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Review: Akram Khan's Giselle at the Liverpool Empire ****

Contemporary and classical collide with striking results in this bold reimagining by Akram Khan of one of ballet’s oldest tales.

It was a clever move by English National Ballet’s artistic director Tamara Rojo to look to Khan to ‘reinterpret’ the classic for a 21st century audience looking beyond the traditional tutu.

And traditionalists be warned, we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.

When the company was formed by Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin (initially as the London Festival Ballet) after the Second World War, Markova apparently insisted on having a new Giselle created for her.

So it seems historically right that almost 70 years on, Rojo herself takes on the role of the doomed girl who dies of a broken heart – albeit here transposed by Khan’s vision from pastoral peasant to abused migrant worker toiling in a textile factory.

We’re very much in the heart of industry here, evoked brilliantly by the pounding of Vincento Lamagna’s score, and Yvonne Gilbert’s sound design with its eerie sense of foreboding.

Tamara Rojo (Giselle) and James Streeter (Albrecht). Photos by Laurent Liotardo.

Khan’s factory worker corps morph in to machines in a brilliant scene where they take on the characteristics of the looms they work, arms moving relentlessly backwards and forwards as Rojo’s Giselle dashes up and down, shuttlecock like, at the front. It creates an incredibly powerful visual experience.

It’s also in to that human loom that James Streeter’s Albrecht plunges as he searches for his beloved factory girl, challenged by love rival Hilarion, danced with spritely nimbleness by Jeffrey Cirio.

The mechanical muscularity of the corps is in contrast to Streeter and Rojo’s playful and sinuous, but affecting, pas de deux.

But the automaton atmosphere is revisited in the second half (although perhaps not quite as mesmerizingly) when the stick-wielding Wilis, the wraiths come to avenge the dead from among the living, once more evoke the cold efficiency of machinery – juxtaposed by Rojo and Streeter’s poignant duet played out in murky, Stygian gloom.

It’s all set against designer Tim Yip’s unforgiving concrete backdrop and costumes in muddy, washed-out tones, which stand in stark contrast to the extravagant ‘say yes to the dress’ style creations worn by the factory landlords’ entourage, while Mark Henderson’s lighting, both stark and otherworldly, adds to the dramatic visual effect.

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