It’s only a moment. Giselle, a migrant seamstress made rootless by a changing world, confronts the dauntingly affluent Bathilde. Their encounter ripples with instinctive distrust (unwittingly, each loves the same guy; this is ballet). Bathilde wears sumptuous black, plume-topped and lace-swathed. Giselle is in faded blue (washed out and washed again) – but she won’t simper, won’t sink in subservience. Instead, she reaches out and rubs the filigree lace work on Bathilde’s dress.
Giselle recognises this extraordinary work – because it’s her own. She made this elaborate lace. Privilege depends on labour like hers, and she knows exactly what it’s worth – and what she’s worth too. It’s just a moment – but a moment of electric disillusion that suggests how radically Akram Khan’s new Giselle for English National Ballet departs from the 1841 original.
A dress caress also figures in the Romantic scenario, but that Giselle is a sheltered country girl dazzled by an aristocratic hunting party. She naively touches Bathilde’s dress because she’s never seen anything so beautiful. Alina Cojocaru’s steely gamine, Khan’s Giselle at the premiere this autumn, would find awe undignified – glamour casts no spell over her, because she knows precisely what it costs, and how cheap labour sustains it.
Khan and his collaborators have thoroughly rethought Giselle. It’s still the story of a poor woman played false by a rich man; it still follows her death and fateful encounters in the afterlife. It still contrasts innocence and experience, love and expediency, the bed and the grave – but redraws the trajectory between those coordinates. Giselle isn’t a peasant, but one of the migrant garment workers brought to a foreign factory then stranded when it closes (because: globalisation). Albrecht (Isaac Hernández) fancies an escape from the elite and enjoys teasing duets with Giselle, but doesn’t have the courage to make the break. In Tim Yip’s design, the wall that divides rich and poor, living and dead, is no metaphor, but a vast, tilting structure that segregates by income (and, later, by pulse).
Bathilde (Begoña Cao) and her fellow landlords emerge from behind the wall, almost grotesque in cold silver light. Yip designs them outlandish silhouettes – women marooned by their pannier skirts and millinery, frockcoated dandies who eye up the migrant talent. The indigent workers don’t dance for joy – they dance to please, to turn defiant dance into entertainment for the toffs.
Touch has a precise, searing value in this world. There are handprints in the wall – testament to anxious, insistent humanity – and Giselle presses her own hands into them, presses Albrecht’s too. He doesn’t know what that desperation feels like – and Hilarion (Cesar Corrales’ snake-hipped broker between the worlds of need and privilege) catches him not feeling it. Touch might also mark the reality of Giselle and Albrecht’s relationship: when she understands how his background pulls him back, Cojocaru puts her hand to his face – as if to prove she knows him, knows his warmth, through her flesh and down to the bone. We hear an awful crackle in the score, as if of a radio signal fading out of range.
Touch says: we’re here. Touch says: this is now. When it becomes clear that touch has lost its truth, that Albrecht is withdrawing, Giselle unravels, falling in a broken spiral. Everything disperses: the workers move on, pounding, slanting, making for more welcoming territory. Khan and co define a terrifyingly rootless world in which nothing is stable, in which touch is fleeting.
Giselle dies and joins the shades of workers left behind in the ghost factory, its light chocked with dust. Like their classical ballet counterparts, they teeter on pointe – never to feel again the slap of sole on soil. Cojocaru registers her reluctance to learn the ways of this cold, stiff world – she lunges, thrashes, flings back her head. When Albrecht appears, she stares down the dead, restores a sense of terror to Giselle’s unfinished business. The lovers touch – but do they feel each other’s press on face and breast, or is it just a memory of weight and warmth? The dancers seem to drift through each other; arms fall away even as they reach out. We’re a long way from Giselle feeling a dress and knowing its history and her own. Touch says: I know this world. Touch says: know me. When touch falls away, so does all comfort.
Photos (top: Cojocaru and Cao; below: Cojocaru and Hernández) (c) Emma Kauldhar