Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez star in Akram Khan's Giselle by the English National Ballet. Photo: Laurent Liotardo

The English National Ballet made a welcome return tour to Hong Kong at the end of June. Their program was a modern version of the 19th-century classic “Giselle” arranged by British dance choreographer Akram Khan, who has toured the city several times with his own company.

The new musical score by Vincenzo Lamagna, well played by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta under the baton of Gavin Sutherland, frequently echoes the original score by Adolphe Adams, but isn’t as outstanding.

The original 1841 Gautier scenario is more or less intact in this new version. The original story of “Giselle” is of a peasant girl driven to death by the betrayal of her lover Albrecht, an aristocrat in disguise. In Act 2 she returns from her grave with an army of jilted ghostly Wilis to take revenge on their lovers, but redeems Albrecht in the end with her forgiveness.

In this new scenario updated by the dramaturg (editor) Ruth Little, the peasants have become a community of migrant garment-factory workers, described as outcasts in the program notes. And the aristocrats are now the wealthy landlords. A monumental revolving wall designed by Tim Yip divides the rich and the poor communities.

Alina Cojocaru in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Photo: Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan seems to presume in the audience a certain knowledge of the original story of the classic, which is unfair to some beginners seeing this classic for the first time. The role of Albrecht is superficial and not well developed for a start. Khan’s version has several crucial points in the story unexplained, notably how Giselle died at the end of Act 1 after being surrounded by the outcasts. And at the end of the ballet, Giselle’s reluctance to kill Albrecht with a bamboo stick and her final disappearance are not convincingly depicted.

Alina Cojocaru, Stina Quagebeur and Isaac Hernandez perform in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Photo: Laurent Liotardo

Khan’s vocabulary is sometimes derived from his Indian Kathak background, as seen in the intricate footwork and dizzy turns. Khan’s choreography is more effective for the corps de ballet both in Act 1 and Act 2. The circling group patterns have a sweeping power. In Act 2, the heart-rending duet for Giselle and Albrecht is the best part of this ballet.

The English National Ballet gave a strong company performance. Alina Cojocaru was superlative in the title role, conveying every nuance of Khan’s choreography. James Streeter impressed as her lover Albrecht. As his love rival Hilarion, Ken Saruhashi conveyed dramatically his jealousy. Stina Quagebeur was imposing as the Queen of the Wilis. Despite some weaknesses in dramatic logic, this is still a refreshing new update of the 19th-century classic.

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