Dada Masilo gives us a Giselle for the twenty-first century; a heroine we identify with and a phenomenal production that makes us feel, writes Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou.
The first time I saw Dada Masilo perform was in a London art gallery. She had choreographed the movement to William Kentridge’s epic video installation, The Refusal of Time (2012), and appeared in several of its sequences. Diminutive in stature but grand in presence, Masilo stood out from start to finish. Already a household name in South Africa, the dancer-cum-choreographer was unknown to me then. But seeing her in Kentridge’s work – walking calmly yet subversively over chairs, marching somnolently with a troupe of dispossessed figures, playing the wife in a silent film-era episode – made an impression on me.
Three years on and Masilo doesn’t fail to inspire dance and art audiences alike. Reviving her 2017 production of Giselle, the ballet classic she retells with a difference, Masilo is still as profoundly expressive and striking to watch as she was in Kentridge’s past work. The characteristic focus and irrepressible charm I witnessed in the cold exhibition space of the Whitechapel Gallery, is again visible on stages across the UK for the Dance Consortium tour. But that’s not to say she’s left Kentridge, a fellow South African and long-term collaborator, behind. We espy his vision in the design of the production, where he has provided several sketches of a sweeping rural landscape. Used as backdrops that open each act of the show, Kentridge’s charcoal sketches, alive and brooding with movement, set both the scene and mood of Masilo’s Giselle. Before Masilo and her superb company blast the stage, the audience’s senses and all past conceptions of what a ballet classic ‘is’ and ‘should be’, it is these drawings we see. It is these sketches we’re encouraged, sans ensemble and musical score, to meditate on.
For Masilo’s Giselle is not situated in a medieval German village like its original librettist, Théophile Gautier, intended; nor is it reimagined through a nineteenth-century plasterboard mock-up of wilting trees, thatched cottages and a Disneyesque turreted castle. Instead it is rooted in the copper soil of a South African village, with all that this community and geography naturally entails. Kentridge’s drawn backdrops are, therefore, more than what Homi K. Bhabha has claimed of his sketches; they are more than a ‘non-landscape’, a world of foreboding myth and allegory. In Masilo’s Giselle they are environments living with the hiss of tall grasses, the suspicious sheen of quiet waters and an unsettling expanse of sky. Disposing of the idyllic pastoral scenes associated with the romantic classical ballet, Kentridge’s rural spaces make and shape the reality of the characters soon to inhabit them. His are landscapes of the mind, foretelling of Giselle’s own tumultuous psyche towards the end of the first act. And unlike the clichéd classical sets of European interpretation, Kentridge’s backdrops envisage a world populated by real people, a locale moved by the passions, prejudices and fraught political powers found in the best of communities.
Masilo’s commitment to revitalising Giselle, to breaking it free of its problematic whiteness – and I mean this in every sense of the word – is at once refreshing and astonishingly needed. Gautier’s Giselle tells the story of a peasant girl who is seduced and betrayed by a duplicitous nobleman, Albrecht, only to die from a broken heart. Appearing in the second act as a spirit, Giselle forgives her false lover and saves him from the retributive tortures of the Wilis, the spurned brides-turned-phantoms who dance men to their deaths. Revivals of the ballet classic often hone in on its themes of love, tragedy and hope – even Akram Khan’s daring adaptation for the English National Ballet retains the original ending of forgiveness. In her version, Masilo doesn’t so much strip the work of these themes as anchor them in the brutal reality and realistic conclusion they warrant. That’s not to say that love, tragedy and hope are gone – they are very much present and palpably evoked. But gone are the ridiculous mannerisms – the gestural language of classical Russian ballet; gone are the ballet blanc sequences of the Wilis, with their sugary spectrality and complete lack of menace; gone are the random divertissements by villagers and the decorative pas de deux of various couples. Instead Masilo floods the stage with sounds, invests the story with the warmth, colour, customs, colloquialisms and sheer charisma of South Africa. Characters have purpose, depth and psychological, if not symbolic, intensity – let’s just say there are no stock villagers here milling around the sides of a plywood faux forest whilst Giselle and Albrecht bashfully frolic and pick flowers.
Masilo’s Giselle opens not to Hilarion (the lacklustre suitor in the classical version) loitering around the heroine’s home, but to the communal calls and moves of the villagers. Lounging along grassy banks and placid waters, as captured in Kentridge’s first sketch, the villagers come together, chatting before another day of work commences. Despite the early hour, they are in good spirits: some shield themselves from the glaring sun by huddling under a parasol, others catch up, gossip in the open air, loudly laughing away their troubles. Masilo has effortlessly created a portrait of a close-knit community, one that makes it their business to know everybody else’s. But there are signs of trouble, not least evinced in the colonial dress worn by the villagers (constricting corsets and cotton skirts for the women; cotton sleeved shirts and beige trousers for the men). Certain villagers try to rally the others, especially the controlling Hilarion, whilst higher-classed figures (dressed in beige breeches, cotton shirts and a rich purple overcoat) disrupt the convivial scene. But here’s the fundamental difference between Masilo’s community and that found in Gautier’s classical version. They’re not passive cyphers that come and go when summoned by aristocratic lords of the manor, deferent before their chains of bling and graceful airs. Masilo’s villagers are rebellious, outspoken, slow to obey and quick to quip with the attendants; they’re self-possessed despite working the land to subsist. These are the people that matter, Masilo seems to say; they’re not just a part of the action, they are the action and lifeblood of Giselle – and, to some extent, the wider history of South Africa’s colonial past.
What I found particularly empowering about the villagers was how they worked the land. In the fields they’re a force to be reckoned with, undiminished by task-masters and overseers. Masilo’s Giselle is both revelatory and revolutionary from start to finish, but if there was ever a scene of collective strength and connectivity it would be this one. Dancing to Philip Miller’s (another notable long-term collaborator of Kentridge) musical composition of climbing brass chords and percussive beats, interspersed with leitmotifs from Adolphe Adam’s 1841 classical score, the village workers come into their own. In a formation of two staggered lines, they reach up and pull down as one; deep plié-like bends which almost burrow deep into the ground are contrasted with quick, clean releases and incisive footwork, as if the villagers were dancing on a knife edge and not rough terracotta terrain. In fact, although much of the footwork and Tswana-inspired dance moves are grounded, they appear as intricate and finely applied as the lace bodices later worn by the Wilis. There is a sensitivity behind the whiplash speed of leaping limbs, percussively tapping feet and hands; this sensitivity is no doubt Masilo’s own astute understanding of the musicality and pliability of the body: its rhythms, tones and internal vibrations are subtly perceived and all the more amplified by Miller’s score.
An additional layer to Miller’s distinctively rich and uplifting accompaniment are the calls and shouts of the workers themselves. The music roves and pushes forward like a steam train, cranking up the energy of the dancers and entire piece to its magnificent yet tragic pitch at the end of the first act. But overlapping the intertwined and increasing forces of sound and sights is the call and response from the dancers themselves. Movement is felt from head to toe and dances out in a vocality of languages (both English and a plethora of South African tongues). In this carnival-like atmosphere, single characters emerge from the collective: Giselle’s mother stumbles in from a subsequent party scene, bottle in hand, drunk on high and actual spirits, but sadly alone with only old memories to keep her company; friends of Giselle are drawn into sharper focus; Hilarion has his own frenetic solo which is equal to Albrecht’s domineering one. Embedded in the ensemble dance scenes, Giselle appears (played by Masilo herself) one with her company yet entrancing to watch.
Masilo has talked of her company being a family, of all the dancers contributing to make the final piece what it is. And such a statement is never more true than in these scenes. But it’s still a show that she has passionately lived and breathed her vision into, and which she passionately wants us to feel, live and breathe too as an audience. Her Giselle is, therefore, not just a South African heroine – although the rituals and social relationships amply make her so – but an everywoman for our times. She is comfortable with her fellow villagers, but initially timid, even wary, around Albrecht (and rightly so!); she is vulnerable, self-protective and self-conscious when her mother exposes her breasts to complete a coming-of-age ritual on her daughter; she is stridently defensive when Hilarion tries to coerce her into a union with him. When Albrecht (danced brilliantly by Lwando Dutyulwa) finally succeeds in enticing her into his arms, Masilo’s Giselle is equally and autonomously involved in the relationship. Masilo has said she wanted Giselle to feel like a queen with Albrecht, flying above life, euphorically in love. In their duet they glide in a seamless symbiosis of African, contemporary and balletic movement; together they create a beautifully synchronised and symmetrical pas de deux. Playful in places, their hips shaking and grinding under a suggestively pink light, in others we’re offered pure poetry. Spinning and whirling around, the couple first mirror then fold into each other as the duet progresses, embracing on a stage ominously awash with purple.
Despite the beauty of their early scenes together, Albrecht is the villain to Masilo’s too-trusting, fatefully faithful Giselle. Unlike Gautier’s and Petipa’s characterisation of a young man caught between his heart and his duty, Masilo’s Albrecht is already married and looking to have something on the side. Presumably the owner of the land that Giselle and her fellow villagers work on, he sees our heroine as fair game; another ‘thing’ to possess, till and dispose of when it suits him. After fighting with Hilarion, an enraged Albrecht shouts ‘she’s mine’. Even before this outburst he commandeers the stage, colonising the space as if it were the body of a woman. Swiftly changing his attire whenever he sees Giselle, Albrecht’s deceit is complete when he turns to the audience and demonstrates his contrived personality. He is an interloper of grand proportions; posing as a worker, friend and lover to Giselle and her people. Once exposed it is not he who is rejected and shamed, as in classical versions, but the heartbroken Giselle.
If the first half sinks our heroine into madness, ostracism and an ignominious death, the second sees her rise up, more powerful than ever. Masilo achieves this by giving the floor not only to Giselle, but to Myrtha and her blood-thirsty band of Wilis – and it must be said that her realisation of them fantastically sets on fire those from ballets past. Crisp white bell skirts, tutus and fairy wings are replaced with crimson dresses and laced bodices that froth outwards in layer upon layer of tulle. In the post-show Q&A, Masilo said she wanted the Wilis to look as though they were drenched in the blood of their victims; with Songezo Mcilizeli and Nonofo Olekeng’s designs she has stylishly achieved this. Terrifying they may be, we feel the justness of their threat and fright: storming the stage, furiously pounding the earth for their blood debt, the Wilis are more Medusa than Minerva; more Greek furies than ethereal spurned brides-to-be. Myrtha, their shamanic queen (a traditional type of healer in South Africa called a Sangoma) roams the stage, urging them on, flapping a horse hair whip and shaking flowers. Performed by the magisterial Llewellyn Mnguni, whose androgynous beauty casts the Queen of the Wilis in a whole new light, Myrtha is composed in her restless quest for retribution. As Myrtha, Mnguni is compelling to watch, transfixing both viewer and hapless male victim in her wake, prowling the stage with a leopard-like stealth and poise. The Wilis – both men and women, for as Masilo herself says, men suffer broken hearts too – look to Myrtha for instruction and she empowers them forward in their bid for release.
Finding a home for her raging heart, Giselle becomes one of them, unmerciful in her whipping of Albrecht and her demand for his death. Coming full circle, she finds an alternate community of wronged souls, one that recognises the wrongs done to her, not it. A writhing score of rushing, seething strings takes over from the bustling brass noises of village life; the nocturnal world of the forest is thick with a raucous cry for sacrifice, and this time it won’t be Giselle’s to make. Albrecht’s death is not cause for celebration, however; it is the release his death affords to Giselle, the pathway to freedom and healing beyond his dead, powerless form, that Masilo wants us to focus on. Feminist through and through, as Masilo has said in multiple interviews, her phenomenal production gives us a heroine, gives us a Giselle, for 2019; a Giselle where toxic masculinity, patriarchal power, colonial oppression and social stigma are found wanting, kicked down and danced to their death; a Giselle where the marginalised and ostracised rise up and find the justice they deserve.
Dada Masilo’s Giselle was shown at Sadler’s Wells on 4th-5th of October and will tour venues around the UK until 2nd November. Click the links to book tickets for the rest of the tour: Alhambra Theatre Bradford (11th-12th Oct), Birmingham Hippodrome (15th-16th Oct), The Lowry Salford Quays (22nd-23rd Oct), Milton Keynes Theatre (25th-26th Oct), Brighton Dome (29th-30th Oct) and Marlowe Theatre Canterbury (1st-2nd November).
Read Lucy Writers Dance Editor and Writer, Shirley Ahura’s interview with Dada Masilo here.
Feature Image by Laurent Philippe; subsequent images of Dada Masilo by Tristram Kenton and Laurent Philippe; plus an image of Paris Opera Ballet as the Wilis.
Lucy Writers and Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou would like to thank Simon Harper for allowing us to review Giselle and interview Dada Masilo.