Perth Festival review: Dada Masilo’s Giselle ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 28 February ·
Review by Nina Levy ·
Like all the great Romantic ballets, Giselle doesn’t read well from a contemporary feminist perspective. Its female protagonist goes mad and dies halfway through the work because she’s been deceived by a man. Then the second act is populated by wilis – ethereal, evil female spirits bent on dancing men to their deaths. And at the end of it all, the man is forgiven and saved, as the female lead disappears.
What is both clever and immensely satisfying about South African choreographer Dada Masilo’s version of Giselle is that she tweaks this plot only slightly to achieve a completely different result. The magic of the transformation is embedded as much in the choreographic, musical and design choices as it is in the storyline.
From early on in Masilo’s Giselle, those familiar with the traditional version will notice that Philip Miller’s eclectic composition includes pops of the original Adolphe Adam score, but manipulated; distorted, distended, overlain with African drumming.
The dancers make occasional references to the original choreography too, but predominantly the movement is a blend of contemporary and traditional African dance. Feet skitter, arms curlicue, heads dip. It’s peppered with claps, calls and – occasionally – conversation, and framed by William Kentridge’s whimsical pencil sketch of a sparse South African rural vista. In contrast to Act I’s delicate, simpering balletic “Friends”, here we see Giselle’s friends get down with some serious booty-shaking. Later, the vibe shifts to swing; the music, big band style.
And then there are the two Act I pas de deux between Giselle and Albrecht, danced with joyful abandon by Masilo and Xola Willie (on opening night). Whereas in traditional Romantic pas de deux the dancers’ bodies barely touch and passion is communicated with longing glances, here we see Giselle’s body slide down Albrecht’s. The dance is punctuated by their audible breaths; arms fling skyward with an exhalation and float sensuously down. When Albrecht whirls Giselle around we feel the dizziness of their attraction. Their final kiss rings through the air.
As Masilo notes in the program, in the traditional Giselle, the famous “mad scene relies on messy hair”. Shaven-headed, Masilo’s Giselle pulls not at her hair but at her clothes. Writhing and screaming she is stripped back in every sense. The baying onlookers are, perhaps, figments of her imagination who fade away with the light, leaving her to die alone, her crumpled outline just discernible.
And so to the Wilis.
Forget other-worldly wraiths in ghostly white. Against a minimalist forest of shards and slivers lit luminous green, these wilis are crimson-clad, their tulle bustles a tongue-in-cheek nod to tutus past. Wafting port de bras and delicate bourees are replaced with flicking hands, stamping feet and war calls. Turning the whole wispy women trope on its head, they’re earthly and androgynous. Male and female, they’re led by a transgender Myrtha – a sangoma (a traditional South African healer) rather than a spirit – danced by the sensational and stately Lllewellyn Mnguni. Towering and muscular she wields long blonde hair and a blonde-haired switch, both of which she whips with ferocity.
Dado Masilo’s Giselle is at once liberating and devastating. It is performed with power and conviction by its compelling cast. Leading her dancers as Giselle, Masilo is simply captivating, as she moves through innocence, heartbreak and anger to freedom.
If you aren’t familiar with original Giselle, it’s worth taking some time on YouTube to fill in the gaps before you see this version.
But most importantly – whatever you do – make sure you see Masilo’s marvellous Giselle.
Pictured top: Dada Masilo (centre) is simply captivating as Giselle. Photo: John Hogg.