Hot on the heels of Akram Khan’s Giselle, performed in this same theatre a week previously, and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s traditional interpretation of the Romantic classic, comes a Giselle transported to the setting of a South African village, brought to Sadler’s Wells courtesy of Dance Consortium. This Giselle is both ancient in its referencing of tribal mysticism and modern in setting. The choreographer, Dada Masilo, who also performs the title role, has stripped Giselle bare and reinvented Théophile Gautier’s libretto to fit a feminist rather than the traditional Romantic ideal. Giselle is usually a story of love, betrayal and redemption; in Masilo’s retelling it has become one of lust, indifference and revenge.

Dada Masilo (Giselle)
© Laurent Philippe

All the usual ingredients of the tale are there but presented in very different ways and with just a brief pause between Giselle’s death and the spirit world rather than a fully-fledged interval, a factor that encourages the theatrical momentum to escalate without hiatus. The stage setting is relatively bare (enabling this rapid transition) and indeed there is no credit for a set designer. The backdrop contains some evocative animated drawings by the celebrated South African artist, William Kentridge, who – just a fortnight ago – was awarded the Praemium Imperiale, Japan’s prestigious arts awards that are seen as an equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Masilo’s Giselle shares more with Akram Khan’s work for English National Ballet than just being a modernist retelling of a well-worn story, it also enjoys a remarkable score – by Philip Miller – which references echoes of Adolphe Adam’s original music (just as with Vincenzo Lamagna’s for ENB) but within a contemporary soundscape. In Miller’s case this also includes tribal influences in music that is punctuated by a great deal of spoken text.

© Laurent Philippe

In Masilo’s dramaturgical revision, Albrecht (Lwando Dutyulwa) is as duplicitous as ever but he is also unquestionably wicked, flirting with every girl in the village; his attraction to Giselle encouraged by her initial virginal diffidence being in stark contrast to the eager interest of the other women. Giselle is, as ever, dutifully loved by Hilarion (Tshepo Zasekhaya) who immediately recognises Albrecht’s insincerity. The fight scene between Dutyulwa and Zasekhaya is cleverly constructed and skillfully performed with pinpoint precision.

Giselle’s mother – not referenced here as Berthe or with any other name – is a happy-go-lucky villager who loves a bottle of beer but is also concerned that Giselle is becoming attached to the wrong man (she has a clear bond of affection with Hilarion). This is a role with significant spoken text, as opposed to the traditional mime, and it provided for a charismatic performance by Sinazo Bokolo, which dominated much of the first act. When his antics are exposed by the arrival of Bathilde (an imperious portrayal by Liyabuya Gongo) – his betrothed – it is Albrecht’s complete indifference towards Giselle that precipitates her death from a broken heart.

Lwando Dutyulwa (Albrecht) and Dada Masilo (Giselle)
© Laurent Philippe

Masilo’s Wilis are a delight in their contrasts. Incongruously wearing pretty-in-pink long dresses with tulle, tutu-style skirt wraparounds, there may only have been ten of them (the entire company comprises only fourteen performers) but they are amongst the scariest Wilis I’ve ever seen. Myrtha, their Queen, was performed by a male dancer – Llewellyn Mnguni – representing a Sangoma, a South African healer, and his subjects are also not exclusively female (if indeed spirits have a gender). They are, however, out to revenge anyone (any male) who has done them wrong and it is not a dish served cold but with considerable whip-wielding violence. It may have taken 176 years (from Gautier until the premiere of Masilo’s ballet in 2017) but Albrecht finally gets his just desserts and the ballet ends not with his usual heartfelt guilt, clutching a lily, as Giselle disappears into the spiritual ether, but as a crumpled, broken and decidedly dead heap on the stage.

Liyabuya Bongo (Bathilde)
© Laurent Philippe

Masilo is a tiny, pulsating performer. She is strikingly bald, which presents an immediate contrast to the traditional mad scene which so often relies upon messy hair. She is topless in another sense for a large part of two scenes: one strangely being disrobed by her mother; the other, cleverly representing the rawness of her humiliation by Albrecht’s deceit. Masilo’s emotional sincerity is so powerful that the physical embodiment of that wounded state is not entirely necessary.

As a choreographer and dramaturg, Masilo has found a new way of telling a familiar story which is absolutely right for our times (although her preparation of the work preceded the #MeToo movement by many months); and it is one that fits neatly alongside her retelling of Swan Lake (from 2010). As a performer, she possesses a rare quality of spell-binding intensity.