South African choreographer and dancer, Dada Masilo brings her unique interpretation of Giselle to the Lowry as part of a UK tour organised by Dance Consortium, a group committed to showcasing the best international dance from across the globe.
Masilo, who also dances the central role of Giselle, re-roots the story in a lively South African village where the hustle and bustle of daily life bursts out with occasional narrative, clowning and song. The company of 12 dancers fill the stage with energy as they embrace a wide range of dance styles embracing contemporary dance with flourishes of Latin flamenco, street dance, and a range of movement from African traditions, predominately the Tswana of South Africa’s North West Province.
The set is minimal yet effective – simply a screen backdrop that infuses colour and occasional storm clouds, indicative of what is to come. Make no mistake, this is not a pretty ballet. It is raw, raucous and often very dark.
For those familiar with the ballet, the main strand of Giselle’s traditional narrative is recognisable. Giselle, a peasant girl, dies of a broken heart after discovering her lover, Albrecht is betrothed to another. Kyle Rossouw makes a towering Albrecht who is both domineering and captivating. Masilo almost appears like she is flying when lifted by him.
Sadly, Giselle’s momentary joy turns to despair on discovering her betrayal. The level of vulnerability Masilo portrays as Giselle descends into madness is astonishing. Dancing half-clothed, Giselle is exposed and defenceless. It makes for an uncomfortable watch. If Masilo intended to unsettle as well as move, she has achieved it.
South African composer, Philip Miller’s score fuses electronic sampling from the original orchestrations by Adolphe Adam, layered with African voice and percussion. This fusion of style hits us most powerfully when he introduces a traditional African funeral hymn following Giselle’s death.
It is here, however, that Giselle’s weakness ends. As if lifted by the strength of the voices, Giselle returns from the grave as a supernatural being – fierce and fearless. Her heart has been hardened and, unlike in the traditional ballet, there is no room for forgiveness.
In Masilo’s version, the Wilis, who summon Giselle from her grave to enact revenge are a mix of men and women who have also been wronged. Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is danced by a man, Llewellyn Mnguni, who presents a dark, imposing, androgynous figure casting curses. Masilo has described him as a Sangoma, a traditional South African healer, but there is no sign of healing in this vicious tale of revenge, which sees Albrecht whipped and chased to his death.
Painting Albrecht so starkly as a villain makes his comeuppance a sweet revenge of sorts for Giselle. But this dark retelling is a far from comfortable resolution, leaving a challenging sense of unease.★ ★ ★ ★