Performing arts organisations have been generous, and sensible, in putting shows online during the Covid-19 pandemic but the largesse can’t continue indefinitely. They may be banking a lot of goodwill but that won’t feed artists. I’ve written extensively about dance performances that could be seen without payment and could have recommended countless others. Sometimes companies put work up for only 24 or 48 hours but others gave viewers more time, sometimes months. If you’re keen you can trawl YouTube to find complete performances for free, some of them absolute gems. For some reason you can see Matthew Bourne’s ground-breaking Swan Lake, the one with the thrilling all-male corps of swans, without paying a cent.
But is that right? Or, if you want to use a purely economic argument, is giving away work for free a sustainable business model? Obviously not. Organisations need their performances, whether live or streamed, to generate income. Which is where aggregation services such as Marquee TV, dubbed the Netflix of the arts, come in. As with Netflix, viewers pay a monthly or annual subscription and can then access all content.
There are other places to go for arts material via subscription but I’ve chosen to highlight Marquee TV in my final column in this series because of two important productions, both exclusive to this service: the version of Giselle choreographed for English National Ballet by Akram Khan and Betroffenheit, the extraordinary dance-theatre hybrid from the hands of choreographer Crystal Pite and her fellow Canadian, actor and director Jonathan Young. It’s possible to sign up for a free 14-day trial. And it’s important for me to say that I am a fully paid-up subscriber.
English National Ballet artistic director Tamara Rojo raised eyebrows when she commissioned contemporary dance titan Akram Khan to make a new Giselle for the company but the result was an unqualified success for ENB and has become something of a signature work. The enthusiastic embrace of Khan’s Giselle, which premiered in 2016, reminds me of the reception given to Graeme Murphy’s widely seen, frequently revived Swan Lake from 2002 for The Australian Ballet. The works are very, very different but both found a compelling new way to reach the emotional core of stories that can become dulled by too many repetitions.
Never has the gulf between Albrecht’s privilege and Giselle’s lack of power seemed so wide in Khan’s Giselle. It is exciting, passionate, strange and beautiful, peopled not by peasants and aristocrats but migrant workers and their bosses, the latter haughty, extravagantly costumed and heartless. A vast revolving wall designed by Tim Yip separates the two worlds and is covered with the handprints of the dispossessed. Marvellous new music by Vincenzo Lamagna incorporates themes from Adolphe Adam’s original score but otherwise powers along with folk rhythms and buzzes with chilling industrial sounds.
The broad outline of the story unfolds in line with the original narrative. Albrecht is in disguise as a worker and is greatly in love with Giselle but isn’t strong enough to break with his old life. She dies – or is killed; this isn’t entirely clear – and then, as Albrecht seeks her out in the ghostly space between her death and full integration into the realm of the Wilis, Giselle saves his life. Hers is by far the greater soul.
Khan’s dance, which every now and again makes allusions to the traditional choreography, owes much to the weighty but fast qualities of kathak, of which he is a master. Kathak’s expressive use of hand gestures also enriches the choreography and the combination of power and delicate detail is intoxicating. The group dances for the workers in the first act are thrilling in their intensity. Only in the second act does Khan introduce pointe shoes, worn by the ferocious, wild-haired Wilis as if they are armour for battle.
Giselle was filmed in 2017 with Tamara Rojo and James Streeter as the lovers (Rojo has managed to combine artistic directorship with performing at the highest level; astonishing). Both are extraordinary, as is Jeffrey Cirio as Hilarion, a worker who has thrown his lot in with the bosses. And you will never forget Stina Quagebeur’s Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. On pointe – and she is on pointe for an agonising amount of time – she towers over others, an implacable, watchful but strangely moving presence.
Betroffenheit was created as a response to one man’s devastating loss, grief, guilt, despair and, ultimately, need to go on. Its first half is a wild, vivid and fantastical journey through anguish and addiction; the second a restrained, pure dance recapitulation of the material that brings a sense of resolution, or as much as might be possible. Writer and actor Jonathan Young is the man whose pain lies at the heart of Betroffenheit. His young daughter and two of her cousins died in a fire in 2009, and while the work doesn’t go into detail about the tragedy, Young’s appearance as the central character makes Betroffenheit personal even as its concerns could be those of anyone who has suffered as he did. The title, by the way, is a German word that means something like shock and dismay but, as Young said in an interview about this work, perhaps a reasonable translation into English is the phrase “there are no words”.
That’s where dance comes in. There’s a lot of text in Betroffenheit and its first part falls more into the areas of theatre and burlesque than dance. It can be challenging and it’s often grotesquely funny. Betroffenheit is quite Beckettian in that way. The second part, however, is heavily weighted towards movement. It goes to places beyond language and into the unsayable.
Pite is a choreographer whose movement, no matter how apparently abstract, has emotional force. The dancers, in particular Jermaine Spivey as Young’s inner voice, are spectacularly good as the glitzy, hopped-up demons seducing and assailing this broken man in the first half and as silent expressions of grief and resilience in the second. There’s a particularly striking section, only brief, in which two women touch their bodies as if to check they are still there. Who hasn’t felt that kind of dislocation?
If you feel the urge to trawl further through Marquee TV you will find a fine traditional Giselle from The Royal Ballet with the wondrous Marianela Nuñez in the title role. And while I am still in the throes of my Akram Khan love-in (some of you may remember I recommended his final solo show, Xenos, two weeks ago), do not fail to watch Zero Degrees. In this dazzling work from 2007, which is a bit about difference and a bit about death, Khan teams up with another of the 21st century’s greatest dancer-choreographers, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Khan has Bangladeshi heritage; Cherkaoui is Belgian-Moroccan. Together they are dynamite.