Narrator: Is it possible to take an old story and make it new? Anyone who listens to music or watches TV or reads novels has some story they love that just doesn't fly today in some way or another. One of those works for me is my favorite ballet, Giselle.
It is in the 1840s when Europe is in the romantic era. The romantic era gives us Beethoven and verity and it's all about emotion and passion and Giselle comes on as this like it's the romantic ballet. It's got ghosts and death and nature, pastoral, and the supernatural, and all these elements. It influences the shows like the Nutcracker and Swan Lake that we all think of when we think of ballet.
Narrator: Giselle, here's a basic story. We start the show with the peasants. This peasant girl, Giselle, she meets this peasant boy, Albrecht, and she's like, "Aw, he's cute. Meet cute, fall in love. Great." Actually, except it turns out Albrecht is not a peasant. He is a noble in disguise, and he's already got a fiance back home. Then the fiance and her peers show up and are like, "What are you doing? You're not one of these people."
Then Giselle's like, "Oh, you lied," and she dies of a broken heart. She goes crazy and dies of a broken heart. That's Giselle act one with two acts. Act one.
Act two. Our betrayer, Albrecht, peasant/not peasant boy, goes into the forest where Giselle's body has been buried. Giselle is actually a ghost now and she lives in this forest full of ghost women in white dresses. They're called Wilis, women who died of betrayal and so now in death they get their vengeance. If any man comes into their forest, they will kill that man. They will kill the man by dancing him to death, making him dance until he dies.
Narrator: Giselle is one of these new Wilis, and the Queen of the Wilis sees Albrecht, our dirtbag guy, and she's like, "Kill him. Kill him." Everyone shows up like, "We're going to kill him." Then Giselle, in this really dramatic moment, is like, "No, you can't kill him. I'm not going to let you kill him." She saves him. What she does is she holds off the Wilis until daybreak when it's safe.
The moral of the story, forgiveness can overcome the worst betrayal. Little girls are still taught to aspire to the balletic ideal, and Giselle is one of the foundational heroines. Just like with a Barbie doll, where you can look at it at a particular time and see what was valued in girls and women, in the heroine, Giselle, you get a statement of the female ideal.
She's pale, unspoken, she's white, she's delicate and fragile. She's young, she's pure, or chased. The most important thing in her life is her love for a man so much so that when she loses it, she collapses, goes insane, and dies. She puts herself in harm's way for him to protect her man. You can see where that might clash with some of our values today. That's where one of the world's leading choreographers comes in.
Akram Khan: I'm Akram Khan. I'm a choreographer and primarily a dancer. I'm a storyteller, and the only listener that I care about is me.
Narrator: Akram Khan is a powerhouse in contemporary dance. His movement is striking and incorporates Indian classical dance into the choreography. In 2016, Akram gets the same call from multiple ballet companies.
Akram Khan: There were four artistic directors from four different ballet companies in the same month.
Narrator: Everyone wants to know, would you please do a new version of Giselle for us?
Vincenzo Lamagna: That's when things started to get interesting.
Narrator: This is the composer, Vincenzo Lamagna, Akram's longtime collaborator.
Vincenzo Lamagna: I knew that Akram couldn't work just with the original score, and he called me in to mess it up.
Narrator: Lamagna and Khan studied the original score by Adolphe Adam and decided to pull out some bars that really moved them, which in the end was a small percentage of the original music, and they built from there. I'm going to show you three examples of how they brought Giselle from the 1840s up to date. First, the beginning.
Vincenzo Lamagna: I was consciously thinking like, "How are we starting this?" The beginning and the end of a show is incredibly difficult. Now, I can't imagine then in 1840 you go to a theater, and there's a lot of audience in there. They're all loud, and they're waiting for the show to start. You need to grab their attention.
Vincenzo Lamagna: In that sense, that opening to me says, "Boom, we are starting, you've got to listen." Plus, the music wasn't amplified, so you have to go for it. To me, if I amplify, I have a whole palette that I can access, meaning that I can play much quieter. My grabbing the attention of we are starting here is, in this instance, the opposite of what the original score does because we start very quiet.
[taiko drum sound]
Vincenzo Lamagna: The very first hit that opens the show is a taiko drum, which is a Japanese drum that, I don't know how old it is, but it's probably a few hundred years old. It's something very, very old that it's creating a potential imagery of, "Oh, this is-- now, this is industrial."
Narrator: Two. There is a big change that happens at the end of Act One, which is the death of Giselle.
Vincenzo Lamagna: There was a tiny fragment, which was a harmonic progression that I found that I absolutely loved-
Vincenzo Lamagna: -and I could hear it arranged in a completely different way in my head, but I told Akram like, "Listen, this is very risky, but I think we shouldn't move from these four chords."
Vincenzo Lamagna: I had this obsession with this idea of literally a repetition of the same progression that just builds and builds and builds. In a very mantra way, I almost wanted the music to disappear so that you're sitting there, and you're almost forgetting that the music is happening.
Narrator: Here's how it plays out on stage. At the heart of Giselle, Akram saw a story of inequality. In this new production of Giselle, the peasants are now migrant workers in a garment factory. The nobles are now wealthy landlords who own all the property.
Albrecht is one of the landlords. He disguises himself as a migrant worker to go hook up with one of the migrants, Giselle. She falls in love with Albrecht, and when Albrecht's deception is revealed, the head landowner of the ruling class has her executed.
Vincenzo Lamagna: The scene is incredible. Visually, what's happening on stage is incredible, but the intention behind is probably even more powerful than that. It's this idea of dying, dying out of desperation.
Narrator: Giselle is not this weak, frail woman who her heart just collapses when she finds out she's been betrayed. She very clearly is killed against her will. The physical body language is the body language of domestic violence, and just like you're beating this woman, and she's trying to resist, and you see her like fighting the guy off, but she can't fight him off, and she then dies.
Narrator: Three, the Wilis, those ethereal selves dressed in white who Giselle joins after death. In this new production, there are ferocious specters, and for Akram Khan, they conjure a memory from his own life.
Akram Khan: Who you are is shaped by your childhood. It really is. It's not your adulthood, it's your childhood. My mom was fierce, fighting my father, and finding the right to work. I remember seeing Kali in my mother. Kali is rage. The power-- Sorry. It's a Hindu goddess with a tongue out. It's very powerful, and I remember seeing that in my mother.
Many times against my father, who wouldn't let me dance, I remember my mother said, "No, what? Who says we cannot do this? Who says you're not allowed to do this?" It was my mother who was the-- were the Wilis with her wild hair. They were the right ones. They were mistreated. They were betrayed. Why would I make them pretty? That's me trying to control the view of a woman, and in this world, we fear women if we cannot control them.
Narrator: When the Wilis come and say, "Kill this man who betrayed you," she's like-- what she does is she looks at the queen of the Wilis and she's like, "We're not doing it this way. He's going to stay alive and you and I are going back into the forest, and that man whom I love is going to have to live with the consequences of what he did."
Albrecht, he goes back to his nobleman people, but they actually cast him out. Although he loves her and she loved him, he ends up alone. Khan reinvigorates this old dusty ballet, which is pretty and, at its best, very beautiful, and he makes it alive and scary and real.
At a moment when so many people are talking about forgiveness, when it comes to me too, or even respirations, this show clarifies what forgiveness means. Says it's legit, it is powerful, and that it doesn't erase the consequences of the harm.
Akram also gives some insight into how to change traditions. To really change an old tradition, you need to think about it like dressing a Turkey. You take the tradition, you break its neck, you pull out all the guts, put them in a little bag, and then with what's left, you ask, "How do we want to prepare this bird?"
Akram Khan: I come from Indian classical training. Classical ballet and classical Indian dance, they share similar things. One of those things is familiarity. This is my parameter, you do not go past this boundary that it becomes not classical. It's very clear boundaries, and those boundaries are passed down generation by generation.
Narrator: The stories we've heard in this episode are driven in part by rage. It's painful when you realize you need to change, but it's infuriating when the people around you impede that change from happening. When, by some miracle, change finally happens, it's moving.
For me, this new version of Giselle isn't just a great ballet. It's a model for how to reimagine a story that doesn't quite work anymore. How deep you have to go to make it new, and I keep coming back to something that Akram Khan told me in our conversation.
Akram Khan: People change in four different seasons. That's why I always say-- or for four different reasons. One of them is people change when they hurt enough that they have to. People change because when they see enough that they're inspired to. Third one is when they learn enough that they want to. The fourth one would be they change when they receive enough that they are able to.
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