Review: Giselle. Dada Masilo. Nottingham Theatre Royal.

Dada Masilo has a reputation for tackling the ‘classics’ and re-presenting them in an entirely new way but her Giselle is so far removed from the original ballet, it really only retains a thread of the story. Masilo changes the form, the music, and the intent, to create something much more earthy and direct, powerful and potent in its blend of dance and music styles.

Set in a South African village, Masilo’s Giselle tells the story of an innocent country girl seduced by a powerful, married man. Facing betrayal and then rejected by her community, she dies of heartbreak. On the other side, avenging spirits lie waiting to help her wreak her revenge. The shadowy ‘Wilis’ of the underworld are no longer presented as ethereal, cold figures using their dance to torment their victims. In Masilo’s vision, they become furious warriors, enraged by their treatment, and emboldened by the death which makes them impervious to further pain. There is no reprieve here for the wrong doer, and brutal though it is, it feels like justice.

Masilo takes the title role herself, her diminutive figure switching seamlessly from shy young peasant girl to avenging angel, through her body’s infinite expression. Her jagged, twitching and flinching movements speak of her inner turmoil and contrast with the sweeping, open motions of her body when dancing the pas de deux with Lwando Dutyulwa as Albrecht, her lover.

The production combines ballet with contemporary dance, but it’s driving force is the influence of traditional Tswana dance and rhythms. The setting in Africa also opens up the opportunity to develop the character of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, who is presented as a sort of shaman. Llewellyn Mnguni inhabits this role with power and grace, the flowing, spiralling movements matching note for note the crescendoing music, to great, rousing, effect.

The original score by South African composer Philip Miller contains elements of the original but invites African beats, voice calls and song, along with ‘street’ sounds, to sit together in a cacophonous whole, to provide a disturbing, unnerving background to the dance. The dancers themselves provide shouts and even lines of dialogue, but this seemed to fight a little against the music and movement. There are some simplistic backdrops projected for setting but the piece works most effectively visually when coloured light is used to saturate the stage and in contrasting hues to the costumes. The blood red, structured outfits of the Wilis denote their vengeance and their power.

This new take on Giselle is brave and bold, and Masilo creates a new language of dance, blending not just different styles, but making the whole much more expressive and gutsier. It is a piece full of heart and passion, and is thrillingly presented by this superbly talented company.

Dada Masilo’s Giselle runs Tues 8th and Weds 9th October at Nottingham Theatre Royal.

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