by Sanjoy Roy

Tamara Rojo, still boldly pushing the envelope for English National Ballet since her appointment as director in 2012, has commissioned a new version of Giselle from Akram Khan, whose reputation rests on his combination of training in kathak and contemporary dance.

Reading his synopsis for this reimagined version, I was struck by its similarities to George Romero’s classic 1978 zombie movie Dawn of the Dead. Romero’s zombies are an underclass of labourers who dwell in the badlands outside the fortified walls of a giant shopping mall, home to a high society of consumers. The story hinges upon a group of people who cross the boundaries between the consumer class and the undead lumpenproletariat, and it ends with uprising. Khan, meanwhile, recasts Giselle’s peasants as outsourced labour in a garment factory. His aristocracy, secure within their walled world, are gilded landlords who wear the finery that the workers produce. Albrecht (a landowner) and Hilarion (a wheeler-dealer) are the characters who cross the class divide and hence instigate the drama, while the Wilis of Giselle are now the vengeful revenants of dead workers.

Vincenzo Lamagna’s music is suitably filmic — awash with brooding swells and (rather too many) ominous crescendi — and though it references Adolphe Adam’s original score, it is more concerned with cinematic mood and effect than with articulation and motif. Dominating the set is Tim Yip’s marvellous monolithic wall — the great divide — its forbidding surface marked with the innumerable handprints of those who can never reach the other side.

And the dance? A mixed blessing; as is often the case, Khan is stronger on dramatic imagery than on drama. That matters less in his image-based works, but Giselle is structured upon story, and in this production it’s never clear who the protagonists actually are, what their relationships mean or why they behave as they do. Consequently, the big emotional scenes on which the piece pivots feel either overwrought or empty.

Leave aside the narrative, and the rest is ravishing. The opening scene is full of relentless factory rhythms: the swing and punch of arms, the push and heave of torsos. Giselle encounters the coutured landlords in a tableau that glitters with disdain; the appearance of the Wilis in the ghost factory is a veritable spookfest of unearthly apparitions and malign intent. Khan has an unusual gift for making stillness as enthralling as action, and his ensemble scenes — a turbulent crowd through which his protagonists race, or an identikit workforce within which Albrecht hides — are highly effective.

Ultimately, the piece teeters on ambivalence. On the one hand, it cleaves to the conventions of its source: a tragic love story enacted through leads, supporting roles and chorus. On the other hand, the choreography is stronger on group action and effect than on character and development. Yet unlike Romero’s zombies, the corps de ballet — the mass, the labour force — never becomes a subject in itself or for itself. Dawn of the Wilis this is not.

If Khan’s Giselle is a remake, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s version of Swan Lake is a complete reboot. The Irish choreographer, an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, has already reworked other ballets (Giselle included), but none is as startlingly strange — it opens with a naked, middle-aged man, tethered to a breezeblock and bleating like a goat — nor as ultimately transfiguring as his Swan Lake/Loch na hEala.

Setting the story in the Irish midlands, Keegan-Dolan marries — as so often before — the drab details of earthly life with the transcendent power of myth. The goat-man (actor Mikel Murfi) plays several dodgy characters: priest, policeman, politician, narrator. The drama brings together two tales. One is of Jimmy (Alexander Leonhartsberger), a man in his mid-30s who, haunted by the death of his father and dominated by an imperious crone of a mother (Elizabeth Cameron), is immobilized by chronic depression. The other story is of the young Fionnuala (Rachel Poirier), who has been sexually abused by the priest. She and her three sisters who had witnessed the act are turned into mute swans, forever unable to speak their secret.

The set is a sparse array of blocks, ladders and boxes, like a halfway house that’s neither properly lived in nor moved out from. Ragged white wings lie on the ground; the local lake is a sheet of rumpled black plastic. Of these elements, Keegan-Dolan makes magic, both black and white. Jimmy’s first encounter with Fionnuala is a marvel of unsentimental tenderness, a wary unfurling of trust. The birthday party is played for grim humour, its guzzling guests egged on by the unhinged hoots of the mother. Everywhere, we feel the interplay between the voiced characters and the voicelessness that surrounds them.

Buoyed by deceptively simple music from folk trio Slow Moving Clouds, the story unfolds with an intuitive emotional and poetic logic (grief, we sense, really is a thing with feathers), and it ends with an apotheosis to die for. Fionnuala and Jimmy plunge into black waters rather than remain in the world they know — and emerge into a kind of heaven. Filled by joyous motion amidst a snowstorm of white feathers, the stage becomes an ecstatic vision of the winged human spirit.

English National Ballet’s Alina Cojocaru and artists in Akram Khan’s Giselle | Photo: Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet’s Alina Cojocaru and artists in Akram Khan’s Giselle | Photo: Laurent Liotardo