Low strings advance to a beat like incoming thunder. A lithe figure in red strikes the ground with an itshoba, a wooden rod whisking the tail of a cow or an ox. Myrtha, the queen of the Wilis, flexes firm shoulders and extends a bare foot. Myrtha appears in the 19th-century French ballet Giselle, but on this stage he / she is a Sangoma, a healer and a diviner among the Tswana people. South African choreographer and dancer Dada Masilo introduces a new Giselle to the ’62 Center of Theatre and Dance at Williams College — and infuses it and challenges it with the movement and percussion of her own country.
Rachel Chanoff, director of programming for the CenterSeries at the ’62 Center, recognized Masilo as one of the best choreographers she has ever seen. Masilo has already won international recognition. Artist in residence at the Dance Factory in her native Johannesburg, she formed her own company in 2008. She has toured Europe and America and has worked with the internationally known South African artist William Kentridge and composer Philip Miller, who created the music for her new work.
Masilo performs as Giselle herself and sets her in a country of high grasslands, mountain zebra and blue cranes.
“I have chosen to set my version of Giselle in rural South Africa,” she said by email, on the road after becoming the 2018 Next Generation Laureate, an award from the Dutch government. “That way, as in the classical ballet, she is a country girl. I imagine that she is an innocent: carefree, trusting, playful and yet to be deflowered.
“She does a lot of labour around the house: Fetches water, does a lot of cleaning, that sort of thing. She has an overbearing mother who is quite abusive and wants to make decisions for her as to whom she marries. She comes from a strict home and is definitely not allowed to be promiscuous. She is a God-fearing young woman … That is, until she meets Albrecht.”
Albrecht is a nobleman engaged to another woman, and he pretends to be a country man to seduce Giselle. The story is familiar in ballet and opera — a young woman meets a rich man, he betrays her and she dies. But Masilo will not let it rest there. She calls us to look again and more clearly.
“This peasant girl is having none of it,” Chanoff said. “She’s all about agency and power.”
Her spirit is awake in pain and rage, and the Wilis summon her. In Slavic myth, the Wilis or Vila are spirits of the air, warriors, healers and prophets who can shape the winds. In the classic ballet they are a force to be overcome.
Here they call to Giselle’s spirit in a high clangor of bells and a resonant voice low in the throat. They are ancestors, spirits, and they too cannot rest.
“I wanted to create Giselle because of the Wilis,” Masilo said. “I wanted to go back to the original myth, where the Wilis are vicious, scary creatures who have no mercy. The Wilis have been wronged, and they want revenge.”
“I guess this interpretation was the most challenging, because in the ballet the Wilis are pure and graceful. They forgive, and for the audience that’s great, because they leave the theatre feeling warm and fuzzy inside … But unfortunately we do not live in a warm and fuzzy world. I wanted to strip the work off its fairy-tale aspect. And I do not believe that Albrecht deserves to be forgiven.”
The leader of the Wili beckons, decisive in long braids and stubble.
“Myrtha is a fascinating character,” Masilo said. “As in the Ballet, she/he is a spiritual creature. In African tradition she/he is called a Sangoma, a traditional healer. Myrtha in my version uses her/his power to heal the young girls that have been wronged (good) and uses her/his power to order the Wili to kill (evil). I also wanted to create a contrast between the first and second acts by doing so.”
Randal Fippinger, producing director for the ’62 Center, responded in awe.
“She has taken away the gauze of classical ballet,” he said. He used to work with the American Ballet Theatre, and he has seen hundreds of Giselles — but never like but this one. “To see it as a raw narrative is deeply powerful,” he said.
In the 19th-century version, the Wilis are women, but Masilo sweeps through that division with her ensemble company of 12 to 14 dancers.
“She crosses porous borders of gender,” Chanoff said.
“I have male and female Wilis,” Masilo said, “because I love androgyny and am always trying to break gender stereotypes: Men do this and women do that.
“It was also a way of disconcerting Albrecht when he gets to the forest. He doesn’t know what he is looking at. Also I wanted to make it clear that women are not the only ones that get heartbroken.”
The Wilis will invite Giselle to join them, but she will have to prove herself first. She will confront Albrecht again.
“I also wanted to explore the whole notion of initiation,” Masilo said. “When one is accepted into any group — new school, job, group of friends — you have to earn your place. You don’t just arrive and, like Giselle, decide that Albrecht has to be forgiven. You have to go through the process of becoming one of the group.
“So it has always bothered me that Giselle as a newbie arrives and calls the shots. In order for Giselle to become a fully-fledged Wili and to be allowed onto the other side, she has to do what all the other Wilis have had to do, and in this case that is to kill.”
They and Masilo will hold the people who cause pain accountable for it.
“I decided at the beginning of the work that Albrecht was not going to be forgiven,” she said. “The challenge was then to make sure that his journey was such that one despised him by the end of the first act.
“For me, He is a spoiled brat who thinks that he can have any woman that he wants. Giselle is not the first that he has wronged; there have been many before her. He betrays his fiancée too. In fact, I think all the Wilis have been wronged by him. That’s why they want him dead!”
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle; my thanks to features editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh and art & entertainment editor Jeff Borak. The image above is courtesy of the ’62 Center at Williams College.