Saturday, October 26, 2019

SFDFF to Screen Khan’s Radical Ballet Revision

The San Francisco Dance Film Festival (SFDFF) will get under way at the beginning of next month. Having written frequently about music composed for dance purposes, I decided to examine some of the offerings that have distinctive perspectives on music and how it is used in a production. One of the earliest films to be screened at the Festival is practically a case study of revisionism at its most extreme, which entailed rethinking the music as much as rethinking the choreography.

Myrtha (Stina Quagebeur), Giselle (Alina Cojocaru), and Albrecht (Isaac Hernandez) in an English National Ballet performance of Akram Khan’s staging of Giselle (from an English National Ballet Web page)

The title of the film is Akram Khan’s Giselle, and it is a document of a performance before an audience by the English National Ballet. Articles I have read about this project refer to the ballet simply as Giselle; but I appreciate the clarification of the film title as an effort to avoid confusion. The music for the original Giselle by Adolphe Adam has been replaced by a full-length score by Vincenzo Lamagna, whose appropriations from the Adam source are so minimal as to be barely recognizable. The same can be said for the sets and costumes by Tim Yip, best known for his work on the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

Khan himself is not a ballet choreographer. A British dancer of Bangladeshi descent, his training was in Kathak. Reading Jennifer Homans’ New Yorker account of a performance of this interpretation of Giselle performed in Chicago this past March, I realized that I had encountered Khan in my own distant past. He had been in the cast of The Mahabharata, Peter Brook’s staging of the nine-hour play by Jean-Claude Carrière, which was first performed at the Avignon Festival and then moved on to the Los Angeles Festival, which is where I saw it on three consecutive nights.

Brook’s achievements have consistently involved imaginative and engaging relationships between text and context. Similarly, Khan chose to work with a “text” familiar to just about any serious lover of classical ballet. He then conceived an “alternative context” so elaborate that the “text” would probably register only with those that already knew it. One result is that the fairy-tale narrative of a peasant girl (Giselle) deceived by a nobleman (Albrecht) never emerges very far from a deep background.

Nevertheless, those who know the original will probably have no trouble identifying Giselle and Albrecht, as well as Hilarion and Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis. The context is another matter. The first act, which concludes with Giselle dying of a broken heart after having been deceived by Albrecht, is more of an extended tract on class struggle. Almost all of the dancing establishes the interpersonal relations of Giselle’s “proletarian” community and its shared detestation of nobility. Lamagna’s score frequently highlights the rough edges of this conflict, often with harsh sounds likely based on instruments enhanced with electronica.

This is definitely an imaginative perspective, even if it occasionally devolves into heavy-handedness. However, it does not necessarily afford a useful transition into the second act, in which Giselle’s spirit joins the Wilis. One might almost say that the naturalism of Khan’s first act has such an intense impact that both the supernatural premise of the second act and Khan’s realization of that premise seem more than a little out of place. Nevertheless, Myrtha emerges as a far darker character that one finds in traditional Giselle productions. Perhaps Khan’s objective was to establish an opposition between Giselle and Myrtha that would reflect the opposition between peasants and nobles.

All this should establish that the SFDFF screening of Akram Khan’s Giselle is likely to have a strong impact on those with deep love and knowledge of early classical ballet, a tradition in which the original Giselle holds pride of place. The screening will take place at 4 p.m. on Sunday, November 3. It will be held at the Delancey Street Screening Room, located at 600 The Embarcadero, just south of the intersection with Brannan Street. Individual ticket prices will be $17 and $20. Both single tickets and festival passes may be purchased through hyperlinks on the event page for this film.

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