Akram Khan's Giselle

ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

01/03/2018 - 04/03/2018


Production Details

English National Ballet’s stunning new production of the classic ballet Giselle, choreographed by dance superstar Akram Khan, is coming to New Zealand exclusively for Auckland Arts Festival in March 2018. 

One of the most famous ballet companies in the world, English National Ballet has undergone a spectacular artistic resurgence under powerhouse artistic director and lead principle dancer, Tamara RojoThe New York Times called the Spanish arts visionary “the woman who transformed English National Ballet.” She has rejuvenated the ballet canon with her bold new commissions of the classics, most significantly, Giselle.

In a stunning coup, English National Ballet lured acclaimed choreographer, dancer and director, Akram Khan, to make a daring new Giselle for their fêted company of dancers.

Khan’s new vision for this classic tale of love, betrayal and redemption places the story in a timeless setting, where an outcast migrant factory worker discovers her lover is betrothed to another woman and dies from grief. Giselle joins a group of ghosts who seek revenge on him, but their love proves too powerful and he is released, forgiven.

…a masterpiece of 21st century dance.  Mail On Sunday, UK

English National Ballet brings to Auckland a huge company of nearly 100 artists and crew. Travelling with them is a monumental set designed by Academy Award-winner Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). This is a massive new production on a scale rarely seen in New Zealand and only possible within Auckland Arts Festival.

The haunting score, “ominous, gothic” (The Observer), is brought to life by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.


The Independent, UK

When Giselle premiered at the Paris Opera in 1841, it was hailed as ‘the greatest ballet of its time’. This new Giselle for the twenty-first century was described by The New York Times as “a gift for the company”.

Dance , Contemporary dance , ,

2 hours

A Masterpiece

Review by Brigitte Knight 06th Mar 2018

The build-up to Akram Khan’s Giselle opening in Auckland has been significant: a visit ten years in planning by Auckland Arts Festival Director Jonathan Bielski; nearly one hundred cast and crew on English National Ballet’s first visit to New Zealand; a significant reinterpretation of a well-loved romantic ballet by a bold, modern choreographer; the debut international performance occurring before our eyes. Listen to the hype – Akram Khan knocks it out of the park with his Giselle. Simply, it is a masterpiece.

The production is a perfect synthesis of its elements. While the choreography, sound, set design and costume are sophisticated works of art and design individually, together they are a transformative, dystopian powerhouse. Khan’s Giselle is inseparable from Vicenzo Lamagna’s score of industrial, pulsing, melodic, essential waves of instrumentation and sound. The collaboration between Khan and Lamanga is the meeting of equal and courageous forces; sometimes the movement is perfectly suited to the sound, sometimes the sound perfectly suited to the dancer…

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Superb dancing

Review by Raewyn Whyte 06th Mar 2018

The dancing is superb in director/choreographer Akram Khan’s updated version of Gisellefor the English National Ballet, which is the Auckland Arts Festival’s opening show.

The movement is theatrical, gestural, drawn from Kathak, folk and contemporary dance, 19th century ballet and the rich repertoires of each dancer. Blended together and fused in the creative process, this movement makes the work unique and stamps it on your memory.

Expressive solos and intense pas de deux move the story along, their virtuosity equalled by the lushly detailed, whirling and dashing ensemble which provides a sense of community. Recurring motifs indicate the symbolic complexity of everyday life for rich and poor alike. Communally witnessed deaths are a feature spiked with chills, with a ritualistic migrant mob in Act One and an assassination squad of malevolent maidens in Act Two.

Khan’s plot remains in parallel with the rather improbable 19th century Giselle …

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Ferocious and Thrilling Re-imagining of Migrant Politics

Review by Swaroopa Prameela Unni 06th Mar 2018

Auckland Arts Festival 2018 opened with the English National Ballet performing Akram Khan’s Giselle. This is a powerful reimagination of the classical Giselle story.  According to Tamara Rojo, the Artistic Director of English National Ballet, she believes in ‘deconstructing, reimagining and reconstructing classic stories to make it relevant for the present audience’ and Akram Khan’s Giselle is just that.

I rush into the theatre along with two of my friends who are Bangladeshi-Kiwis just before the theatre doors are closed. This is their first time at a ballet performance. We quickly settle in and soon the lights dim, signaling the start of the performance. As the curtains open, we see an arresting image of monotone costume-clad dancers pushing against a wall which is soon revealed to be etched with palm prints. The wealthy Albrecht, dressed as one of the migrant factory workers, breaks into a dance with similarly dressed Giselle. The rest of the dancers join in with energetic, powerful movements inspired by Kathak (one of the diverse Indian dance forms), folk dances and ballet. It is exciting to see the perfect Alapadmams, Brahmarams, Simhamukhams and Hamsasyams – all hand gestures from Indian dance traditions – fused into this contemporary version of ballet.

Sticking to the crux of the original Giselle plot, Akram Khan’s version tells us the story of Giselle as one among the community of migrant garment factory workers who are referred to as the Outcasts. They are dispossessed of their jobs after factory closures, and separated by a high wall from their hopes of livelihood. Giselle (a brilliant Crystal Costa) is a strong woman with hope while Albrecht (James Streeter) is resilient and torn between his two worlds.  Hilarion (a fantastic Ken Saruhashi) on the other hand loves Giselle secretly. He is cunning and keeps changing his allegiance between the Landlords and the Outcasts for his own and the community’s profit.

The scene is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the Landlords. Their costumes are a stunning work of art and the lighting and music that accompany this scene gives us the feeling of ruthlessness that they exude. Seeing his fiancée Bathilde among them, Albrecht tries to hide. Meanwhile, Giselle recognises the fine fabric worn by Bathilde as the product of her own work. As Giselle tries to examine the fabric, Bathilde removes one of her gloves and throws it on the floor for Giselle to pick it up – an example of how the powerless are treated. 

The Outcasts dance powerfully for the Landlords. These movements resemble the laborious work that they would have done at the factory – repetitive, intense, energetic and forceful. This is followed by a conflict between Albrecht and Hilarion, violent and suggestive. Bathilde’s father confronts Albrecht, forcing him to return to Bathilde and to their world. The Landlord gives a command, and the Outcasts encircle Giselle, along with Hilarion who takes her down. This is a powerful scene as the dancers move in close circles at first that fluctuate up and down and sideways. For a moment, Giselle rises up through the turning dancers, aching, filled with agony, reaching, falling, and shattering down to a lifeless body as dancers disperse. The Landlords retreat beneath the now horizontal Wall.

In Act II, a wrecked, abandoned ‘ghost’ factory is revealed. Myrtha (Sarah Kundi), Queen of the Wilis (ghosts of factory workers who seek revenge for the wrongs done to them in life) summons Giselle from her lifeless body to join the remorseless Wilis. The pas de deux in Act II between Albrecht and Giselle is intense. Their dancing is sensuous, raw and ethereal. There is no music for the most part of this sequence which creates a hypnotic effect in the way they show their relationship. We feel for them. We feel the love between them. The choreographic sequence of Myrtha and the Wilis with their bamboo poles as weapons is chilling. The formations and the movements are menacing, demonic and electrifying.

Additional music by Italian composer Vincenzo Lamagna along with excerpts from the original score helps build the tension and builds the crescendo. Watching the ballet, it is refreshing to hear electronica and the use of percussion in the composition which helps us become involved in the production. Performed by The Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra under the able baton of Gavin Sutherland, their musicianship is a delight. Set design is a masterpiece by Oscar-winning Tim Yip of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame. The wall that turns and rolls has its own personality and place in this world of globalisation and migrant/refugee politics.  Lighting by Mark Henderson supports the dark, grave-like surroundings, devoid of colours conveying the message.

This story with different layers is relevant to today’s scenario of inequality in the world – the powerful and the powerless, the wealthy and the poor, the oppressor and the oppressed and the marginalisation of migrants/refugees. Being a South Asian migrant in New Zealand myself,  it is exciting to see this perspective applied to the classic story. I feel that our voices are being represented. Also, it has to be noted that this is the most ethnically diverse cast of dancers that I have ever seen perform ballet in New Zealand.

Choreographer Akram Khan is a UK-based Bangladeshi dancer/choreographer and his movements are an abstract fusion of classical and contemporary. The wealth of knowledge brought in by the dramaturg Ruth Little helps explore and re-work the characters in depth. Probably the only drawback I would say is, that as it is abstract choreography it is necessary to have a programme note for the uninitiated. But that being said, my Bangladeshi-Kiwi friends who were watching a ballet performance for the first time in their lives and without reading programme notes were quietly sobbing and feeling for the lovers in Act II. Such is the impact of this ferocious production. Culturally rich narratively powerful, the cast and crew gives a genuine performance. It is inspiring to see a new side to Giselle – a perspective challenging the socio-economic and political norm that exists in the world that we live in now. 


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