Wednesday, 23 October 2019

DANCE REVIEW: Giselle - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.


Choreographer and dancer Dada Masilo is no stranger to adapting the most traditional and loved ballets of all time. Romeo and Juliet, Carmen and even Swan Lake have been brought up to date and reimagined by this crafty storyteller with great and deserving success. Masilo herself says that she has no signature style so it is with great anticipation that the audience at The Lowry wondered what she would do with the intriguing and hugely popular story of Giselle.

Placing a piece of theatre, or indeed ballet, in a different era or context can often be enough of a transformation, but Masilo went right in to the very foundation of this work and made it her own.

Set in an African village, we are soon familiar with the peasant workers and the lording noblemen who visit them. Effective period costumes make very clear who is who in the pecking order of the village from the start. Giselle, played by Masilo herself, has a shaven head as do the village men. This is a coincidence as Masilo, frustrated with her thin hair as a young dancer, shaved off her hair and has performed bare headed almost always ever since. The story unfolds very quickly and the narrative is clear at all times. Deceitful – and already married – Albrecht, played tonight by Kyle Rossouw, changes his clothes on stage to look like a peasant. He finds Giselle and makes clear his romantic intentions, to her amusement.

Masilo adds a scene where Giselle’s mother, played by Sinazo Bokolo, who is also a leader in the village, removes Giselle’s upper clothing, leaving her completely naked from the waist up. She talks about her breasts beginning to grow and mentions a ritual. Giselle is of course uncomfortable, embarrassed and scared. In the same conversation, Hilarion, (Tshepo Zasekhaya) is brought on as a possible suitor for Giselle. Masilo, by inserting this scene, does several remarkable things – she touches on some very difficult issues in some African traditions – the ritual of breast ironing in which a girl’s chest is beaten with hot irons to prevent them growing and arranged marriage, which of course has at some time or other been a part of most cultures. It is a shocking scene and here we really feel very much for Giselle. This moment is also the beginning of Giselle’s unravelling. Giselle is left alone with Hilarion, still half naked, and has to energetically reject his advances and touch. This is another uncomfortable scene. The dance narrative has a traditional flow here which is juxtaposed with a strong, flat footed African style. African traditional dancing and more balletic styles are frequenly merged in this production. I note that Albrecht and the other noblemen are much more balletic in style, creating a very clear contrast. I wondered if this was a subtle hint of colonialism.

The story here continues very much as the original – Giselle falls deeper in love with Albrecht and it is clear that he has his way with her and he is very pleased about this. Hilarion discovers who Albrecht is and they fight with each other. Later on at a village festival, Albrecht dances with Giselle but is again challenged by Hilarion who brings on Albrecht’s wife. Albrecht’s true identity is revealed and he makes a clear choice, returning to his wife. At this point Masilo makes clear that Albrecht had no noble intentions regarding Giselle – he laughs at her and indeed the whole village ridicules her. Giselle’s madness grows and grows until she dances herself to death, heartbroken. Masilo manages to include some very nuanced reactions and characterisation here – it is an all too familiar and real story which makes Giselle the immoral person who is rejected and ridiculed by all around her instead of focussing on the real villains – Albrecht and Hilarion who betray and abuse her. Masilo rejects too the heightened emotions that are typical of ballet and opera. Giselle’s death is not a melodramatic tear-jerking moment – it is matter of fact and almost a very small, simple moment. Initially I was a bit disappointed by that. I wondered if it was the music, in fact, that did not allow this moment the emotion that I expected. With a bit more time I realised that the bigger gestures of this production were left for the huge social commentary that Masilo adds – the normalising of female mutilation, the objectifying and ownership notions of men over women, the helplessness of poor Giselle who is even ridiculed and rejected by her female peers.

The score, by Philip Miller, was a mix of electronic and pre-recorded instrument in a musique concrete style. The opening notes contained scurrying violins that were reminiscent of Adam’s original 19th century scoring for the opening, but any further similarities stopped there. Miller’s score did not add much in emotional levels, I thought, but was a backdrop to the scenes. A striking moment in the music was the funeral scene which included elements of traditional south African singing. Here, grief was real – further portrayed by Giselle’s distraught Mother. Two scenes that also stuck out were of Giselle dancing on her own – unaccompanied. These portrayed a fraying mental state and again warmed the audience to her.

Giselle’s ghost is woken by Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Where, traditionally, the Wilis were a troupe of female dancers, ghosts of the betrayed and heartbroken who, dressed in white, come back to haunt their taunters. Masilo portrays these dancers in bright red, with long dresses that fly with the dancers as they dance their high energy, ritualistic leaps and shakes. Myrtha is unambiguously a Sangoma – a traditional African healer. She has large hair and holds a white, horse-haired switch. Myrtha is played here by Llewellyn Mnguni and is a formidable and fearsome queen. Mnguni is of course a man. Casting him as the Queen of the Wilis, Masilo adds another direct commentary on the long history of transgender traditions in Africa, including beliefs in gender transformation and intersexual deities. Mnguni is a perfect choice for this part and drives one of the major, and final, transformations that Masilo adds to this masterwork. In the original story, the ghost of Giselle, driven by the Wilis, returns to kill both Hilarion and Albrecht. After killing the former, she forgives the latter and thus both souls are saved. Not so for Masilo – there is no mercy for neither betrayal. The anger and violent intention of Giselle, Myrtha and the Wilis is powerful – all dressed in red with large silhouettes and upward movement there is no escaping the inevitable.

The final moment is extremely powerful – finally alone with Albrecht who is on his last legs, cowering low, Giselle deals a final, determined and almost graceful blow which leaves behind an immense puff of white dust which lingers in the air. It does not matter what this is – be it the powder of a spell from a shaman, or the release of life from a body – there is a clear and strong symbolic change and Giselle looks in to the wings, head high as she steps over the dead body of Albrecht – quite literally moving on.

Masilo says that she had conceived of this ending many many months before the #metoo movement took off and I firmly believe her – we have not needed a hashtag to find out about the persistence of male violence towards and exploitation of women. It is a centuries old tale, and indeed one that was in essence the main plot of Giselle when it premiered in the late 19th century. I would have been more uncomfortable had Albrecht been allowed to go unpunished as he did in the original. Forgiveness does not allow the forfeiture of responsibility.

Would that every production company consider the immoral messages that some of the old classic ballets and opera send and dare to make the necessary changes as has Masilo.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 22/10/19

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