Giselle is best known as a pretty, classical ballet from the Romantic era, to pretty music by the little known Adolphe Adam. If that’s what you want, do NOT go out to see Dada Masilo’s Giselle. You won’t find any of that in her very modern, African take on this production.
The collaboration of Dada Masilo (choreographer), Philip Miller (composer) and William Kentridge (visual artist) is a tried and tested one and they once again join forces here. Described as “classical avant-garde”, Miller uses electronic sampling from the orchestral score by Adolphe Adams, layering it richly with African voice and percussion. It is both experimental and theatrical. It is not “pretty” music. It is as harsh as the story being told. The mad scene music had me blocking my ears to protect them from the strident sounds. The music and the choreography certainly worked off one another to excellent effect. The art, as pointed out by a fellow reviewer, Robyn Sassen, not so much. It was there. If it wasn’t there it would have made no difference.
Masilo sticks to the familiar story of Giselle and fans of classical ballet will have no trouble following the plot. The first act is powerful. Instead of a happy European village of two hundred years ago, we are thrust into a timeless African village with chattering girls and flirtatious men. Hilarion is creepy nasty. Albrecht is cheating scum. The villagers are spiteful bullies. Giselle, exquisitely danced by Dada Masilo herself, goes mad, nearly naked and alone on stage before dying. One goes off to interval with a sense of relief. The second act, however, is where the beauty of this work really lies. Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is reinvented as a sangoma (male). The Wilis are male and female dancers, perhaps genderless in the afterlife. They are not the sweet, sad pathetic creatures who dance men to their deaths, but creatures bent on revenge, not forgiveness. Out come the sjamboks and one understands why David Hutt, Songezo Mcilezile and Nonofo Olekeng who were responsible for the costumes, clothed these African Wilis evocatively in both colour and style of dripping blood.
The work is a must see and is simply (and literally) stunning. I felt shell-shocked as I left the theatre.
David April assisted with directorial advice, Suzette le Sueur did the lighting.
The dancers are Nadine Buys, Zandile Constable, Liyabuya Gongo, Thami Majela, Dada Masilo, Ipeleng Merafe, Llewellyn Mnguni, Khaya Ndlovu, Thabani Ntuli, Kyle Rossouw, Thami Tshabalala and Tshepo Zasekhaya.
I saw Giselle at a short preview season at the UJ Theatre in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, and travels to Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival where it can be seen on 29 June, 30 June and 1 July 2017 before coming up for one performance at the 969 Festival on 29 July 2017. Book early if you want tickets to this one. It is almost certain to sell out.
Co-commissioned by The Joyce Theatre (New York), Hopkins Centre (Dartmouth College, New Hampshire), La Biennale de la Dance de Lyon in France, and Sadler’s Wells in London, this work will be touring extensively next year.