The most engaging thing about any Dada Masilo show is Masilo herself. Her ability to draw the crowd into her world makes her fairly irresistible. This re-setting of Giselle takes some time to warm up and at just around 80 minutes, it occasionally feels a bit truncated. There are villagers, there is a ruling class, and then there’s Giselle. Making this story work with just twelve dancers requires identifying them by costume rather than by face as many of them do double duty. There isn’t really anything other than the costumes and lighting to the design of the show as there is no set. It’s economical but it took a little getting used to for me to lose myself in the flow of the story.

© John Hogg
© John Hogg

It’s clear from the start that Masilo’s Giselle is an outsider. She’s a woman determined to go her own way. That means refusing the advances of Hilarion, who later betrays her. She is drawn to a tall, imposing young man in the form of Albrecht, played by Xola Willie. While Albrecht certainly seems to enjoy his love affair with Giselle, this is an autocratic society and he has a highly developed sense of entitlement. Liyabuya Gongo, playing Bathilde (Albrecht’s fiancée), is even more imperious than he is. Hilarion soon discovers Albrecht’s deception. He is an aristocrat passing himself off as a peasant so he can have a little fun with Giselle. Hilarion tries to tell Giselle that he’s a member of the ruling clan by showing her his purple robe but she refuses to see it. The mad scene that ends the first act is a significant departure from its classical antecedent. When Bathilde discovers Albrecht with Giselle, she puts an immediate stop to it. He very quickly and completely repudiates her with no sign of regret. They join together in mocking her and the villagers all join in. Even her own mother won’t stand with her. Giselle is stripped of her clothing, humiliated into madness and ultimately, death. This degree of betrayal goes far beyond its classical model and Masilo portrayed it with deep empathy. By this point, you’re on her side and you’re ready for the Wilis to deliver some supernatural justice.

© John Hogg
© John Hogg

The high point of the show for me was Llewellyn Mnguni’s portrayal of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. It’s not clear whether Mnguni is meant to be male, female or intergender, and it is ultimately irrelevant. Myrtha is described in the program notes as a Sangoma, a traditional South Africa healer, and Mnguni plays the part with a riveting degree of pent up fury that is awesome to watch when it’s unleashed. Myrtha commands the Wilis and the essential part of the requirement in passing over to join them is that each Wili must kill his/her betrayer. When Myrtha hands the whip over to Giselle, there’s none of that hesitation or desire to protect Albrecht that you see in classical ballet’s Giselle. She goes right after him, reveling in her power to exact revenge. At the end, there is Albrecht, dead on the ground. Giselle walks across the stage, following her new Wili tribe. She pauses as her foot brushes Albrecht’s corpse and then steps over him without so much as looking at him. Dada Masilo’s Giselle is about her redemption, not his.

****1