Since its 1841 premiere, Giselle has been an exemplar of romanticism, with its depictions of frolicking country folk, feminine virtue, and ghosts. The innocent peasant girl Giselle dies of heartbreak when her lover, Albrecht, turns out to be an aristocrat in disguise with a well-to-do fiancee. Like other maidens who perish before their wedding day, Giselle joins the wilis, spirits dressed like brides who lurk in the woods, luring men into furious, fatal dances. Yet when Albrecht wanders into their ethereal sorority, doomed to die, Giselle forgives him and protects him from harm.
This week, the English National Ballet makes its first foray across the Atlantic in three decades to bring its wildly anticipated new Giselle for an exclusive North American engagement at the Harris. Commissioned in 2016 by artistic director Tamara Rojo, the ballet was choreographed by Akram Khan, who uses his background in contemporary dance and kathak, a form of Indian classical dance, to reenvision the classic to a new score by Vincenzo Lamagna.
The English-born son of immigrants from Bangladesh, Khan worked with dramaturg Ruth Little to develop an international context for the ballet that reflects current events. "At the time of creation, how Europe was treating the migrants was quite horrific," he says. Haunted by the tragedy of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, in which 1,134 people died when a building housing several apparel factories collapsed, Khan and Little reimagined Giselle and her clan as migrant garment workers. "We're all in the end migrants," notes Khan.
Khan also revisited the character of Giselle as he created the ballet. "In the classical version, Giselle is portrayed from a man's perspective—coy, sweet, fragile," says Khan. "But the women in my life are not that. They are fierce, strongheaded, and leaders, like my mother, like my daughter, like my wife."
Yet he insists that Giselle's mercy towards the deceitful Albrecht is also the key to her power—and to the necessity of such narratives in our time. "To forgive is the hardest thing. It's not a sign of weakness. As human beings, we need empathy again. We are so used to the Western system of right and wrong, good and evil, black and white. It's so much more complex in the [Sanskrit epics] Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana. Within the good there are elements of the bad; within the bad there are elements of the good. In order to create, you have to destroy first. In order to destroy something you have to create something. The human condition is complex. We haven't grieved for climate change or xenophobia yet as a species, because we're in such denial. We haven't learned from our past by forgiving—and the only way to forgive is to see." v