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. 


Akram Khan Company, XENOS, Sadler’s Wells

Posted: June 7th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Akram Khan Company, XENOS, Sadler’s Wells

Akram Khan Company, XENOS, Sadler’s Wells, May 30

Xenos

Akram Khan in XENOS (photo © Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts program celebrating the First World War centenary, XENOS is billed as a commemoration of an Indian soldier in the trenches representing the more than a million mobilized from what was then a colony of the British Empire. But it is also billed as the final full-length solo Akram Khan will choreograph on himself. So what, or who, is XENOS actually commemorating? Sarah Crompton titles her program article, ‘A new myth’ in which she discusses with Khan the making of XENOS, its creative components and the summation of his career. She concludes that the new myth is ‘to help everyone remember.’ Remember what? Both Khan’s role and the production itself are equivocal in their response.

Even though Khan was born in a south London borough to Bangladeshi parents, his dancing roots are in his classical kathak training, which makes his portrayal of ‘X’ — who dramaturg Ruth Little describes as ‘no man and everyman, the unknown and the eternal soldier, alone in a foreign land…’ — unquestionably poignant. The opening of XENOS (meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’) is a masterful depiction of ‘X’ at the convergence of dance and conflict. As we arrive in the auditorium of Sadler’s Wells, vocalist Aditya Prakash and percussionist BC Manjunath are seated on stage performing a classical concert unperturbed by our lack of attention. Mirella Weingarten’s set is a study in absence: empty, dusty chairs, an abandoned swing and a low table covered in a fine layer of earth below a string of bare light bulbs and an array of ropes leading up an incline towards the back. It is a deserted interior scene that anticipates the passing of the present into a bleak future. It is only with an amplified electrical short circuit and a temporary blackout that the audience becomes attentive and subsides into silence; the concert continues and Khan enters as if discharged violently from a traumatic past. The music serves to revive him and he begins a haltingly remembered kathak dance; at times Manjunath has to prompt him with the chanted rhythms and the three men build up a haunting image of life interrupted and changed forever. Khan is in a sense playing himself, remembering past glories from a conflicted present, his mature body reliving what it could once do so effortlessly. More electrical short circuits and an extended black out lead us to a plangent space and time where the snake-like ropes draw Khan and all the furniture inexorably up the slope as if by an outside force — the original tug of war — and over the top.

The parapet remains throughout XENOS as the locus of the trenches and of Khan’s place in this desolate world; he connects a rope like a field cable to what appears to be a gramophone to hear a crackly recording of the names of fallen Indian soldiers, one of whom died laying cables in the mud. The horn of the gramophone later becomes a searchlight, but with these surreal allusions the connection to the First World War begins to veer off into the discursive themes of myth and evolution. Khan invokes Prometheus, the Greek Titan who is credited with the creation of man from clay and who stole fire from Zeus to facilitate the development of civilization — and its unintended consequence, war. Khan’s depiction of evolution seems to cover the period from Mowgli to the Mahabharata, subtly shifting the focus of XENOS from the representation of colonial ‘X’ into the current myth of Khan himself. It’s as if ‘X’ has offloaded his ‘otherness’ and has returned home, which is now in Wimbledon.

In the Crompton interview, Khan acknowledges an Indian academic who had thought remembrance was ‘a white thing’. This notion had spurred Khan to delve into the archives of Indian involvement in the First World War, which in turn imbued his empathetic memorialization of ‘X’ at the beginning of XENOS. However, any further attempt at excavating the memory of these forgotten soldiers from oblivion is lost in the meandering rhetoric and the ‘whiteness’ of this lavish monument of a production.

By the time lighting designer Michael Hulls, composer Vincenzo Lamagna and sound engineer Julien Deloison introduce that glorious go-to expression of sorrowful beauty, Mozart’s Lacrimosa from his Requiem mass, blasted from a Schechtian gallery of musicians suspended in light above the stage, the commemoration has turned fully on Kahn: the end of the war has become conflated with the end of his solo career.