The dancing is superb in director/choreographer Akram Khan's updated version of Giselle for the English National Ballet, which is the Auckland Arts Festival's opening show.

The movement is theatrical, gestural, drawn from Kathak, folk and contemporary dance, 19th century ballet and the rich repertoires of each dancer. Blended together and fused in the creative process, this movement makes the work unique and stamps it on your memory.

Expressive solos and intense pas de deux move the story along, their virtuosity equalled by the lushly detailed, whirling and dashing ensemble which provides a sense of community. Recurring motifs indicate the symbolic complexity of everyday life for rich and poor alike. Communally witnessed deaths are a feature spiked with chills, with a ritualistic migrant mob in Act One and an assassination squad of malevolent maidens in Act Two.

Khan's plot remains in parallel with the rather improbable 19th century Giselle ballet which famously centres on a love triangle inflected with betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness. In common with the original ballet, his version includes a supernatural force of death-dealing maidens (the Wilis) and requires active suspension of disbelief if you are to exult in the dancing.


Khan's new version is set in the near present among migrant factory workers who live at the foot of a huge wall marked by their handprints. On the other side of the wall, wealthy landlords reside; owners of the factories who have denied the Outcasts employment and in whose factories many women workers have died.

The wall, designed by Academy Award winner Tim Yip, dramatically tilts and rotates horizontally to enable access to different realms in time and space. The last of these is inhabited by the Wilis, the now-vengeful death-dealing ghosts of those dead workers, armed with slender bamboo poles with razor-sharp points.

Outcasts Giselle (Erina Takahashi), Hilarion (Oscar Chacon) and a wealthy landlord's masquerading son, Albrecht (Isaac Hernandez), are the protagonists; the three ensnared by a mesh of desire and duplicity. Ultimately their machinations deliver them into the realm of the Wilis, led by the indomitable Myrtha (Stina Quagebeur), and here the evening's most intense, exciting and passionate dancing brings events to a close.

Vincenzo Lamagna's score puts us firmly in the present era: intermeshed industrial sound and electronica leavened by occasional interpolations of the original Giselle ballet melodies played by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. The score intensifies the mood, adding drama, intensifying anguish and creating small niches in which romance blooms.

What: Auckland Arts Festival — Giselle (English National Ballet).
Where & when: ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre, until Sunday, March 4.