Akram Khan’s Giselle @ Harris Theater

4 out of 4 stars

Dance productions aren’t known for selling out and demanding a wait list, but Akram Khan’s Giselle, playing this weekend only at the Harris, is so hotly anticipated that all seats are spoken for. Those in the know have had their tickets for months, seeking a sublime experience from this collaboration between a world-renowned choreographer and major ballet company. And the show delivers the goods: a friend of mine reports he is still shaking the day after seeing it.

Giselle is a canonical ballet, and the storyline here stays mostly intact. In Khan’s version, the German peasants are migrant factory workers, and the love triangles and class-based power struggles remain. I would like to summarize the story for you, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter that much—the power of this production is its absolutely original aesthetic and vibrant images that pulse from the stage. (I almost wished I had not had to keep track of the who-loves-who story line and could just watch these beautiful movers move). The curtain opens to a mass of people pushing a giant concrete wall upstage, covered in handprints that eerily suggest the impossibility of escape. The chorus deftly undulates until one man breaks away in hysterical, majestic, leaps: Hilarion, danced by Ken Saruhashi on the night I attended. Saruhashi’s presence is electric, a real show-stealer: he bounds like a monkey-gazelle and seems to melt upwards from inversions. 

That concrete wall rotates and six Landlords appear in ridiculous finery, their gowns glittering in stark contrast to the simple frocks of workers. Their appearance through fog is utterly jaw dropping; Tim Yip’s costume design is ingenious and Mark Henderson’s lighting design atmospheric.

In Act Two, a chorus of ghostly warrior women bourree on point with wooden sticks in their teeth, their hair loose and wild. They menace and protect; they resurrect and kill. Khan’s choreography masterfully contrasts the chorus and the individual, with simple, striking mudras and complex expressions of group ritual. Erina Takahashi as Giselle and James Streeter as Albrecht have a truly striking pas de deux in which I feared for their actual lives as their heads came inches away from striking the floor during complex lifts.


Read the program and study up if you like, or go in cold and let the images wash over you. Either way, Giselle may make you shake. 

Giselle runs this weekend only at the Harris Theater. Sold out; contact the box office at 312.224.7777 for the waitlist or see www.harristheaterchicago.org

Susanna is a Teaching Artist with Chicago's finest dance education companies, exposing hundreds of students to the art of dance each year. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Dance from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, where she was awarded the David Wick Prize for Choreography. Susanna enjoys performing, keeping up with the city's performance scenes, and traveling.