Dada Masilo's "Giselle" is not a "pretty ballet"

by Isabelle Blank | 4/3/18 1:50am

Shortly after the curtains opened, South African instrumentals and the voices of Dada Masilo’s dancers overtook the first notes of Adolphe Adam’s original composition for “Giselle.” The dancers were splayed and widely stanced in silhouette against a gray-green William Kentridge illustration of South African marshland. This was not “Giselle” as we know it, but a new, lively and vibrating work.

Masilo’s interpretation of “Giselle,” which first premiered in May 2017 at Dansenshus, Oslo, is part of the South African choreographer and dancer’s galvanizing series of reinterpreted classic ballets. The Hopkins Center for the Arts presented the production’s U.S. premiere over the weekend. Dancing the titular role, Masilo fuses African and classical dance styles in her barefoot ballet.

The story of Giselle revolves around a young peasant girl who falls in love with a man and dies of heartbreak after she discovers he is engaged to another woman. In the traditional ballet, ghostly women called Wilis, who dance men to death, summon Giselle from her grave. The Wilis lure Giselle’s lover, Albrecht, into their death dance one night, but Giselle saves him. Masilo says in the playbill that she wants her Wilis to be terrifying and vicious. Out for revenge, her Wilis demand the blood of those who wronged them. Masilo’s Giselle does not save her lover, but instead triumphantly condemns him after one last kiss.

“Giselle,” as it is classically performed, is a ballet whose aesthetics center around whiteness. Giselle traditionally wears a blue and white frock, and the Wilis appear in the second act in gauzy white leotards and long tulle tutus with delicate white wings at their shoulder blades. The traditional women of “Giselle” are pure and demure, ethereal wisps destroyed by stronger men. 

Masilo’s Giselle, danced by Masilo herself, is strong, nuanced, sexy and bald. In the first act, Giselle wears not her traditional blue and white, but rather a beige corset and skirt over a white blouse which comes unclasped to reveal her bare chest. In the second-to-last scene of Act I, Giselle is forcibly stripped of her clothing by her community. Traditional ballet stories are inscribed with narrative violence against women, and Masilo highlights this fact. Early in the ballet, Giselle is whipped by her mother in a traditional South African ritual to “sweep away girls’ breasts at the age of puberty,” Masilo explained in a question and answer session following the performance. The nudity is not a shock technique, but a means to convey the three-dimensionality of Giselle’s character and lay bare the sometimes thin line between cultural tradition and abuse.

In the traditional ballet, the white ballerina yanks at her tightly plaited bun to illustrate Giselle’s descent into madness. Masilo, who acts as both choreographer and titular dancer, has no hair on which to pull. Instead of pantomiming stereotyped “feminine hysteria,” Masilo’s movements offer a visceral window into Giselle’s heartbreak. Giselle’s nudity successfully provides the audience direct access to the character’s raw emotion. She dies after a series of jolting movements, huddled in naked silhouette on the stage floor.

Subverting the gender binary that is so prevalent in classical ballet, Masilo’s red-clad Wilis are played by both men and women. Masilo’s Myrtha, the queen of the Wilis, is a sangoma — a traditional South African healer —  danced by a man in a blood-red bustled tutu. Casting both men and women as Wilis, Masilo said, was a statement that men can also experience heartbreak. Masilo’s Wilis are androgynous agents of rightful revenge.

Giselle’s two suitors, Albrecht and Hilarion, are not given chauvinistic swords, but instead engage in body to body combat through mesmerizing weight-sharing choreography. In contrast, the Wilis are equipped with whips which they use against the scorned men. They utter battle cries while aligned like soldiers in formation, rather than performing as passive ballerinas following the dictates of traditional choreography.

In her ballet, Masilo literally gives her dancers voice. The performers screech, yell and speak to each other coherently and incoherently. The choice to use voice in addition to movement brings Masilo’s ensemble dancers out of the background, creating an active on-stage community missing in many traditional ballets. It’s part of an intentional effort by Masilo to widen the production’s spotlight beyond the title character. Her supporting characters are not narrative props but emotive men and women with individuality who audibly joke and fight with one another. 

Just a few notes of Adolphe Adam’s  score make their way into the first act. It’s in the second act, which weaves the original music with traditional African instrumentals, that Masilo’s choice to use a composer pays off. South African sound artist Philip Miller overlays a hypnotic drumbeat and rattle over the original music to the Wilis’ dance. Only at the moment during which Giselle kisses the prince a final time do Adam’s original notes swell louder than the drumbeat. Masilo’s choreography is strongest in the second act, where her powerful choreographic language is fully unified with the score. 

The most powerful narrative moment in “Giselle” occurs when Masilo departs from the classic ending. After the bows, one audience member exclaimed, “Finally, something with a good ending — screw forgiving.” Instead of saving Albrecht, Giselle leaves him sprawled dead on the stage floor. She waits for the other Wilis to exit in their victorious procession until she is left alone with her man. Approaching Albrecht with her hands raised above her head, she plants her foot on his chest, steps over her ex-lover like a bug and walks triumphantly offstage. No prince-saving damsel is she.

Masilo’s “Giselle” is political, historic and a stunning work of simultaneous criticism and physical commentary on the original work. The interpretation manages to question and modernize classical ballet while remaining fun to watch. Masilo’s characters step out of the black-and-white realm of ballet characters and into the emotional gray area of real, nuanced people. The choreography is infused with raw emotion, a unique blend of dance and theatrical styles and both Western and South African cultural traditions. Masilo’s “Giselle” is humorous, tragic and complex. It is not, as Masilo quips, a pretty ballet.