Acclaimed South African choreographer Dada Masilo, who riveted Hop audiences two years ago with her Swan Lake, returns to the Hop this spring with the US premiere of another bold reinterpretation of a classical ballet, Giselle, with the electrifying Masilo dancing the title role.
Masilo and her 11-member company perform the work Friday and Saturday, March 30 and 31, 8 pm, in The Moore Theater of the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College. The work was commissioned by the Hop in partnership with The Joyce Theater and la Biennale de la dance de Lyon 2018.
While in residence at the Hop, Masilo also will participate in two public events: a free artist talk, titled “#NotAPrettyBallet,” on Wednesday, March 28, 5 pm, in the Top of the Hop; and a dance master class on Saturday, March 31, 11 am, at the Straus Dance Studio in Dartmouth’s Berry Sports Complex.
Like Masilo’s Swan Lake, her Giselle powerfully flips the racial and gender dynamics of classical ballet, using a movement vocabulary that brilliantly joins ballet and African dance. In Giselle, she turns a Northern European story of wan victimhood and pious forgiveness into a vibrant fable of high emotion and revenge set in an African village, with its routines and characters—including a traditional healer.
The work has garnered rave reviews in performances in South Africa and Europe. “This new ballet by Dada Masilo is, in a word, magnificent,” writes South Africa’s Daily Dispatch. “Sparks fly from the moment she steps on stage as Giselle …[Masilo] reshapes the classic European ballet into a thoroughly African offering.”
“Masilo’s Giselle engulfs one’s emotional sensibility,” writes South Africa’s Cue Media. “Masilo foregrounds a woman’s right to expressively thrash in the fullness of darker human emotions. In doing so, she reconciles the sterile morality of the original ballet by validating the complexity of these emotions and reveals them as necessary and inevitable…Yes, there is unapologetic anger, revenge and resentment, but after all this Giselle, quite literally, steps into the liberating light of a life after love.”
As with Swan Lake, Masilo’s choreography is an utterly original, convincing and joyously theatrical merging of classical ballet and African and other dance forms. Writes Michael Schmidt in his blog Drinking With Ghosts:
“The ballet itself is astounding, and rather than an interpretation, it is an entire renovation: while this time only a few traces of classical remain, primarily in the footwork, lifts and turns, the African-modernist elements come muscularly to the fore in a continually morphing matrix of the fluid and the angular–interspersed with lovely surprise elements…like jazz, rock ‘n roll, hip-hop dance-off, as well as the martial arts/dance of capoeira…When the house lights go up, the entire audience is on its feet, hullabalooing, ululating, whistling and clapping its wild appreciation in a most African manner. As one audience member puts it to Masilo afterwards, ‘Everyone’s talking about decolonizing the arts – and your ballet just did it!’”
In a review of an October 2017 performance of the work, the Italian arts blog Accreditati praised the vitality of the dancing and storytelling, as well as Masilo’s interpretative choices. “In modern society that never before is marked by the uncontrolled proliferation of acts of abuse and violence, often fatal, for thousands of women of all ages, the finale chosen by Dada Masilo appears as a drastic symbolic group punishment for all those executioners still free to do evil or otherwise remain indifferent or insensitive.”
Inspired by texts by Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo, the original Giselle, which premiered in Paris in 1841, centers on a peasant girl who falls in love with Albrecht, the son of a wealthy landowner who steers his son toward a bride of his class. After Giselle dies of heartbreak, her ghost is forced to join a band of wilis—spirits of other betrayed maidens who avenge themselves by forcing the men who wronged them to dance to their death. Still in love with Albrecht, Giselle forgives Albrecht, and the power of that forgiveness allows Albrecht to survive and Giselle to return peacefully to her grave. Set to a score by composer Adolphe Adams, its choreography derives mainly from versions staged by Marius Petipa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg.
Where the term “a case of the willies” came from!
Masilo’s version transports the story to a timeless African village with chattering girls and flirtatious men, After a searing death scene by Giselle, we meet Masilo’s wilis—not pathetic wispy lasses but fierce gender-fluid beings in blood-red, bent on revenge, and led by a sangoma, or Zulu traditional healer.
To realize this new work, Masilo teamed up with longtime collaborators Philip Miller (composer) and William Kentridge (visual artist). Miller uses electronic sampling from Adams’ original orchestral score, layering it richly with African voice and percussion, while Kentridge’s scrappy charcoal projections add to the village ambience.
Masilo came to her aesthetic through a rich cultural upbringing. Born and raised in Soweto, a predominantly black township of Johannesburg, she was an avid participant in street games, traditional dancing and moves learned from Michael Jackson videos. At age 11, she started studying dance formally, eventually applying herself to classical ballet and contemporary dance in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Brussels. Beginning to choreograph in Brussels, she fused the formal dance she had studied with the African dance of her youth, creating the high-speed, norm-defying style that has captivated audiences around the world. She founded her own company in 2008 and became a celebrity in South Africa, and soon afterward became a star on the international scene. In addition to Swan Lake and Giselle, Masilo has created widely celebrated versions of the ballets Romeo and Juliet and Carmen as well as numerous original works.
Masilo’s charming and heartbreaking performance in Swan Lake.