There’s some irony in the return of Akram Khan’s Giselle to Manchester’s Palace Theatre in the same week that the city saw the official opening of Factory International.

Back in 2016, this outstanding piece of dance premiered at the Palace as a Manchester International Festival (MIF) ‘Pre-Factory Event’. The fact that it’s back, but not at Factory International, seems a bit odd and a bit of a shame but, no matter, as this version of the classic ballet is one of the most impressive works that MIF has ever been part of.

Traditionally presented in a classical style, Giselle has been updated and upgraded for this version. Its story of love between a peasant girl and a nobleman, her madness, death and return as a vengeful ghost, is retained. Everything else has been given a contemporary makeover, elevating it into a new and exciting piece for audiences seeking something bolder, darker, edgier and more thrilling.

English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Picture by Laurent Liotardo.

MIF is known for bringing artists from different disciplines together to create something new. When they did that for this production, the stars aligned. The marriage of English National Ballet’s classically trained dancers and Khan’s contemporary choreography results in some of the best dancing you’ll ever see. Combine this with beautifully lit stunning design from the Oscar-winning Tim Yip (who won an Academy Award for designing the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and a pulsing score, and you have one of the best pieces of dance ever to grace Manchester. And it’s not just Manchester. This production has toured the world since its 2016 premiere, captivating audiences from Auckland to New York.

This is an absolutely note-perfect illustration of how to take a much-loved and respected piece of art and create something at once familiar and utterly original. There are moments that move and astonish. I don’t remember drawing a breath in the second half when the corps de ballet emerged as the haunted and haunting ghosts, enticing Giselle into their ranks to seek revenge. This, one of the most impressive pieces of choreography I’ve ever seen, has the dancers on point for the entire time, creating a sense of ethereal menace and absolute dread as they glide across the stage. Despite this unbelievable act of physical discipline, seeing dancers push themselves to their limits, it’s the emotion of the movement, of the performance, that elevates it way beyond incredible technique.  

I’ve worked in the arts for more than 30 years. I’ve worked in venues, for festivals, and I’ve reviewed for years, too. I’ve seen hundreds of stage productions. Akram Khan’s Giselle is in my top five. It will take your breath away.

By Robert Martin

Main image: Erina Takahashi and English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Picture by Laurent Liotardo.

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For more information about what’s on at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, click here