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All that it seems?

Posted on November 26, 2019


A children’s riddle asks, When is a door not a door? The answer is, When it’s ajar, which made no sense to me until I learned the meaning of “ajar.” I remembered the question, though, when Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet (ENB) and Matthew Bourne’s new Romeo and Juliet appeared in quick succession at Sadler’s Wells.

When is Romeo and Juliet not Romeo and Juliet? Or, what are the crucial elements of a story that make it that story and no other? Wikipedia lists 11 pages of “Plays and musicals based on Romeo and Juliet,” leaving aside choreography although Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan, John Cranko, Antony Tudor, Leonid Lavrovsky, Rudolf Nureyev, Maurice Béjart, Bronislava Nijinska and John Neumeier all had a crack at Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy. George Balanchine made a version that included tap dancers for the 1938 film The Goldwyn Follies, and Jerome Robbins shoved it onto New York’s mean streets as West Side Story.

Alert to the topics that now dominate the headlines, Matthew Bourne has brought it further up to date by setting it among randy, raucous young adults housed in a white-tiled correctional facility called the Verona Institute, which could be a clinic or a mental hospital or a prison. The inmates – I hesitate to call them young offenders, because you never discover why they’re incarcerated – are segregated by gender, presumably for health and safety reasons, and habitually medicated, lining up for their daily doses like the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Strictly regimented, even at a party, they move like zombies as if Thorazined to keep them docile, yet violence simmers constantly beneath the rigid discipline.

So far so good. Romance blooms both heterosexual and homosexual; people fight and die. Yet the essential factor that defines Romeo and Juliet never surfaces. There is no family feud, so nothing forces the lovers to remain apart. Instead, Bourne has produced a generational war, with the tension springing from the conflict between the youngsters and their parents and keepers.

It only matters if you had hoped to see Romeo and Juliet. Rape, knife crime, overcrowded prisons and mental health deserve and maybe need to be addressed theatrically, as Bourne has done here, and his determination to cast junior company members and teenage dancers in training is itself admirable. If only he hadn’t promised one thing and delivered something else entirely.

Pictured: New Adventures Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet. Photographs by Johan Persson.

Akram Khan’s Giselle doesn’t make that mistake. Nothing in it is what the title brings to mind – no rustic charm, no ghostly brides, no gentle Romantic visions – yet the crux of the tragedy is perfectly intact.

He and ENB’s dancers ventured together into unfamiliar territory when he fused his technique with theirs to draw a new work from the old one. Ruth Little, his dramaturg, has described the result as “a revision of the classic narrative ballet through the lens of globalisation and its imbalances of wealth, power and labour,” and as “rooted in the precarious situation of migrants and refugees everywhere today.” 

Maybe you see all that on the stage, maybe not. Or maybe the vicious energy and primitive passion that power the action lead you to different conclusions. In any case, if you wanted to see Giselle, you will, for love, betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness flourish in Khan’s imaginative creation as clearly as they did in the original. 

Pictured: English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Photographs by Laurent Liotardo.

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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