Dada Masilo’s Giselle comes to the UK for the first time this Autumn. Although the production has roots in the beloved classical ballet, audiences should expect to see something new, unique and entirely South African.
After all, as Masilo says, “I am South African and my roots are in South Africa. It’s not that I have ever tried to learn to make a work as a South African – it’s just there. It’s about referencing the classical and the South African and seeing how we merge those two without losing the essence of the work.” In adapting Giselle, and earlier works Swan Lake, Carmen and Romeo and Juliet, Masilo aims to make classical ballet accessible to South Africa and black culture – those who, in her words, tend to shy away from the classics.
In particular, she looks at issues facing her native country South Africa and the world writ large and adapts these to fit into stories first envisioned over a century ago. She describes, “it’s the challenge of looking at the ballet from a different perspective and dealing with issues that are relevant now in 2019. In these stories we are dealing with power struggles, wars, greed, domestic violence, rape – these are things that I look at and am seeing every single day. So I’m changing the classical ballets to tackle these issues and to start a dialogue with people. To ask ‘what are we doing about this?’”
By setting the production in rural South Africa, she’s able to deal with different cultures and traditions. She investigates “how people interact, how relationships are formed and the dynamics of those relationships in rural South Africa which is completely different from the world of classical ballet.”
Masilo also described that the production arose from her interest in the Wilis. “I have always been intrigued by the Wilis – that’s where I started from. I wanted to see how far I could push the boundaries in terms of having Wilis that are really vicious and strong and powerful and dangerous.
In a review of the West Australian Ballet’s Giselle, Limelight Magazine cited Masilo’s take, highlighting how her work was “not about love and forgiveness but about deceit and anger. Giselle does not forgive and the Wilis are vicious warriors.” (They add: “It worked a treat.”)
Despite other productions keeping the Wilis as dainty and feminine, often dressed in white tutus, Masilo goes in another direction. “In the ballet they are in white and are female and really graceful but I really wanted to find their violence because it is about revenge. I looked at the white that the Wilis wear and I went for a wine red because I wanted the Wilis to look as if they had been drenched in blood to reflect revenge and killing.” Even more, she cast a group of men and women. After all, “I didn’t want to make a work which was just about women who are always victims. Dance does that a lot and I wanted to break down that box.” She wants to find the equality in dance.
With so many changes, Masilo understands her re-interpretation won’t appeal to all audiences. Despite this, she wants to facilitate opening ballet to a wider audience and inviting in audiences that felt excluded through previous versions. If her new Giselle helps new audiences fall in love with dance, then she’ll have fulfilled her goal.