delineating the individuals. When a dancer of Tamara Rojo’s stature is unable to extract from her eponymous role a fully-fledged character who can surmount the storms around her and elicit our sympathy, it points to weak dramaturgy and suggests the gestural vocabulary on which her character is built is lacking. Like Natalia Osipova in Arthur Pita’s The Mother, Rojo’s classical form loses its emotional compass in contemporary choreography that fails to address the source of its power. James Streeter’s Albrecht is revealed as a one-dimensional figure who stands out from the crowd by his height, his inability to dress like the outcasts while wanting to hide amongst them and his execution of some technically demanding classical steps. It is Jeffrey Cirio as Hilarion who benefits most from Khan’s transposition, giving Giselle’s cloying emotional manipulator a more prominent role as a spivvy factory floor manager who knows how to insinuate himself between the workers and their masters. His more integral role suggests Khan had in mind an alternative, darker polemic treatment of the narrative — which the visual aspect of Yip’s design and Mark Henderson’s choreographic lighting corroborate — than the romantic mould of Giselle could possibly provide. 


Dance Holland Park: emerging choreographers’ showcase

Posted: August 19th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance Holland Park: emerging choreographers’ showcase

Dance Holland Park: Emerging Choreographers’ Showcase, July 7 at 1pm

Dance Holland Park is a joint project between English National Ballet and Opera Holland Park as part of Big Dance 2012. The mandate for each of the choreographers is to create a dance work on an opera theme. The setting is the same for each: a broad expanse of stage with Holland House as a natural backdrop and its dramatic porch as the principal entrance and exit.

Alice Gaspari in Hunted Devotion (photo: Nicholas Minns)

Alice Gaspari in Hunted Devotion (photo: Nicholas Minns)

Romanian choreographer, Arcadie Rusu, opens the afternoon with his Hunted Devotion, based on Verdi’s opera, Falstaff, or, more accurately, based on the character of Falstaff himself. Rather than using Verdi’s own music, Rusu has chosen that of his compatriot, Alexander Balanescu, whose Aria, Life and Death, and New Beginning – like all the live music for this choreographic showcase – are beautifully played by Esther King Smith, Simeon Broom, Helen Sanders-Hewett and Carina Drury, conducted by Thomas Kemp.

A group of five dancers huddled together and holding on to each other peer out uncertainly through the grand porch of Holland House, under the taut tent-like structure, edging their way down the broad steps, looking around for signs of danger or distress. They are clearly on unfamiliar ground. A jester (Christian Coe) comes bounding from the side of the stage and offers his posy of flowers to whichever girl will take it. The girls run away, and the men keep their distance until the jester senses failure and runs off. Based on the distaff side of Falstaff, Rusu shows the many traits of this jovial figure through these six dancers. The jester is clearly Falstaff’s sense of humour, and the flowers are a symbol of his purity, in the sense that Falstaff is fully devoted to his desires and hunts them with the uncompromising desire of a hunter. The remaining two couples form duets, one energetic with Alessia Cutigni and Chris Knight, and the other lyrical with Alice Gaspari and Nuno Almeida, to the same music. Opposing desires do not end well, and Gaspari and Knight end up lying side by side, head to foot like corpses. Mattia Di Napoli, a bare-chested, manly figure in a full-length earthy-coloured skirt (Falstaff’s wisdom, perhaps), revives Gaspari, who begins an introverted, lyrical solo in silence. Where her head moves, her body sways in subservience, yet her guiding hand suggests a searching for the light in the darkness. In the meantime, the other five characters quarrel and make up, attract and reject each other in equal measure, as parts of a single conflicted psyche. Di Napoli is a grounded, powerful trait, Gaspari a poetic one. Knight is a clever schemer, quick to somersault and twist and turn, while Almeida is simplicity itself, and Cutigni a worldly muse. When all these meet together in different combinations, the drama of Falstaff is revealed. Later in the work, the men dance bare-chested, adding an air of passion and male pride, which is ready at any time for a fall. Falstaff’s dominant trait, his sense of humour, finally breaks down the differences in his character, and the six dancers make their way back through the doorway with more wisdom and understanding, we hope, than when they arrived. Such an approach to Falstaff is necessarily intimate, and the broad expanse of the Holland Park stage tends to dissipate the effect of this carefully wrought choreography. Fortunately there is a beautifully filmed trailer of Hunted Devotion that shows not only the sensitive camerawork of Takako Nakasu but the ability of Rusu to direct.  http://vimeo.com/43110678

This Wicked Desire © James O Jenkins

I had never thought of crossing classical Indian dance with Fiordiligi’s aria, Per Pieta, from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, but Katie Ryan’s This Wicked Desire, a playful duet between Kali Chandrasegaram and Khavita Kaur, brought out the delicious spirit of the music as if they belonged together. The two dancers are a study in complementary opposites that is clear as soon as they make their entrance through the Holland House doorway, the voluptuous Kaur leading the way in her black-bodiced, high-waisted costume and the imposing Chandrasegaram a step behind in lyrical support. The program notes say the dance is a playful struggle between the opposing forces of desire and virtue, but it is difficult to know if Kaur is overflowing with desire or virtue, and Chandrasegaram, a dancer of strength and delicacy in equal measure, has a mischievous joy in all he does that is as irresistible as the music. Their duet is thus rightly ambiguous: desire and virtue are not such opposing forces after all. What Ryan does so well, and the two dancers embody, is to show the constant interplay between the two in a way that Mozart clearly understood.

Naomi Deira’s Buoso is inspired by the story of Buoso Donati, the patriarch whose will is the contested event around which Puccini’s one-act opera Gianni Schicchi revolves. Deira’s cast is two women (Nicole Geertruida and Heli Latola) and two men (Eric Lamba and Kiraly Saint Claire), though any direct link between Puccini’s characters and Deira’s cast seems tenuous. Death and its effects, however, are central to the work. Deira makes this clear by beginning Buoso with music by Armand Amar from a film score to Hors La Loi, a pounding, haunting, percussive score that expresses the 1945 massacre of Algerians in Sétif. It is the way Saint Clair sneaks on to the stage, his lithe movement, arched back and disdainful manner that suggest a force of evil. The charismatic Lamba’s powerful physique, especially when he gets going, suggests a lion to Saint Claire’s cobra, both images of force and rivalry that are far removed from Schicchi’s cunning but kindly trickery. When we hear Puccini’s pleading aria O mio babbino caro, however, the healing begins. Lamba and Latola are like the young lovers in Puccini’s opera, while Geertruida and Saint Claire are Buoso’s quarreling relatives. At the end, Geertruda bends towards us from Saint Claire’s back as he mounts the steps, leaving the lovers in peace. Now that’s a happy ending.

A change in the order of the program means that Lucia is next, choreographed by Anne-Marie Smalldon, artistic director of Combination Dance Company. It is inspired by Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a tragic tale of love between Lucia and Edgardo, of Lucia’s betrayal by her family and her ultimate madness. Smalldon approaches the opera’s story in a straightforward manner, choosing three scenes, but sharing the role of Lucia between her three women: Briar Adams, Julie Ann Minnai and Toni-Michelle Dent. Before the work begins, heaps of rose petals – a symbol of love as well as loss – are strewn on the steps and on the front of the stage. Lucia in white descends the steps, kneels in front of petals and bathes in their fragrance. Edgardo in kilt and pale lemon shirt joins her and tries to distract her, kneeling beside her, lying and rolling with her. They create beautiful lines between them in their steps and lifts. A second couple joins like a second musical theme, until the first couple reappears to form a quartet on the theme of love. The two Lucias dance briefly together before one leaves and Julie Ann Minnai is left alone with the two men (Thomas McCann and Travis Clausen-Knight), who are no longer the lovers but have morphed into rather manipulative members of her own family. The men manhandle Lucia, throwing her between them and sharing her in a decidedly unpleasant way. The program notes tell us that Lucia is forced to submit to a marriage against her will, though there is no way of knowing that from watching the dance. In the final scene, Lucia plays with the flowers and rose petals, watched by the other four characters. Her descent into madness is marked by a lovely arabesque line that Smalldon uses to emotional effect in an otherwise contemporary language of distress. Lucia runs from one figure to the next as they close in on her, throwing petals over her head. For a moment she remains still, grasping her flowers to her as they dance around her but she soon throws down her flowers and breaks away. The four characters follow her movements and close in for the last time, their hands all over her, covering her in petals before they retreat. The child sitting next to me understands everything and says ‘bye-bye’.

After the rose petals have been swept up, there’s more red in the form of a powder poured in a semi-circle around the front half of the stage, a bloody arena in which the two men, Richard Bermange and Daniel Hay-Gordon, enact a concentrated version of the doomed friendship between Lenski and Onegin from Tchaikovsky’s opera. ContraVersus, choreographed by English National Ballet’s James Streeter, is an intense miniature in which each movement is concise, reduced to its emotional essentials in the manner of a Schiele drawing. The figures are bare-chested and in black tights, at once masculine and vulnerable; the closeness of their friendship is expressed in an almost contorted vocabulary and Streeter keeps the steps to initial themes that repeat or change direction within the proscribed red circle, setting up a sense of foreboding. Lenski repeats Onegin’s opening steps, as one instrument might pick up a tune from another, and later they dance the same steps but in different directions. Both men look the part, drawn towards each other naturally as equals but tragically linked by an inability to compromise. After the duel, Onegin supports the dying Lenski to the floor and then repeats his opening steps as if nothing has changed. If Streeter’s choreography is impressive, the score by Janine Forrester – Onegin: the duel and death of Lenski – is equally so. A gem on both counts.