Dada Masilo’s Giselle presents the fourth reinterpretation of a ballet classic by the female choreographer, following her reimagining of Romeo and Juliet (2008), Carmen (2009) and Swan Lake (2010). The traditional story of Giselle tells the tragedy of a peasant girl named Giselle who falls in love with the deceitful and disguised nobleman Albrecht. Giselle is convinced by Albrecht’s pledge of eternal love until Hilarion, a gamekeeper in love with Giselle, discovers Albrecht’s disguise. Consumed with jealousy, Hilarion reveals Albrecht’s true identity causing Giselle to spiral into madness, ultimately concluding with her death. Giselle reincarnates as a Wili within act two, joining a group of supernatural women who dance men to death through revenge. The Wilis summon Giselle from the grave to have revenge on her lover but Giselle’s love for Albrecht frees him from their grasp.
Act one of Masilo’s version is set in an African village incorporating the culture of the company within the traditional narrative. The company is almost entirely black dancers from South Africa who brought invigorating energy to the production. Through tribal movement and dialogue, Masilo created a piece that made the audience feel immersed within a vibrant African village. Indeed Masilo states ‘When I tell a story, I want the people I grew up among to understand it. I want to make these classical works speak to someone from a township in Soweto or from a rural area.’ She accomplished this, maintaining the narrative of Giselle whilst setting it in a culturally different world. The combination of the dancers, choreography and music produced something which felt organic.
Act one ultimately ended with tragedy as madness took hold of Giselle. This scene is traditionally portrayed through Giselle’s hair escaping her neat bun, but this was inadequate for Masilo’s ‘rough and violent version’ of the tale. Instead Masilo removed her costume and performed an exceptional solo wrought with emotion. It was the perfect portrayal of a woman distraught with heartbreak and juxtaposed the fun village atmosphere.
Act two truly showcased Masilo’s talent of reinventing conventional classics. Masilo gender-bends the roles of the Willis who are typically played by females, instead allowing her whole cast to portray the spirits. This enabled the use of stronger movements which intensified the vicious and revengeful nature of the spirits, often not captured by the traditional delicate choreography. Furthermore, in Masilo’s production the Queen of the Wilis is instead a Sangoma, a traditional South African healer danced by a man. This casting provided an exhilarating and convincing account of the strength of the Willis.
It was empowering to see a woman of colour taking a lead role in her own choreography. Masilo’s reinterpretation took the audience through a range of emotions cleverly incorporating moments of humour amongst the traditional tragic tale. Her choreography was refreshing, innovative and simply excellent.