Astana Ballet; Akram Khan’s Giselle review – Steppe to it

Astana Ballet, a young Kazakhstani troupe with a wide-ranging repertoire and near-gymnastic levels of elasticity, gave their first UK performances in London last week. Opening number, Ricardo Amarante’s Love Fear Loss, deploys their trademark litheness across three neoclassical duets set to piano versions of Edith Piaf songs. The sweeping lifts of Hymne à l’amour channel new love’s delights, while Ne me quitte pas transmits the ache of a breakup with urgent tilting extensions. It’s a graceful offering that sings on the intimate Linbury stage, particularly in the final moments of Mon Dieu, when Ilya Manayenkov sends Ainur Abilgazina skittering across a dusky netherworld.

Mukaram Avakhri’s Salomé, by contrast, packs the stage with snaking shoulders and splayed legs, odes to the eroticism of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play. The effect is cluttered, with dozens of dancers jostling for space around a chunky platform. There’s oomph to the leap-heavy group routines, but the ballet is let down by underwhelming characterisations, including Abilgazina’s crotch-pumping Salomé. Avakhri’s choreography errs on the side of indignity, epitomised in an ungainly love scene with the decapitated John the Baptist.

Amarante’s A Fuego Lento fares better, with its tango-style tessellations. The men in particular fizz, even when they step out of time. There’s a similar buzz in Heritage of the Great Steppe, a parade of “choreographic miniatures” showcasing regional specialities. The Kazakh folk dances shine, bringing creaturely port de bras and a delicate calligraphy of hand gestures. Anel Baltenova’s dazzling watermelon gown in her solo, Joy, just about forgives the ropey get-ups of Motherland, which look like pound-shop Game of Thrones gear.

Astana was formed under a state-sponsored initiative to promote Kazakhstani arts abroad, and this programme seems like a consciously sundry, see-what-sticks exercise. The contemporary work on show is a mixed bag, but there’s a lot of spring to their classical step.

‘It’s the dance that does the heavy lifting here’: Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Over at Sadler’s Wells, English National Ballet has reprised Akram Khan’s Giselle, created in 2016 and now a highlight in the company’s touring catalogue. It’s outcasts-against-landlords in this stormy production, which twists Théophile Gautier’s Romantic masterpiece into a contemporary morality tale about wealth inequality. It’s bold and insightful, with a nail-biting climax of supernatural revenge.

ENB supernova Tamara Rojo serves up a gritty, robust Giselle, styled here as a migrant worker whose affair with aristocrat Albrecht (James Streeter on superb form) ends in desertion, death and drama in the underworld. Arms cocked to the sky, she leads the proletariat in a lurching dance of dispossession with beastly gallops and swaying ripples of bodies. Stina Quagebeur raises the bar for formidable in her turn as Myrtha, queen of the dead, a ghostly coven scuttling in tow.

The plotting is blotchy, but it’s the dance that does the heavy lifting here. Khan braids contractions, spirals and quickfire footwork to create a rich weave of ballet and kathak styles. This dynamic choreography, coupled with a spectacular set and Vincenzo Lamagna’s searing score, reaffirms Khan as a connoisseur of drama. The slow reveal of the ruling class in Act 1, wreathed in shadow and gilded to the hilt, is especially spine-tingling.

Star ratings (out of five)
Astana Ballet ★★★
English National Ballet: Akram Khan’s Giselle ★★★★

Akram Khan’s Giselle is at Sadler’s Wells, London, until 28 September

Watch a trailer for Giselle by Akram Khan.

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