South African dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo’s Giselle is an enjoyable but uneven reworking of the classic Romantic ballet.
Masilo transposes the action to a South African village where the inhabitants dance, chat and jest at full pelt. There’s no prettified pointe work here but Masilo’s Giselle moves with the delicate speed and precise buoyancy of a bird, as Philip Miller’s score breaks down familiar refrains from Adolphe Adam’s original ballet score into a diverting blend of uneasy electronic sound and traditional South African rhythms.
Masilo has a laudable approach to gender politics, reframing the Wilis – a troupe of vengeful undead spirits seeking revenge on faithless men – as both male and female victims of heartbreak, truly vicious rather than wispily tulle-clad. The result is a little heavy-handed to be thrillingly supernatural – there’s some thrashing of giant whips – and undervalues the lethal force that belies the weightlessly feminine appearance of a revenge-ready, top-class corps de ballet.
Still, these Wilis dance well, their collective rage powering complex percussive footwork. Llewellyn Mnguni makes an effectively androgynous leader – not a queen but a Sangoma, or healer, who moves with a furious spidery dexterity, his rangy limbs folding into predatory crouches as he torments Giselle’s duplicitous lover Albrecht.
Here the latter is played as a straightforward bastard who openly scorns Giselle, so his eventual dispatch – the whip comes out again – feels like a grimly satisfactory pay-off. Masilo eliminates the narrative tweeness, but what’s missing is the transcendent poetry of the ballet at its best.