Review: A Reimagined ‘Giselle,’ With South African Roots

Review: A Reimagined ‘Giselle,’ With South African Roots

Traditionally, the moment you know Giselle has lost her mind is when her hair slips out of its tidy bun and frames her face like a sticky, sweaty halo. She unravels — physically, emotionally, mentally — and eventually collapses and dies.

In her reimagined version of “Giselle,” the South African dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo, as the lead, has no hair to set free. In the mad scene, she’s bald — boldly, magnificently so.

In this 2017 production, which opened at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, she is a Giselle who asserts her daring at nearly every turn. In a program note, Ms. Masilo wrote that she wanted to go deeper than “messy hair” and “create Wilis that are really vicious.”

These Wilis — a spooky sisterhood of young women who die before they marry and force the men who enter their supernatural realm to dance to their deaths — are after revenge. Here, they’re a mix of male and female spirits whose ancestral call is what leads Giselle to them. Freedom awaits, but only when those who betrayed them die.


Xola Willie, left, and Dada Masilo, who choreographed and dances the role of Giselle.

Emon Hassan for The New York Times

Reworking ballets isn’t new to Ms. Masilo, whose previous works are “Swan Lake,” “Carmen” and “Romeo and Juliet.” She brings an emphatic urgency to her character — she moves with clipped efficiency — yet her production suffers from uneven pacing. At times, it feels like an abridged retelling, although with twists in the characters, the music and the movement.

Mixing contemporary dance and traditional Tswana movement, the dancers shower the stage with brisk, complex footwork and forceful arms. Ms. Masilo’s Giselle is a feminist. While Adolphe Adam’s music is referred to, the score is a contemporary one by the South African composer Philip Miller.

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