Brave new world: a visceral Giselle from Akram Khan, but Bintley’s Tempest flounders

ENB: Giselle; BRB: The Tempest

Mayflower Theatre, Southampton; Sadler’s Wells, London

“O, brave new world that has such people in’t!” It takes brave choreographers to tackle a new full length narrative ballet and brave artistic directors to commission them. This autumn, two new full length works have been unveiled by leading British companies, with varying degrees of success. Concluding its Shakespeare 400 offerings, Birmingham Royal Ballet premiered David Bintley’s The Tempest, to a new score by Sally Beamish. But the real “rough magic” came from Akram Khan, whose innovative take on the classic Giselle set pulses racing.

Akram Khan's Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan’s Giselle
© Laurent Liotardo

Giselle’s tale of love, betrayal and redemption has been entrancing audiences since 1841, but in ENB’s new version, Marius Petipa’s choreography is gone, as is (almost) Adolphe Adam’s score. Akram Khan provides a contemporary update to the story, setting it among jobless migrant factory workers. Albrecht is a little rich boy, slumming it so he can be close to his lover, Giselle.

Tim Yip’s designs feature a monolithic stone wall – impressed with handprints on one side – that acts as a class barrier, shielding the rich. Albrecht’s origins aren’t revealed until later, when the frosty Bathilde and her family of grotesques appear. Giselle is jilted and dies. Tilting and revolving, this wall leads to the factory hell of Act 2, where Giselle and the Wilis – ghosts of other betrayed women – seek vengeance, bamboo spears gripped between their teeth while they menacingly prowl en pointe. After Hilarion becomes a human pin cushion, Albecht avoids the same fate when Giselle forgives him, leaving him, alone, as an outcast.

The Wilis © Laurent Liotardo

The Wilis
© Laurent Liotardo

Ensemble dances are the strongest part of Khan’s earthy choreography, a fusion of contemporary and Kathak influences. The ENB corps is often a seething knot of dancers, visceral and full of attack. The air swirls with dust and you can almost feel the heat. Another plus is Vincenzo Lamagna’s industrial orchestral score which pulsates with percussion and electronics. Brought in at short notice to replace Ben Frost, the music has a folk-inspired, Indian or Bangladeshi feel, but Adam’s original music seeps through at key points. I saw the production on tour in Southampton, where Fernanda Oliveira projected Giselle’s vulnerability strongly, but Fernando Bufalá’s Albrecht was rather overshadowed by Oscar Chacon’s Hilarion – no fault of Bufalá’s, but of the choreography.

The problem comes with the storytelling. It is only through reading the programme synopsis that I know that the workers have lost their jobs because of the factory’s closure. Too often, plot and motivation are murky. It’s never clear who Albrecht is or why he’s abandoned his rich family to be mixing with these migrants. Has he got Giselle pregnant? His love for her never quite convinces during Act 1 and it’s a complete mystery why or how Giselle dies. With some minor tweaking, Akram Khan’s Giselle could be a great work. It’s already a compelling reinvention of the original and a testament to Tamara Rojo’s bold artistic leadership.  

That boldness was utterly lacking in BRB’s The Tempest. Despite looking extremely handsome with the overlapping timbers of a ship’s hull rearing up into a great curve in Rae Smith’s designs, David Bintley’s choreography is conservative and conventional, set to Beamish’s equally tame score. It looked – and sounded – as if it had premiered fifty years ago.

Jenna Roberts (Miranda) and Iain Mackay (Prospero) © Bill Cooper

Jenna Roberts (Miranda) and Iain Mackay (Prospero)
© Bill Cooper

The most striking moments didn’t involve any (conventional) dancing: Mathias Dingman’s Ariel, athletic and ethereal on a fly-wire; Tyrone Singleton’s Caliban hiding in a conical shell; an opening storm depicted with billowing silk sheets. When the most striking choreography comes via the comic trio of Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano, you have a problem. The two pas de deux for Miranda and Ferdinand go for little. The isle may well be “full of noises” but they’re not especially memorable. Beamish’s score ripples and shimmers but it only really comes alive in the Act 2 masque, a pastiche which turns into an overlong divertissement.

Tyrone Singleton (Caliban) in The Tempest © Bill Cooper

Tyrone Singleton (Caliban) in The Tempest
© Bill Cooper

Like Khan’s Giselle, Bintley’s storytelling is problematic, but in another way. Act 1 is all exposition, leading to a sense of stasis, yet we still don’t know who Prospero is until a flashback sequence in Act 2. Iain Mackay is a fine dancer, yet Prospero is simply not rounded out as a character here. He just paces the stage like a caged panther, without ever releasing his anger. He is little more than a comprimario role.

The Tempest felt like a very long show, even if it was only a quarter of an hour longer than Giselle. I know which one I’d like to see again… and I already have a ticket to see it at Sadler’s Wells next week.

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