Dada Masilo / The Dance Factory
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

April 3, 2018
Dada Masilo’s Giselle 

Jerry Hochman

So … I entered the Joyce Theater to see the opening night performance of Dada Masilo and The Dance Factory knowing that Masilo’s “reinterpretation” of Giselle, which was having its New York premiere, would be difficult for me to take.  I’ve written on many occasions that Giselle, the Romantic ballet first choreographed in 1841, is my favorite ballet, and the notion that Masilo would corrupt it by having her version celebrate revenge rather than the power of love and redemption in order to give the story a more contemporary spin, which – besides having the venue changed to South Africa – is what I’d heard, was perverse to me. Change the venue; change the time period; change any part of it you want, I thought; but don’t change the original into something it isn’t.

And then I read the program notes, and knew I’d hate it. The prejudice and misinformation set forth there – the original’s Wilis are “a group of sweet, sad girls”; “Giselle’s mad scene relies on messy hair” [whose version of Giselle did she see??] – made me angry.  And subverting the real Giselle in order to make it sound absurd, and to make her version more “real” – made me angrier.  As the curtain went up, I sat with my arms crossed, knowing I’d hate it.

Well … I didn’t hate it.  I liked it. A lot.

I’m still not comfortable with the emphasis on “revenge,” but Masilo has modified the story enough so that that outcome is not only palatable, but fully appropriate.  More significantly, Masilo’s Giselle is a marvel of intelligence and dance craftsmanship in every respect – the choreography, story changes, staging, characterizations, music, lighting…. It all works, and emerges as a complete, cohesive, mesmerizing piece of dance theater. I have some quibbles – but I think most of it reflects my lack of familiarity with the intricacies of the piece.

Masilo, highly promising and already highly respected (for the quality of her work; not just because, hailing from South Africa, she may be somewhat of a dance novelty) owes the basic structure of her Giselle to the original story, adapted by Theophile Gautier from a story by Heinrich Heine and a poem by Victor Hugo. Albrecht, a member of the aristocracy, hides his true identity and romances a village maiden, Giselle, all the while being betrothed to Bathilde, the daughter of a Duke. When his duplicity is discovered, Giselle goes mad, exacerbating her pre-existing heart condition, and dies after running into Albrecht’s arms. In Act II, still in love with Albrecht even in death, Giselle saves him from vengeful Wilis (even though she now is one).

There are different nuances to this depending on how the roles are played – Albrecht might have been a randy prince on the prowl, or he may have really fallen in love with Giselle but had to maintain appearances to preserve the possibly arranged marriage with Bathilde– and maybe save himself from losing his lands and title or whatever it takes to be considered a nobleman in medieval Germany. Or maybe a combination of the two.  And Giselle may have been an unsophisticated, easily influenced naïf. Or she might have rightly judged Albrecht’s feelings for her to be true, and her real beef was with Bathilde. [Think about it.]

Anyway, in Masilo’s Giselle, there’s no ambiguity.  In Act I, Albrecht is out for some very specific dalliance in the village, but not with any specific female. Even though the other village maids think he’s a hunk and Giselle is turned off by him, he lights on Giselle.  Maybe it’s the climb. Giselle’s mother warns her about this creep (not about any heart condition), and that her daughter will be sorry if she doesn’t control herself.  She doesn’t control herself.  Albrecht seduces Giselle, and they have a romantic duet culminating in sex. As fast as you can say “your mother was right; I really am your worst nightmare,” he promptly abandons her for the wings, while she lies on the stage floor in post-coital sleep and dreams of being summoned by vengeful spirits.  [She does the foreshadowing, not her mother.]  After Giselle awakens, Albrecht’s relationship with Bathilde is eventually revealed (and he’s not just going through the arranged-marriage motions with Bathilde – he’s all over her like a cheap … dashiki), and she realizes she’s been had.

But this South African village is a tough neighborhood.  No one feels sorry for her. On the contrary, the other townsfolk laugh at her; Albrecht laughs at her; Bathilde laughs at her. And her mother laughs at her – and says, essentially: ”I told you so.” Everyone abandons her. Giselle goes mad alone, and dies alone.

Act II is sort of standard, except the Wilis are vengeful spirits of those who have been wronged (male or female). Apply Jerome Robbins’s The Cage to the basic scenario, have the spirits outfitted in blood red costumes rather than ghostly white, and have the former lovers beaten to death after they’ve been forced to dance to within an inch of their lives, and you have Act II.

Well, aside from this basic outline, you don’t have it. The brilliance of Masilo’s Giselle is in how she does it.

Transferring the venue to South Africa is more than just a natural thing for Masilo and her Johannesburg-based company to do (in addition to being a member of the company, Masilo is The Dance Factory’s Artist-in-Residence): it changes everything about the way the story looks and feels.  The movement quality, the choreographic nuts and bolts, is Masilo’s derivation from South African tribal movement [yes, I’m generalizing, I know there’s no “one” African tribal movement], and it’s concurrently primitive-looking and extraordinarily complex.  There’s little “ballet” vocabulary here – but there’s a definite “ballet sensibility” to the overall staging. And when the feverish pace slows down – the pas de deux; the mad scene (when she’s alone); the processionals at the end of each act; and at various exclamation points in between – the movement becomes more focused; less frenzied, and absolutely gripping in a completely different way.

And appropriately for the change in venue sensibility, Masilo’s Giselle is very much weighted and into the ground, rather than ethereally Romantic.  Indeed, the only aspect of it that has anything to do with Giselle Romanticism is the costumes of the Wilis.  I thought initially that the blood red costumes had a strange protruding bustle, which made no period or venue sense at all. But looking more closely, I saw that this “bustle shape” actually resembled a garish remnant (the back portion, cut back) of the Romantic tutus worn by the Wilis in the original. Every aspect of Masilo’s Giselle is intelligently planned.

Most importantly, and still more brilliantly, there’s Masilo’s choreography and staging on a macro level.  Masilo’s Giselle draws the viewer in and hold the viewer’s attention in part because of its exoticism, but also because of its relentless and inescapable power (which matches the power of these South African Wilis). The movement speed is electric – except for those times when Masilo skillfully changes the pace.  The piece’s overall visual and emotional “balance” – and it’s circularity (derived from the original but expressed differently and more clearly) – is stunningly conceived and executed: the dance is complete from start to finish. And when one sees the connection between the end of Act I and the end of Act II (in that respect very different from the original, which is more linear), the realization takes your breath away.

The movement isn’t the only thing inspired by its South African location. I suspect that the relationships – familial and community – are expressed differently because perhaps that’s the way they’re expressed in rural South African communities. And as the original Giselle reflects and applies medieval European folklore relating to the spirits of dead (and maybe spurned) virgins to help explain the dangers of forests at night, Masilo’s Giselle reflects and applies South African folklore relating to the existence of ancestor–spirits who exact revenge on those who’d tormented them.

Lastly, the music by South African composer and “sound artist” Philip Miller – a mashup of original African rhythm/drumbeats with familiar, albeit distorted, themes from Adolphe Adam’s original score – is as brilliantly conceived as Masilo’s choreography and staging. The Adam themes merge seamlessly with the pounding rhythm, seeming to emanate from some faraway source and to have an overall sense of danger.  [Indeed, the piece itself begins not with the expected “all’s well in the village” theme to something far more ominous – more like Prokofiev’s opening for the final Act in Romeo & Juliet.] . The resulting musical mélange dramatically changes the character of the original into something that sounds tribal without losing the reference.

The quibbles I have are largely nitpicky. There is, from the outset, a lot of spoken word here – the dancers have conversations with each other that, like the movement, is conducted at a feverish clip. But the words are spoken so fast that the actual words are incomprehensible – they could be English or a native language or some other language entirely – except that the last sentence (or thought expression) in certain of the diatribes is spoken more slowly and in English.  I suppose the reasoning is that what’s important isn’t what’s being said, but how it’s being said – until it suddenly becomes important for the audience to understand. But the process seemed contrived to me. On the other hand, this process also serves to briefly reduce the dance’s intensity level.

And although using African tradition and mythology within the context of the Giselle story is a brilliant way to superimpose African sensibilities onto it and thereby irrevocably change its impact, having men dance as Wilis is difficult to accept, and having Myrta be male (a Sangoma – a traditional African healer) invites unfortunate comparisons to stereotypical witch doctors. And Masilo really should do something about (or explain) what Myrtha uses in place of a twig of myrtle to summon the Wilis and direct the action – it looks like a strange combination feather-duster and cut-off mop.

I was also troubled by the depiction of the “training” of Giselle to be a Wili.  Like the other South African-style Wilis, Giselle is an avenging force – and, being a novice (as in The Cage), she has to be taught (though she’s a quick study). But the training looks like a martial arts class – and the use of repeated punches and counter-punches was just too obvious for me.

And then there’s the nudity. When she cautions her daughter against becoming involved with Albrecht, Giselle’s mother (her mother!) rips off Giselle’s top and seems to play with her (Giselle’s) breasts, as if saying that all Albrecht wants to do is play with them. But it makes no sense to me that any mother would ever do that under any circumstances.  And later, during the mad scene, instead of having Giselle’s hair loosened and, shudder, messy (aside from the fact that Masilo is bald and had no hair to loosen), Giselle’s clothing is pulled off … by the villagers.  They shame her, and then leave her with nothing to hide her shame.

As well done as these scenes were (and they were very well done – not at all prurient – indeed, there was more sexuality in the dances between Albrecht and any female within touching distance than in these scenes), both reflect an overall level of cultural cruelty that I’m not sure Masilo was intending. And the mad scene also appears to inject a logical inconsistency where previously things seemed straightforward: Albrecht may have deceived Giselle and caused her to become unglued, but it was being shamed by her community that destroyed her. So killing Albrecht may have felt good – but it didn’t address the larger problem.

Again, though, these deficiencies may make more sense on repeat viewings, and they don’t in any way detract from Masilo’s brilliant conception and execution.

As Albrecht, Xola Willie was every bit the deceitful, pompous, egocentric, clueless, uncaring villain with no redeeming social value at all. He was fabulous. And his execution – on his own, while fighting with Hilarion (literally – the confrontation was knock-down, drag out real) and while partnering Giselle, was exemplary.  As Myrtha, the Sangoma, Llewellyn Mnguni was a Force.  He took some getting used to, but he was both regal and vicious – much more that the typically vicious but relatively stoic Myrthas of the original.  And his execution of Masilo’s African-based ritualistic (for him) movement was nothing short of magnificent. [Masilo’s choreography for Myrtha at the beginning of Act II included a “typical” Myrtha diagonal, but a diagonal like no one has previously seen.]  Tshepo Zasekhaya’s Hilarion was no dumb brute, as if often the case in the original. He was sensitive, and wronged – and like another Hilarion or two I’ve seen, didn’t deserve his fate. As Giselle’s Mother, Khaya Ndlovu, was – appropriate, for this concept – domineering and overbearing (nothing like the kindly, gentle mother in the original). And Liyabuya Gongo’s Bathilde – also, I trust, appropriate for this concept – was simply royally repulsive.

But in more than one sense of the word, this show belonged to Masilo herself. Compared to other members of the cast, Masilo looks tiny. But there’s nothing tiny about what she does on stage.  One would expect her execution of her own choreography to be superb, which it was, but it was her characterization – her fully developed, multi-dimensional Giselle – that was most extraordinary, partly because her Giselle has so many facets to reveal, and partly because Masilo does such a fabulous job revealing each of them. This Giselle is no sweet peasant girl; she’s prickly and feisty and can hold her own with her equally prickly and feisty neighbors. When she initially rejects Albrecht’s advances, she shows her independence (and good judgment).  When she succumbs to his advances, you can see her defenses and independence break down.  That this Giselle defies her mother is no surprise; that she loses herself so completely to Albrecht is shocking. And her madness and death are layered portrayals – reflecting her betrayal and shame as layered, compounding events. Masilo made all these facets of her character – as well as her determination to seek vengeance as a somewhat sadistic Wili – thoroughly believable.

At bottom, this Giselle isn’t an unrealistic ideal, whether inspirational or not. In a world in which humanity, for better or worse, is in rare supply, Masilo’s Giselle is only human.

Dada Masilo’s Giselle will be in residence at the Joyce until Sunday. See it – or suffer the wrath of South African Wilis.