Dada Masilo’s Giselle

Choreography Dada Masilo, music Philip Miller
Dance Consortium
Dance Consortium Sadler’s Wells

Soweto born and raised Dada Masilo is no wallflower, no shy country girl Giselle of old, but a #MeToo woman before the term was coined, a striking figure. She is not prepared to let the man get away with breaking her heart, her spirit, and her life. There is no forgiveness in her heart. And why should there be—this Romantic notion of a young woman, a girl really, deceived, crassly used and abused forgiving her betrayer, both of her betrayers, Hilarion and Albrecht?

Masilo, choreographer and dancer, takes the lead role with fiery resolve. William Kentridge’s (he has collaborated previously with Masilo for his own installations) distinctive backcloth sets the African village scene, where barefoot villagers till the land in easy-going, jovial if backbreaking dance—there’s chatter, argument and laughter. Giselle stands out not with her slight boyish stature and shaved head but as a girl with dreams of a life beyond this tedium—above her station, perhaps.

Philip Miller’s score is epic and forbidding if not foreboding. The entitled rich come a-calling, men a-leaping, haughty, elaborately coiffed Bathilde (Liyabuya Gongo) feet a-stamping in her high heels. An effete male companion expects his parasol to be caught as he drops it, giving ‘at beck and call’ an amusing dimension.

Albrecht (Lwando Dutyulwa) is easy to fall for, charming, tall, handsome, stunning physique. He brings her flowers; their duets are passionate. The coarser village girls come on strong to him, hips a-rolling, bums a-swaying, he’s a fine specimen.

But Hilarion (Tshepo Zasekhaya) has spotted that Giselle’s suitor is not who he seems, not one of them. He has found his velvet coat. Their battle duet is full-on. Albrecht is a cheat: when Bathilde beckons, he tows the line, his duplicity apparent in his false smile. There is no doubt he was only out for a fling, a bit on the side. Bathilde smashes Giselle in the face.

There are many brutal as well as slapstick comical and satirical touches, which slacken the tension. Giselle’s mother (Sinazo Bokolo) strips and beats Giselle’s naked breasts with a rice straw brush—so no support there. She herself is no angel, a tippler who likes her beer. A bottle is her best friend, a bottle will never leave her, she says. Try as she might, Bathilde’s abandoned shoes won’t fit her but not to worry they’ll buy her another beer… Some mum…

Embarrassed and shamed by her mother and mocked by the villagers, Giselle dances a deranged solo (music atonal, storm clouds gathering), curls up and dies, a tiny foetal figure, naked but for a pair of white pants. Albrecht carries her off, but is he remorseful? Mourners traverse the stage singing a traditional hymn, “go to heaven, my heart, for there is no peace on this earth”.

But who are these gender-bending creatures in red dresses? Wilis, of course, spirit ancestors led by Llewellyn Mnguni with his long grey braids and his flywhisk flicking. Myrtha is a Sangoma, or traditional South African healer. Giselle flails and kicks against them, an independent soul, she initially resists their power, but aren’t they just the best...

Powerful, commanding, they beat Hilarion to death. Myrtha’s “I’m calling all of you! Here is a man who is breaking hearts! Catch him!” rouses Giselle. Whip in hand she turns on Albrecht without pity. Slashes and thrashes him to death. Justice and Myrtha are satisfied. Giselle kisses him before blowing his dust in his face. She is at peace.

A seamless mix of contemporary and African dance (“predominantly the Tswana of South Africa’s North West Province”), a mix of voices on the soundtrack, English and Xhosa I guess, a mix of music, jazzy, carnivalesque, doom-laden, thunderously percussive, and screaming strings. Masilo’s company of fourteen dancers are a mix, too. All come together to dance the resplendent supernatural Wilis.

Brave to programme Masilo’s no interval seventy-minute Giselle so soon after Akram Khan’s powerful ENB Giselle (with interval) at the same venue. Comparisons are inevitable. And Birmingham Royal Ballet is bringing its traditional Giselle here at the end of the month. What does this glut of Giselles signify?

Masilo explains, “I did aim to make a work which empowers women who are expected to be understanding, soft, tolerant and forgiving. It’s also very good for us to acknowledge that we are strong and powerful—and to use that power to say ‘I’m not going to take that, enough is enough’.”

“I’ve set it in rural South Africa so we are dealing with different cultures and traditions. It’s about how people interact, how relationships are formed and the dynamics of those relationships in rural South Africa which is completely different from the world of classical ballet.”

“I did not consciously set out to ‘Africanize’ Giselle. It is just there. I am South African—this is where my roots are. My origins and environment infuse my work. I have also studied classical ballet. It’s about allowing the two to merge without losing the essence of the work.”

This is Masilo’s fourth reinterpretation of a classical ballet: Romeo and Juliet came in 2008, Carmen in 2009, Swan Lake 2010, and now Giselle created in 2017, having its UK première as part of Dance Consortium’s 2019 performance schedule, which also marks the Consortium’s 45th tour since 2000.

A Sadler’s Wells co-production, it will tour to Nottingham, Bradford, Birmingham, Salford Quays, Milton Keynes, Brighton and Canterbury.

Reviewer: Vera Liber