The story of Giselle is well-trodden. A peasant girl dies of a broken heart after discovering her lover, Duke Albrecht, is betrothed to another, princess Bathilde. The Wilis, the spirits of maidens betrayed by their lovers who roam the earth dancing men to death, summon Giselle from her grave and choose Albrecht as their next target; Giselle’s love saves him. It is simple and lenient. Quintessential romantic ballet.
In her latest work seen at the Wallis Annenberg Center of the Performing Arts, South African choreographer Dada Masilo offers a more militant interpretation of this classic. Meshing classical ballet and contemporary technique with Tswana dance steps, Masilo’s reinterpretation explores South African rituals and resistance by creating a new movement vocabulary.
In some ways, Masilo’s version mirrors the original. There is clearly a similar narrative and general choreographic structure, the first act using short mime scenes fused with episodes of dancing in order to set the stage for the second act, a comparatively more dance-based piece. In Masilo’s reinterpretation though, Giselle does not free Albrecht. Transformed into a Wili, she knows that she will only be released from the mortal world by bringing about the deaths of those who have wronged her. So, she seeks revenge, dancing with the spirit ancestors and ultimately killing Albrecht via an intimate moment resembling a kiss of death.
While the original Giselle forgives her lover, Masilo’s refuses to succumb, knowing her worth and choosing to protect herself. Throughout the performance, Masilo uses sound to express this fortitude. At one point, Giselle runs away from an unwanted advance, pushing him and screaming “no, leave me alone!” Masilo seems to recognize the need to find words for sensations and movements that resist verbalization while also acknowledging that physicality is not the only form of articulation. As she interjected post-performance, “There’s always a point where movement isn’t enough, where you have to vocalize.”
In a similar vein, Masilo’s reinterpretation of the Wilis follow this verbose version of Giselle. Masilo’s Wilis are not soft, sad, or ethereal. They are ferocious, unrelenting, and justified. Led by Myrtha—the queen of the Wilis who Masilo makes a Sangoma, a traditional South African healer— and aided by symbolic objects—a hand-held whip and a cow-hair fly swatter—their arms act as extensions of their power. The Wilis are furious and vicious, what theorist Sara Ahmed would undoubtedly call “willful.” In both Giselle’s, the Wilis represent the forces working against gender violence (and its handmaiden toxic masculinity), but in the reinterpretation the spirits seem more real, more wronged, and more sure of themselves. As Masilo notes, “They have been had. They are heartbroken. And they want revenge.”
Through this reinterpretation, the Wilis come to represent a genderless army; a collective of angry, tenacious, terrifying femmes. While the humans in the first act are explicitly assigned Man or Woman through their costumes, choreographic structure, and caricature performances, these same signifiers fall away when the Wilis take the stage, allowing the spirits of the second act to fall less strictly into such a fatalistic binary. And, if the Wilis are a united femme front, their spiritual realm is a cosmos void of the constraints of gender.
With this reading, Masilo carves out a feminist positioning within a classic that is arguably predicated on hierarchy, obedience, and civility. Like the original, this Giselle is about workers and owners, mothers and daughters, everyday people and supernatural women. It is about young lovers, romantic triangles, and ghosting abusive men. It is, too, about the wrath of the betrayed, the strength of femmes, and the power of anger.
Masilo doesn’t treat gender as if it functions within a vacuum, though. Instead, she produces work that links binarism to systems of colonialism, and then suggests art as a means of working against both. Masilo’s Giselle— along with her reinterpretations of Romeo and Juliet (2008), Carmen (2009), and Swan Lake (2010)—represent an emerging dance vocabulary, bodies of work which recall Harmonia Rosales’ paintings series “Black Imaginary to Counter Hegemony (B.I.T.C.H.).”
Pairing arched backs and flat feet with développés and pirouettes, Masilo’s formal decisions flip classical ballet on its head, recognizing the influence of the European tradition and then moving beyond it. Interestingly, Bathilde’s choreography most closely reflects traditional ballet technique, an artistic choice that can easily be taken as a reference to the classic’s historical and on-going links to royal oversight. Created by South African composer and sound artist Philip Miller, the score of the reinterpretation clearly referenced Adolphe Adam’s original music but was unmistakably its own, meshing vocals, drums, cello, violin, and harp to match the choreography’s level of commitment with the original. The ballet Giselle included some of the first dancers wearing tutus for artistic reasons and performing en pointe; Masilo’s dancers go barefoot, wearing long red dresses with tulle trains reminiscent of classic tutus, though distinctly not. Set in rural South Africa instead of the Rhineland, the reinterpretation referenced Masilo’s childhood growing up in Soweto; back-drop drawings by South African artist William Kentridge helped re-contextualize the piece.
Giselle was first performed by the Ballet du Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris in 1841—the same year that Missionary David Livingstone arrived in the Cape Colony and proceeded to Kuruman before pushing through Central Africa. The ballet was immediately popular in the West, critics say in large part due to its narrative emphasis on the burgeoning middle class instead of the aristocracy or the Gods. Quickly staged across Europe, Russia, and the United States, Giselle’s present-day choreography was passed down primarily from revivals by Marius Petipa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. The prevailing narrative can be traced back to German and French literary pursuits: Giselle’s librettists are said to have taken their inspiration of the Wilis from De l’Allemagne, by Heinrich Heine and “Fantômes” in Les Orientales by Victor Hugo.
Situated in this legacy, contemporary Giselle is central to the collection we call the classics, a ballet perfectly representative of the European tradition, a romance integral to the colonizer’s body of work. Masilo uses this tradition to create new possibilities. Through her choreographic choices and subsequent modes of movement, she pulls apart the colonial structuring of dance, using performance as a vehicle for addressing the violences of gender and race. She invents a new way of moving, a genre of dance which recognizes the realities of historical and contemporary colonialism and then uses art as a means of refusing domination. Masilo sits in her rage, letting anger and betrayal fuel her work in the best sort of way.
Featured Photo: Dada Masilo’s Giselle at The Wallis April 12, 2018 – Photo by Kevin Parry