IF YOU’VE EVER questioned the true value of the arts in this world, you need to see Dada Masilo’s Giselle. Summarily, and without hesitation it will strip you of any doubt. You might emerge crying from the experience and emotionally shattered, but you will be sure that what you just experienced was unadulterated magic and relentlessly transformative.
The ballet of Giselle is one of dance’s anomalies. It was composed by Adolphe Adams, today a relatively unknown composer, in 1841, and it rose to balletic prominence as one of the genre’s unequivocal commercial classics. It boasts the collaborative input of the headline creatives of the day, in Théophile Gautier, Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo. In truth, and in structure, it’s not that different from various other romantic tales of the time: peasant girl meets boy. They fall in love. He’s the wrong boy, according to her mom. He finds another. She goes mad with grief and dies of a broken heart. And then she becomes a virgin demon in hell, where she gets to persecute the boy who jilted her. With various variations on the theme, it’s a well-trod story.
What Dada Masilo does with it is something completely extraordinary. For one thing, she vigorously strips it of blandness, with the emotional content of the work stitched boldly into its choreography, it is akin to what Yael Farber has done with Ibsen’s Miss Julie in her Mies Julie (2012), or what Mark Dornford-May did with Bizet’s Carmen in his U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005). Indeed, there are a couple of moments in the work’s first half in which you expect the dancers to roll out a Carmen sequence or even to roll a cigarette or two: there’s a kind of African folksy level of nuance that filters through the material, seamlessly.
But as it unfolds, this work takes on its own tough and exquisite character, not stinting on emotional input. Masilo takes the lead, and unlike some of the works that she’s performed and choreographed over the last couple of years, it sees her enfolded in its intricacies with integrity and thoughtfulness: her skill as a dancer and as a character are showcased impeccably. Indeed: this is the Dada Masilo that audiences fell in love with nearly 10 years ago. She’s alive with an electricity that makes you want to put brakes on your ability to watch: the dancing is lithe and virile; it’s rapid and fierce and it will leave you completely breathless.
And while Masilo still has that ability to grab your eye and not let it go, even if she is dancing a routine with the company, it’s an exceptionally fine company, featuring dancers such as Liyabuya Gongo and Kyle Rossouw, to name but a few, who will make you sit up and look with great care: you might not have paid a lot of attention to these dancers in the past, thinking them generally a competent part of ensemble work. Dada Masilo’s Giselle is a coming of age work, not only for Masilo, but for the whole company.
The work features simple and devastatingly effective costume design and a clear sense of colour coordination, placing the Wilis – the evil demons from the underworld – in a deep red which is not gender specific as it is infused with traditional African associations. It also is underpinned by a piece of music by Philip Miller that lends even the lightest most ostensibly romantic moments deeply sinister undertones that cannot be ignored. Featuring a wide range of sound and a multitude of styles of vibration and concatenation, it’s a score which coheres with an utter perfection with the work on stage, allowing the dancers themselves to vocalise particular moments which exacerbate the sense of local colour, as they reflect the nuances in the story beautifully.
The only flaw in the work is the choice of William Kentridge’s drawings as a projected backdrop. They’re magnificent drawings, but once the performers appear on stage, you cannot actually see the drawings: and when you do manage, with great difficulty, to steal your eyes away from the dancers to look upon these charcoal landscapes, the image has changed: there’s a lack of coherence here – why these images are used and why they change in a sequence is not clear. Thankfully, in the second act, which takes place in hell, there are no arbitrary landscapes that might threaten your focus on the dancers.
This work is unequivocally the crowning glory of Masilo’s career so far. It will, in the next few months, continue taking her around the world, including to La Biennale de la Dance de Lyon in France, and Sadler’s Wells in London, next year: if you are intending to go to Grahamstown this year for the National Arts Festival, this piece alone is sufficient impetus to justify the cost, the difficulties of being in the Eastern Cape in winter, and the vagaries of the road trip. If you aren’t but are in Johannesburg in late July: this is one of the unequivocal headlines of the 969 Festival.
- Dada Masilo’s Giselle is choreographed by Dada Masilo and features creative input by William Kentridge (drawings), Philip Miller (music composition), David April (directorial assistance), David Hutt, Songezo Mcilizeli and Nonofo Olekeng (costumes) and Suzette le Sueur (lighting). It is performed by 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. It performed for a short season at the UJ Theatre in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, and travels to Grahamstown where it will perform at the Rhodes Theatre on June 29, 30 and July 1 (Visit nationalartsfestival.co.za) Thereafter, it performs at The 969 Festival, hosted by Wits University, in the Main Wits Theatre on July 29 (Visit https://www.inyourpocket.com/johannesburg/969-festival_2173e )