Auckland Arts Festival: Giselle reworked

Akram Khan and English National Ballet
Aotea Centre

Taking one of the great classical ballet works and not merely updating it but using as the basis for a new ballet was a brave and dangerous concept. But the dancer and choreographer Akram Khan took on the challenge and has created a new dance work for our times, one that embeds itself in the political and social landscape.

The ballet opens in a desolate dystopian setting, with a group of figures in washed out costumes set against a huge wall. It references all the walls used to divide, the Berlin Wall, the Israeli/Palestinian Wall and Donald Trump's Mexican wall. These are migrant factory workers, replacing the villagers of the classical Giselle. Rather than a mythic fairy tale where peasants and nobles know their place, this is a contemporary story where the proletariat is at odds with the effete ruling elite, where there is conflict between the underclass and rulers, where justice and personal choice are compromised.

Rather than the folk-dance music of the original there are challenging and disturbing electronic sounds, with only hints of the original Adolphe Adam melodies throughout the work. The music composed by Vincenzo Lamagna created an air of exoticism, drawing on eastern and contemporary sounds.

Replacing the horn call of the original production, an alarm sounds and the oppressive wall tilts, allowing the passage of the uncaring ruling elite, including Albrecht’s family decked out in fantastic Elizabethan-style costumes. They demand order and the return of Albrecht to his proper place.

The one problem with this group was the lost opportunity to have them dance, probably in a classically awkwardly style, as a counter to the taut disturbing dancing of the workers.

The workers perform an elaborate folk-style dance but one which is lacking in joy or festivity and danced to a minimalist score

The relationship between Giselle (Crystal Costa) and Albrecht (James Streeter) is not the romantic idealism of the original ballet but a much more earthy and urgent one. Giselle may in fact be pregnant, as Albrecht often passes his hand over her abdomen an indication of her pregnancy, which gives greater weight to her later suicide/death.

Crystal Costa’s dancing revealed a sensuous, rebellious and fearful character. She responded eloquently to the music with a genuine intensity and at times her hand movements were those of classical Indian dance reflecting the eastern derived aspects of the score.

In her first pas de deux with Streeter, their dancing was extremely physical, displaying a desperation, their grasping of bodies expressing a vulnerability as well as urgent passion.  Her fluid dancing expressed a lightness hinting both at ecstatic love as well as a sense of freedom contrasted with the repressed dancing of the workers.

Their pas de deux in Act 2 accompanied by a solo violin was a dance that reaffirmed their love but was tinged with guilt and wretchedness, ending with Giselle’s ecstatic collapse

Hilarion (Ken Saruhashi) danced with an elaborate angularity highlighting his disruptive role in the tale. His spidery dancing before the rulers was an indication of his role in conspiring against his own people.

In the second act his dance with Giselle is a superbly realised dance of violence and passion and his depiction of his death throes was an epic, dramatic event

The dystopian nature of the ballet with the almost robotic movements of the corps de ballet could have referenced the early 20th-century dystopian film Metropolis, with the dancers fleeing and flitting, providing a sense of emotional and physical suffering

In the second act the ballet corresponds much more to the original work with Hilarion and Albrecht finding their way to the underworld where the Wilis take their revenge on males who have abused them in the terrestrial world. Hilarion is put to death while Giselle manages to save Albrecht’s life.

The Wilis are a much fiercer and more ruthless bunch than normally encountered, closer to vengeful Amazons than wronged spirits. They danced with an hypnotic fervour taking on the idea of forces of retribution.

Sarah Kundi as the Queen of the Wilis gave a particularly dynamic performance, exhibiting exacting control over her movements as well as over vengeful spirits. who danced with a taut discipline.

The ballet was full of symbolism symbols, motifs and images, which added to the visual density of the works. The dividing wall which was covered with hand prints that could have come from a prison cell, the Wilis wielding their bamboo canes like taiaha and those same sticks being lashed together to form the fasces, symbols of power

Another major dance work at the festival is Michael Parmenter 's OrphEus – a dance opera, presented by The New Zealand Dance Company at the Civic Theatre.
Parmenter has drawn on a musical score, including Rameau and Charpentier, reflecting a period during which the ancient Greek hero invoked a harmonious cosmos and a hierarchical political order. Since then, Orpheus has come to represent art's power to transcend suffering and death.

In this richly layered, epic dance work Parmenter brings these contending perspectives into conflict and dialogue. OrphEus confronts the power of music and voice in both the personal and the political realms, revealing, in this familiar story of love and loss, the tensions between seduction and restraint, harmony and disorder.

Combining dance, live music and theatre, Parmenter's vision is brought to life by the New Zealand Dance Company, performing alongside Grammy Award-winning American tenor Aaron Sheehan, baroque ensemble Latitude 37 and special guests.