Michael Schmidt and Dada Masilo
Two weeks back, I had the privilege to watch Dada Masilo’s breath-taking rendition of the ballet Giselle at the University of Johannesburg Theatre – the first time in seven years that Masilo’s company, Dance Factory, has performed in her home country. Preview Here
Now I am far from being among the ballet cognoscenti, but I do hail from a family of ballet dancers: two of my aunts, Chiquita and Simone were such, and their sister Suzette still is. When I was an army conscript in the bad old days, I had the good fortune to have access to the Cape Provincial Library system and ordered myself a whole shelf of books; among them works on Budddhism like Peter Matthiessen’s beautiful The Snow Leopard, and others on ballet dancers such as Margot Fonteyn and Vaslav Nijinsky. That aside, I’m not really qualified to write on ballet, but here goes.
Before I saw the show, I had no idea of the plot of Giselle, so I had no classical comparison to stack up against what I was about to see – but I knew from past shows of Masilo’s such as her detourned Swan Lake with its mash-up of classical, African and contemporary dance, gay storyline and witty narration to expect something special. Preview Here Now 32, Masilo was born in Soweto and started dancing in the township’s streets as a young girl of 12. Today, she has become an international phenomenon, wildly popular – though controversial – in France in particular, she has evolved from a dancer into a dancer-choreographer of serious repute as far afield as Canada and Russia [full disclosure: she is my niece].
Now I had to look this up, but Giselle was first performed in 1841, having been created by librettists Jules-Henry Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier, scored by composer Adolphe Adam and choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.
The plot was inspired by a Heinrich Heine’s prose in De l'Allemagne, by Heinrich Heine, and by a poem called Fantômes in Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales, and revolves around phantasms called the Willis (as in, “that creepy old house gives me the willies”). The Willis are vengeful spirits of virgin women who die unwed – a fate clearly considered worse than death in the Victorian era – but Masilo gives the tale a powerful feminist tone, with an sub-text on issues of class too.
Giselle is a peasant girl who falls in love but who is then betrayed by her lover Albrecht who becomes betrothed to another woman. She dies of a broken heart – but in the second act is raised from the grave by Myrtha, Queen of the Willis, and conscripted into their ranks in order to wreak revenge on Albrecht. But Giselle’s unquenched love for Albrecht leads to an intense battle of wills between her and the spirits who attempt to literally dance Albrecht to death.
According to my aunt Suzette, in the original choreography, passed down from Marius Petipa’s interpretation for the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Willis are austere and loom about the stage in their white cotton robes with impassive faces, but Masilo, her protégé, has fleshed them out to conform more closely to the horror inspired in Romance-era hearts by these spectres. Indeed, the Willis are presented here as vibrant and vicious red-dressed harridans, moving in phalanx, but also individualised.
But before they are introduced in act two, roughly the same group are in act one instead a group of peasant girls, Giselle’s peers, doing back-breaking work on what appears to be some sort of 19th Century Brazilian plantation. Masilo has also rounded out usually two-dimensional secondary characters such as Giselle’s mother – here a hard-drinking, querulously comic African mama.
The screened backdrop is painted by celebrated artist William Kentridge; I’ve never liked his work, but here, his scrappiness delivers just the right swampy mood without being intrusive on the ballet itself. The soundscape is far more present and entwined: composed by Phillip Miller, it shifts between and combines traditional cello and violin with African drumming and vocals; precisely the sort of syncretic sounds one would expect to emerge in Brazilian plantation worker culture – and, judging by the mostly young, black audience, a real crowd-pleaser.
Masilo has a reputation for taking on really tough tasks, as if ballet weren’t bloody-footedly hard enough. A year and a half ago we had a long discussion about her planned adaptation of what must be one of the toughest pieces in classical music, Igor Stravinsky’s ascendantly hectic and atonal ballet The Rite of Spring which Nijinsky made his own in the 1920s; it was reportedly very well received in New York. With Giselle, she maintains her visceral and demanding tempo, mixing in elements that delighted the audience such as Giselle’s friends gossiping in the vernacular.
One wonders whether her Francophone critics who find her work, weirdly, “too un-African” will be satisfied with the “Africanness” of the topless scenes where Giselle is prepped by her mother to meet an alternate suitor, and where she is ridiculed by the other girls for being jilted by Albrecht. Masilo rolls her eyes afterwards as she tells me “the French actually demand more ‘Zulu foot-stomping’!”; my response is that we are talking about a people – my own – who in defiance of the knowledge that modern sculpture is rooted in African sculpture insist on exhibiting it as “arts primitifs” in Paris.
The petite, gap-toothed, chiskop Masilo dances Giselle, Kyle Rossouw is Albrecht and in a typical Masilo inversion, Queen Myrtha is imposingly tall male dancer Llewellyn Mnguni, who with his scarlet tutu and white flywhisk, she tells me afterwards is a sangoma figure – but I retort is more like a valoi in his/her malevolence.
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 that to my untutored eye appear like jazz, rock ‘n roll, hip-hop dance-off, as well as the martial arts/dance of capoeira (strengthening my scent of the Afro-Brazilian) that evaporate almost as soon as they emerge, like lemon ice-cream on the tongue.
The company has just completed a punishing five-show rotation of Giselle at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown (and will be jetting off to Vienna in August to dance Giselle and Swan Lake) – the performances hailed as “feminist” and “barrier-breaking”. Back at the UJ Theatre, 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 decolonising the arts – and your ballet just did it!”