When it comes to the classics, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. But as I’m beginning to learn, many classics could be considered to have some catching up to do themselves.
Case in point: the classical ballet Giselle.
Based on a Slavic legend, it tells the story of a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart after discovering that her lover is betrothed to another, and who is summoned from her grave by the Wilis, a group of vengeful supernatural women. The original ballet was first performed in 1841 and set in the Middle Ages.
Before I saw Dada Masilo’s version at Perth Festival, I didn’t know the original story, but I was curious to hear of this South African reinterpretation, complete with African folklore, dance, music and voice.
Dada Masilo was born in Johannesburg and began training at The Dance Factory at the age of 11. She has trained extensively in classical and contemporary dance styles. Since 2008 she has created, choreographed and performed in four modern adaptations of classical ballets, each of them reinvented to be boldly feminist. “Art is not just entertainment, it is education,” says Masilo, adding that through her work she tries to address issues in today’s society.
She has also collaborated with South African artist William Kentridge, in whose Refuse the Hour she performed here at Perth Festival in 2016. Fittingly, Kentridge’s poetic projections form the backdrop to Masilo’s Giselle, along with refreshingly simple and beautiful lighting by long-time collaborator Suzette le Sueur, designed purely to “light the dancers”, as we discover in a post-show Q&A session with Masilo and her cast of freelance performers.
Masilo’s interpretation of Giselle first premiered in May 2017 at Dansenshus, Oslo. It can loosely be understood as a kind of dance theatre that combines movement vocabularies from ballet, African dance, and contemporary dance, including release technique, which is focused on the principles of ease of movement and fluidity.
For the first time, Masilo worked with her dancers from day one to reinvent the otherworldly ballet, creating this powerful, spirited and rebellious interpretation. “Graceful is not vicious,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘How violent can it go?’”. During their famous fight scene, fellow suitor Hilarion gives Albrecht the finger; Giselle is stripped bare by malicious villagers and goes mad; and Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis thrashes her dreadlocks around like so many whips and chains.
Giselle’s mother is portrayed as a broken and ruined alcoholic, and in a shocking plot twist, Giselle violently whips to death her former lover Albrecht, instead of forgiving him and saving him from the Wilis. The final scene has her spirit walking, appeased, over his body in a final procession from the mortal world into the freedom of the afterlife.
Composer and sound artist Philip Miller sampled and distorted themes from the original score by Adolphe Adam to create a layered mashup of African rhythm, percussion and voice – a fitting acoustic backdrop to Masilo’s distinctive blend of dance styles on stage. “It’s nice to hear the theme from the ballet, so it’s not alienated,” says Masilo.
In addition, this company of 13 dancers used voice, song, chant and expression to convey emotion through screaming, shouting and snatches of spoken dialogue. Throughout Giselle, one sound became familiar – the sound of Masilo’s breathing, instigating movement as part of her release technique training. Her audible inhalation and exhalation on stage added vitality to the performance, while audiences collectively held their breath.
Masilo chose to place the story in a South African context, and a gender fluid one with respect to the Wilis, played by both male and female dancers, androgynous in their blood-red tutus. Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis was transformed into a sangoma, a traditional healer, who was played spectacularly by male dancer Llewellyn Mnguni.
The concept of Dada Masilo’s Giselle is extremely current, and every scene makes for a stunningly beautiful spectacle. Surrender to your senses and be spirited away by Masilo’s barefoot ballet.
Founded in 1953 by The University of Western Australia, Perth Festival is the longest running international arts festival in Australia and Western Australia’s premier cultural event. The Festival has developed a worldwide reputation for excellence in its international program, the presentation of new works and the highest quality artistic experiences for its audience. For 66 years the Festival has welcomed to Perth some of the world’s greatest living artists and now connects with hundreds of thousands of people each year.
Wendy Martin is the Artistic Director 2016 – 19.
Images: John Hogg