Sadler’s Wells, London
October 4, 2019
Giselle seems everywhere this autumn. Thankfully, they are all different; very different. Dada Masilo’s South African interpretation is also refreshingly original. While she leaves more than enough of the traditional story in place, there are some significant changes, especially in the brutal second act.
Act I shifts from spotless peasants and a grape harvest to farmworkers toiling away in the blazing sun. The landowners are arrogant, Liyabuya Gongo’s haughty Bathilde in particular. That’s a description that also applies to Lwando Dutyulwa’s Albrecht. He may be outwardly smooth and charming, but it comes with a sense of entitlement. He sweeps the unfortunate Giselle (played by Masilo herself) off her feet but, when reunited with his betrothed, ditches her without a thought, like a child might toss aside an unwanted plaything. It is cruel and deliberate. Mocked by the villagers, Giselle is literally stripped and heartlessly humiliated before she dies.
As strong as the dancing and storytelling is, the production suffers a little from its economical setting. There is no set (in Act II we even have to imagine Giselle’s grave). A black and white drawing projected behind initially creates a sense of place, and later views of clouds certainly indicate a brewing storm, but it could do with a little more. The story also feels a tad uneven, shifting between bowling along and almost grinding to a halt. The incorporation of a dream, a vision of what is to come in Act II, is very effective, however.
The choreography is a mix of ballet, contemporary and Tswana dance. The footwork is fast, arms and bodies always strong. The cast also chatter and yell in various languages. South African composer Philip Miller’s score neatly references Adolphe Adam’s while always sounding very modern.
The even more sparse decoration of Act II, played out against a blank backdrop, works rather well, however. It very much gives the sense of having been transported to a spiritual world.
Masilo’s biggest change comes with the Wilis. Put aside any ghostly visions of women in white tutus wafting past. Her Wilis, men and women, come in blood red. Led by the commanding and supremely lithe Llewellyn Mnguni as Myrtha, a sangoma, a shaman-like traditional medicine practitioner who communicates with ancestors, they are out for revenge and make no secret of it.
Giselle too is part of this group. In Act I she’s is naive and carefree, loving and trusting. But now she’s a victim and she wants her pound of flesh. Like the others, she is violent and angry. She’s vicious, dangerous and powerful. There’s no being danced to death here. Both are tormented mercilessly before being dispatched. When Myrtha hands Giselle a whip, she doesn’t need telling what to do, and uses on Albrecht with no qualms at all.
It ends with a sinsiter replaying of Giselle’s funeral procession of Act I but cleverly done in the opposite direction. Only now it is Albrecht lying dead. Giselle brings up the rear. On reaching Albrecht’s body she tosses white powder which hangs in the air. It feels like she is releasing a spirit. Then she steps coldly over him as though he was nothing, not there. This Giselle does not forgive.
Dada Masilo’s Giselle continues on tour to November 2, 2019. Visit www.danceconsortium.com for dates, venues, booking links and more information.