Dada Masilo’s Giselle for Dance Consortium at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: October 9th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dada Masilo’s Giselle for Dance Consortium at Sadler’s Wells

Dada Masilo’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, October 4

Dada Masilo as Giselle
Dada Masilo as Giselle (photo: Laurent Philippe)

Seeing two revisions of Giselle at Sadler’s Wells in as many weeks — Akram Khan’s version presented by English National Ballet and Dada Masilo’s recreation as part of a Dance Consortium tour — is perhaps an accident of programming but they inevitably offer comparisons of approach. Any contemporary revision of a classical ballet that seeks to justify adopting its name requires an understanding of the original structure on which to build an updated narrative. But why revise the ballet in the first place? Théophile Gautier’s Giselle does not resonate today because of its fascination for Romantic tropes of the irrational and supernatural, but because its story of love, betrayal and forgiveness expressed through Jean Coralli’s choreography and Adolph Adam’s music can still evince a powerful emotional effect on a contemporary audience. The challenge, then, of any revision is to generate this kind of emotional resonance through a new gestural vocabulary, music, sets and costumes. 

Dada Masilo’s Giselle, in which she dances the eponymous role, begins as a vibrant re-telling of the narrative set in a village in her native South Africa on a hot and languorous day with Giselle’s mother (Sinazo Bokolo) clutching her aching back as she sweeps around the chattering, bantering villagers. Hilarion (Tshepo Zasekhaya) rushes in clapping his hands to get everyone on their feet and back to work before Albrecht (Lwando Dutyulwa) and Bathilde (Liyabuya Gongo) make their entrance; Masilo has replaced the entitlement of the original ballet’s class structure with wealth, so while Albrecht and Bathilde are dressed in fine indigo robes they appear to have much in common with the villagers, even if Bathilde’s extrovert manner arouses some jealousy among the women. This lack of class division is reminiscent of the social cohesion in the benchmark revision of another classic, Romeo and Juliet, by Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein.   

Masilo is helped here by Philip Miller’s intelligent, sensitive score that samples phrases from Adam’s original to signal key moments in the musical narrative while introducing earthy African rhythms on which the villagers, and later the Wilis, can dance. Masilo’s choreography — a mix of classical steps with the energy of tribal dance liberally sprinkled with colourful everyday gestures and high-spirited banter — gives the story a delightful realism and is put to the service of fleshing out the psychology of her principal characters; the inner workings of Albrecht and Hilarion are embodied in their respective solos and differentiated in their confrontation, while Bathilde is given an extrovert personality to stand out from the already ebullient villagers. Giselle’s mother’s drunken cameo and Giselle’s dream sequence are particularly poignant. 

It is in the transition from the first to the second act that Masilo starts to bend the narrative to her own agenda. Her mad scene sees her at her most vulnerable, mocked and stripped by the villagers, an outcast who has lost everything, but her physical presence has a sense of fragility mixed with a sensual pluck that will resonate more with her conception of the Wilis: she replaces the hapless maidens with a gender-neutral pack of voracious warriors under the tutelage of a vengeful Myrtha (Llewellyn Mnguni). They prowl the stage in blood-red costumes in search of male prey, hoovering up first Hilarion and then Albrecht. Albrecht? Doesn’t Giselle’s love and forgiveness save him? Not here; the closest Giselle gets is the moment she appears to assuage a frightened Albrecht with a gentle caress and a kiss through closed eyes before slaying him. It’s a chilling reminder that Masilo has replaced forgiveness with revenge. Although the reversal has connotations for the #Metoo campaign, it also aquires profound political sensitivity in the aftermath of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission.

Dada Masilo and Lwando Dutyulwa in Giselle
The death of Albrecht (Lwando Dutyulwa) in Dada Masilo’s Giselle (photo: ©Tristram Kenton)

Even if the ending robs Gautier’s narrative of its catharsis, Masilo has only pushed the envelope of the story to a logical degree within a contemporary context. All the theatrical elements work seamlessly together to condense the action succinctly within a sixty-minute performance. The one drawback is an additional ten-minute ‘technical pause’ between the first and second act narratives that dissipates the tension Masilo has so carefully constructed at the very moment she introduces the emotional core of her revision. While the imagery is strong, subtlety flees in the ensuing melee. Masilo pulls back from leaving us with a brutish taste of revenge through an image of Giselle blowing a cloud of white dust over the body of Albrecht that neatly inverts Gautier’s original scene of Albrecht’s remorse. The dust, suspended in the light, is Masilo’s gesture of redemption.

Lighting: Suzette Le Sueur with assistance from Thabiso Tshabalala
Costumes: David Hutt of Donker Nag Helder (Act 1), Songezo Mcilizeli & Nonofo Olekeng of Those Two Lifestyle (Act 2)

For an in-depth alternative perspective, see Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou‘s review on LucyWriters platform.

Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: September 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

English National Ballet, Akram Khan’s Giselle, Sadler’s Wells, September 18

Akram Khan's Giselle for English National Ballet
Tamara Rojo and the Wilis in Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet (photo: © Dasa Wharton)

Akram Khan created his transposition of Giselle for English National Ballet in 2016; this is its second return to a London stage since then. Giselle, as Jane Pritchard writes in a program essay, is the earliest (1841) of the ‘canon of ballets’ and one of the cornerstones of the classical repertoire. Set in an ‘idealised, picturesque arcadia’ it ‘tapped into the fashion for Romanticism with its emphasis on exoticism, irrationality, other worldliness and danger’. Khan and his dramaturg Ruth Little have updated the context of the ballet while allowing its historical timeframe to remain vague, somewhere in a colonial economic era with Giselle as a redundant garment worker in a closed factory (an ‘outcast’) and Albrecht as the scion of an overseer family (a ‘landlord’). Albrecht’s duplicity, Giselle’s naivety and Hilarion’s jealousy still drive the narrative, but Khan’s appropriation of the romantic ballet seems to get in the way of his overarching theme of migrant labour, landing his cast in a narrative no-man’s land undermined by a contrived dramaturgy and a choreographic language that fails to take advantage of the expressive strengths of either Khan’s kathak or ENB’s classical technique. 

As Khan’s dramaturg, Little is aware of the connections and correspondences at work in this creation and coherently disentangles the various references in a program essay. But on stage, where it counts, the coherence is unresolved. The first act follows the broad sweep of the original scenario but conjoins the love story with social inequality. The stage is divided horizontally by Tim Yip’s monumental, moveable wall that hinges like an overhead garage door, dividing a small number of landlords on one side from the outcasts on the other. The wall is not so much a background as an overpowering metaphor of uncompromising power and social separation that underlies Khan’s vision; the attempt to fit this vision to the story of Giselle becomes especially problematic in the tenuous link between the two acts. Little writes that the second act is set in a ‘ghost’ factory (which looks uncannily like the first act) where the Wilis have become ‘the female migrant workers of Act 1 [who] have laboured, and too many have died, victims not of betrayal in love, but of industrial accidents…’ The original Wilis, having died of broken hearts, were a natural advocacy group for Giselle who had suffered a similar fate. In Khan/Little’s version the Wilis’ revenge is aimed at the callous manipulation of the owner class rather than against dissembling men; love has been transposed — and sidelined — by socio-political sanctions. 

Khan’s choreographic vision is rooted in the collective and it is in the corps de ballet that his imagery is most successful, coinciding at times with Vincezo Lamagna’s high-decibel score to suggest repetitive, mechanical gestures and formations of migrant factory workers, while the feral quality of the company scampering on all fours across the stage signals the breakdown of humanity under brutal subjugation. Even Giselle’s madness and death at the end of Act 1 are overshadowed by the seething circle of outcasts who mill around her like a black hole into which she disappears. Despite the narrative fault line in Act 2, the Wilis form a powerful image of unified revenge with their bamboo sticks banging out the musical rhythm like devilish warriors. 

Khan is less successful in delineating the individuals. When a dancer of Tamara Rojo’s stature is unable to extract from her role as Giselle a fully-fledged character who can surmount the storms around her and elicit our sympathy, it points to weak dramaturgy and suggests the gestural vocabulary on which her character is built is lacking. Like Natalia Osipova in Arthur Pita’s The Mother, Rojo’s classical form loses its emotional compass in contemporary choreography that fails to address the source of its power. James Streeter’s Albrecht is revealed as a one-dimensional figure who stands out from the crowd by his height, his inability to dress like the outcasts while wanting to hide amongst them and his execution of some technically demanding classical steps. It is Jeffrey Cirio as Hilarion who benefits most from Khan’s transposition, giving Giselle’s cloying emotional manipulator a more prominent role as a spivvy factory floor manager who knows how to insinuate himself between the workers and their masters. His more integrated role suggests Khan had in mind an alternative, darker polemic treatment of the narrative — which the visual aspect of Yip’s design and Mark Henderson’s choreographic lighting corroborate — than the romantic mould of Giselle could possibly provide. 

The Royal Ballet’ Giselle with Natalia Osipova

Posted: April 4th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet’ Giselle with Natalia Osipova

The Royal Ballet, Giselle, Royal Opera House, March 29

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in Giselle (photo Emma Kauldhar)

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in Giselle (photo Emma Kauldhar)

There is something soothing about seeing a classical ballet like Giselle. You don’t have to wonder what it’s about, the characters are defined in the narrative, the music and the rhythmic structure are familiar, the sequences haven’t changed and the form is known. What is exciting is the anticipation of a great interpretation, not just of the principal character Giselle but of Albrecht, Hilarion, Berthe and Bathilde, and in the second act the Queen of the Wilis. Apart from these major roles (on whom the clarity of the story depends), there are set pieces for the corps de ballet, most notably in the second act but also in the pas de six in the first. That is not to say the lesser characters — dukes and squires, leaders of the hunt and the villagers in the first act — are less important. There are no small roles; everyone has something to do in a narrative ballet and the success or failure of a performance is made up as much of all these small gestures and actions as it is of the interpretation of the principal dancers.

This evening the role of Giselle is danced by Natalia Osipova. I bought a ticket to see her interpretation because she is one of those rare talents with technique and dramatic sensibility who can bring a classical role to a new height of definition. Margot Fonteyn insisted technique is subservient to the ability of a dancer to tell the story. Osipova has both and she does not disappoint; from the moment she steps out of her cottage she is Giselle with all her charm, vitality and naivety expressed in her steps, her posture, gestures, and mime. She is evidently in love and allows that feeling of excitement to infuse her performance. Peter Wright, whose production this is, suggests the possibility that Giselle is of royal birth but illegitimate, a result of the droit de seigneur custom of the time. It would explain why she is different from the other village girls and why her mother wants to protect her from a similar fate to her own. Albrecht is a seigneur himself, son of a noble family that is used to hunting on the lands around the village. He has caught the attention of Giselle and even though he is betrothed to Bathilde, daughter of a local duke, he is drawn to her in spite of himself. This is the delicate balance facing Matthew Golding’s characterisation. Albrecht hasn’t really thought it all through so he has to dissimulate. Golding hasn’t thought it through either and doesn’t. He goes through the noble motions without letting us know what he is thinking or feeling and he fails to differentiate between his feelings for Giselle and those for Bathilde. He talks to them both with the same slow, vapid gestures. This is a major flaw in the production because Osipova has nobody to play off; she appears to fly out of the frame as she did (with the same partner) in Onegin because she is very much on her own; there is only half a conversation. Kristen McNally as Giselle’s mother Berthe is the only character to use her mime to consummate effect; after Giselle’s death the way she brushes Albrecht off her daughter is chilling. Thomas Whitehead as Hilarion also expresses his intentions in mime but, as Wright points out, he is destined to be the baddie and there are few redemptive aspects of his characterisation. Knowing the story, we tend to fill in the colours we don’t see, but it would be heartening to have characters who behave with a full palette and shake us out of our familiarity.

It is not only characterisation that is lacking this evening. Though generally of a high standard — this is after all The Royal Ballet — the level of technical excellence can be unexpectedly weak. In the prelude to tragedy in Act 1, the stage is filled with a joyous harvest festival celebration. The traditional peasant pas de deux becomes in Wright’s production a pas de six, an opportunity for junior talents to shine. But the men must have had a hard day in the fields because their dancing is ragged; they can’t land their double tours cleanly which sets off an uncertainty in subsequent steps. Osipova quickly dispels any uneasiness, taking control of the stage as Giselle becomes unhinged by the shock of Albrecht’s duplicity. Golding could have hidden behind a tree (of which there are many) for all the emotional heft he brings to his unmasking. It is like watching a cinematic version of the ballet in which the camera is focused exclusively on the inner emotions and outer distress of the leading character.

As the first act sets up the basis for the second, any emotional weakness in the former will affect the redemptive quality of the latter. Since the cathartic effect of Giselle cannot be fully expressed by one character alone, we are left to watch Osipova from the edges of our seat as she dances on the edge of hers. In such an ethereal setting, the ability to fly is essential and one of Osipova’s qualities is her ability to suspend her shapes in the air, an extension of her musicality. Marianela Nuñez as Queen of the Wilis has an ethereal elegance of line on the ground but, like her band of fellow spirits, appears less free in the air; the flying exit of Wilis is marked more by propulsion than elevation. And while the corps is exquisite in its unity of design and intent, it is a shame that such a ghostly scene — pale moonlit woods in a milky haze — should be interrupted in the moving arabesque section by the earthy reminder of clunky pointe shoes.

All these detractions don’t seem to count much. There are endless curtain calls in front of the full house, cheers, applause (for Osipova and Nunez in particular) but I wonder what is being celebrated. Yes, it is a privilege to see Osipova in the role of Giselle, but in this 575th performance by The Royal Ballet one would hope for a more complete experience. The Royal Ballet may make money with its production of Giselle but it is short-changing the audience with this kind of unfulfilled performance.