First Artist Madison Keesler makes her debut in the title role of Akram Khan’s Giselle next week in Bristol. She told us about the production and working with the acclaimed choreographer.

My first year with English National Ballet was in 2013, which was also the year that three new works were being created for a programme titled Lest We Forget. I was very excited about all the choreographers coming to the company, but I was really intrigued and curious about one in particular: Akram Khan.

Due to the fact that Akram’s movement is so different from what we do in classical ballet, the company had begun workshop rehearsals with him at the end of the previous year — that was before I even joined the company. So, I figured that my chances of being a part of his creation were quite slim.

When Akram arrived, I made sure to watch any and all of his rehearsals. One of the ballet mistresses of our company took note of the fact that I was always watching in the corner of the studio, and she asked me if I wanted to be involved. I’m sure you can imagine how ecstatic I was.

That one moment of simple curiosity and interest has given me so much more than I could have expected.

Madison Keesler rehearsing Akram Khan's Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

This year, English National Ballet has been working with Akram on his second production for the company: a full-length, completely reimagined Giselle. I am also very honoured and humbled to say that I will be performing a couple of shows as the title role.

I have had to completely challenge and change my body’s understanding of movement.

This has been one of the most exciting moments of my career so far. Working with Akram and his team has taught me so much, both mentally and physically. Akram is a dancer whose training is rooted in classical kathak and contemporary dance. His movement quality is completely unique from anything I have seen. As someone who had never taken a real contemporary dance class before, I have had to completely challenge and change my body’s understanding of movement.

However the greatest and most important challenge for me has not just been about the steps. I have come to believe that the most important thing for Akram’s work is to find complete honesty on an emotional level. We have needed constant reminders to not over-dramatise. Finding this level of honesty within one’s performance will allow the audience members to live each moment with the dancers, rather than just feel like an outside spectator.

The entire process of how he creates has also been unique for me. Akram doesn’t just come into the studio and tell us, “stand here” or “do this step.” I have felt much more involved. We have had more time for this creation than is usually possible with ballet companies, which I believe has been vital. Especially at the beginning, we would often be able to sit down with Akram and discuss all aspects of the characters or the work as a whole. He always made a conscious effort to tell us of any and all inspiration he found throughout the process. This has allowed the dancers an opportunity to discover who these characters are as real people.

I truly believe that Akram Khan’s Giselle will one day be viewed as a classic in its own right.

Reimagining a classic is no small feat. Akram has taken the responsibility and poured everything he has into this creation. He has found a beautiful way of protecting the core ideas of Giselle, but has translated it into today’s world. I truly believe that Akram Khan’s Giselle will one day be viewed as a classic in its own right.


  • Madison Keesler performs the role of Giselle on Thu 20 Oct 2pm, Sat 22 Oct 2.30pm, Thu 27 Oct 2pm and Thu 17 Nov 2pm.

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