For the first time in more than three decades, the English National Ballet is touring stateside. They bring an exclusive North American run at the Harris of acclaimed choreographer Akram Khan’s reimagining of the iconic romantic ballet “Giselle.” Under the leadership of its visionary artistic director, Tamara Rojo, the London-based company originally commissioned Khan’s adaptation in 2016—a creative leap for the company and for Khan, who had not choreographed a full-length ballet before. Since its initial premiere, the project has proven a risk worth taking and transformed the classic ballet into a modern masterpiece. After collecting accolades and awards, including an Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production, Khan’s “Giselle” is touted by many as a stroke of genius and a major milestone for twenty-first-century dance.
The two-act ballet’s ageless story of love, betrayal and redemption has been restaged countless times since it was first performed the summer of 1841 at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris. However, Khan’s evocative reinterpretation stands alone. The story, originally set in the German countryside, now emerges from the assembly lines of a garment factory, inspired by the 2013 tragic collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in which more than a thousand people died due to structural failure. Another remarkable change in the story’s narrative is seen in the portrayal of the title role. Giselle was originally cast as a fragile heroine who finds herself on the brink of insanity and mortality after being betrayed by her lover Albrecht. This rendition offers a modern twist on her character, who sheds her delicate exterior to reveal a steely strength and profound resilience. The changes in the narrative are supported by visual elements including lighting design by Tony Award-winner Mark Henderson and stunning costumes and sets by Academy Award-winning designer Tim Yip (for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). In the first act, a massive and politically timely wall frames the space as Khan’s distinctive choreographic style merges contemporary dance with kathak, a classical northern Indian dance form known for its mesmerizing footwork, graceful gestural movement and basis in storytelling. The results of this stellar combination create an unparalleled visual splendor that riles the senses and engages the spirit by breaking the mold of classical ballet, vaulting the form from antiquity into our present day.
In addition to the shifts in narrative and aesthetics, the music of Khan’s “Giselle” turns Adolphe Adam’s original score on its head. In a recent interview, ENB music director Gavin Sutherland described the highly collaborative and fairly unorthodox process used to create the redesigned score. After initiating the project with another composer who was replaced a slim four weeks before the premiere by Khan, longtime collaborator and composer Vincenzo Lamagna jumped in and reimagined the score for the adapted ballet. Working closely with Sutherland, who tirelessly notated and orchestrated the score while it was being developed, Lamagna created a mesmeric auditory landscape that perfectly complements Khan’s choreography by layering Adam’s melodic themes with haunting, electronic soundscapes and altered instrumentation, such as the bass flute, contrabass clarinet and an eclectic blend of percussive tools. Sutherland worked with the Chicago Philharmonic, who will perform the score live under his direction. When asked about the upcoming run at the Harris, Sutherland says, “The big thrill that Tamara has been working toward for so many years is getting our company to go for the first time in thirty years to the United States. The fact we get to go to Chicago first is just brilliant—such a vibrant hub for dance and theater.”
There are limited tickets remaining for Khan’s “Giselle,” so get them while you can because this modern masterpiece is not-to-be-missed. (Alyssa Motter)
At the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 East Randolph, (312)334-7777. February 28-March 2, Thursday and Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 2pm and 7:30pm. $60-$125. Limited seating still available at: harristheaterchicago.org/tickets/upcoming-events.