Dance Review: GISELLE (Dada Masilo & The Dance Factory at The Wallis in Beverly Hills)

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by Tony Frankel on April 13, 2018

in Dance,Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


First staged in 1841, Giselle is one of the oldest surviving ballets still in the international repertory, especially because the lead role is a showcase for the world’s leading prima ballerinas. Since its inception, the Romantic story ballet has had several revisions, but most companies follow Marius Petipa’s fin de siècle version.

Now, South African dancer and dancemaker Dada Masilo and her Johannesburg-based company loosely reworks the Romantic tragedy as equal parts Giselle, modern dance, and the traditional dance movements of the people of Botswana and its environs. In between silent passages and a varied original score by Philip Miller, characters and various neighbors jabber and babble in heavily accented English and unintelligible chit-chat, as the first act of about 55 minutes follows Giselle (Masilo — bald-headed and sometimes shirtless), a fun-loving peasant girl who falls in love with Albrecht (Xola Willie), a nobleman pretending to be a country-dweller.

Giselle, whose mother (Khaya Ndlovu) is wary of the stranger making advances on her daughter, spurns a fellow villager and worker Hilarion (Tshepo Zasekhaya), who is in love with her. After a day of work, cajoling and celebration, Hilarion discovers Albrecht’s deceit and rats on him. The nobility, who appeared earlier, return with Albrecht’s fiancée Bathilde (Liyabuya Gongo) in tow. Giselle’s been duped. After being taunted and teased by the entire village — including mom — for falling for such nonsense, Giselle goes mad and falls to the ground, dead of shame and a broken heart.

After a 15-minute intermission at The Wallis (where this tour resides until Saturday), the rustic but set-free first act is followed by the ritualistic and short second act (about 15 minutes). Here, the Wilis (pronounced “Willies”) are still vengeful supernatural beings summoned by their Queen, Myrtha (played by a man, Llewellyn Mnguni as a Sangoma – a traditional African healer). But now the corps de ballet ethic is scrapped for male and female ancestors (all in blood-red dresses) whose heartbroken spirits cannot be free until they beat to death those who wronged them. When Albrecht arrives, Giselle’s spirit materializes, but instead of the original story (repelling the Wilis until daybreak and saving Albrecht from death), she does not forgive him and sends Albrecht to his doom.

When the storytelling is lucid, and new characters are introduced as the barefoot dancers execute Masilo’s contemporary tribal aesthetic — electric, exotic, ecstatic — this is as mesmerizing a piece of dance theater you can find. Ms. Masilo is remarkable, bringing a vigorous, insistent resolve to her character as she takes focus with powerful proficiency.

But while overlaying African custom and folklore into the context of the Giselle story is a dazzling way to tell the tale, the production suffers from incredibly patchy pacing and irregular, sometimes confusing storytelling with a heavy dose of meanness. And regardless of the new additions, spectacular dancers, and clever music – a mashup of pulsating African rhythms with rephrased themes from Adolphe Adam’s original score – there is a repetitiveness that replaces a much-needed dramatic arc (Albrecht’s second act death was especially, well, deadly).

Still, a recommended affair for some amazing scenes, Masilo’s awesome inventiveness, and the dancers’ extraordinary execution.

photos of Giselle at The Wallis
on April 12, 2018, by Kevin Parry

Dada Masilo/The Dance Factory
Bram Goldsmith Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills
ends on April 14, 2018
for tickets, call 310.746.4000 or visit The Wallis

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