Review: Recent Dance Performances, Briefly Noted

April 18, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman

◼︎ “Dada Masilo’s Giselle”, The Wallis, Beverly Hills, April 12-14, 2018

◼︎ L.A. Dance Project, The Wallis, Beverly Hills, April 5-7, 2018

“Dada Masilo’s Giselle”

Like Matthew Bourne, Dada Masilo has made a specialty of transforming full-length classic ballets into newly minted works that draw loosely on the themes, references, and choreography of the originals.

Whether or not these fresh reworkings are successful on their own terms is another matter.

Masilo's "Giselle" is set in African village. (Photo: Kevin Parry)

Bourne, of course, created a sensation 20 years ago with his daring homoerotic take on Swan Lake. He followed that with crowd-pleasing if less controversial interpretations of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, as well as major dances derived from opera, films, and literature.

While the South African Masilo is not nearly as well known internationally as her British counterpart, she is no less committed to wringing out timely import from the warhorses of the ballet repertory – Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, and Giselle, the last of which was on stage recently at The Wallis as the final stop in a North American tour.

"With a nod to current mores, the Wilis are played by both men and women, and there’s not a bell-shaped tutu to be seen."

Masilo’s Giselle is something entirely different from the famed original, introduced in 1841 and beloved by dance companies and audiences ever since. It’s to her credit that she’s willing to tackle such a perilous assignment. The results are mixed and will not please balletomanes expecting happy villagers, fairytale sets, the familiar Adolphe Adam score, or refined, ethereal classical dancing from a large corps.

This dramatization is set in a poor, rural African village. The stage is bare save for a stark William Kentridge backdrop of a river framed by foliage and trees. (At a Q&A after the performance, Masilo tellingly stated that she did not like sets, as they eat up the space for choreography.)

Dada Masilo and the Wilis confront Albrecht. (Photo: Kevin Parry)

Philip Miller’s arresting score crackles with the sounds of an electric violin and other unconventional instrumentation. Costumes and lighting are no more than serviceable.

The story of Masilo’s Giselle is much darker than what audiences have come to know from Théophile Gautier's 19th Century libretto. Giselle is now an angry lover, unwilling even in death to forgive Albrecht for jilting her. The supernatural band of Wilis isn’t happy about it either. With a nod to current mores, these spirits are played by both men and women, and there’s not a bell-shaped tutu to be seen.

Classicism and romanticism are also absent from Masilo’s Giselle, replaced by betrayal, resentment and retribution depicted through the staccato contemporary and at times Africanized movement of her 15 dancers, including the choreographer in the title role.

This is a Giselle that attempts to capture the zeitgeist of our era. Whether it’s one for the ages, only time will tell.

L.A. Dance Project

I’m a fan of Benjamin Millepied’s superb company. They’re exceptionally disciplined, self-assured but unaffected. It’s always a pleasure to watch them perform.

While the quality of the dancing is consistently high, the same cannot be said of all of the choreographies on view during their recent Wallis engagement.

Ohad Naharin's "Yag." (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho)

The evening started on a lovely, rarefied note with three brief Martha Graham duets, one from Diversion of Angels (1948) and two from Canticle for Innocent Comedians (1952.) In the next ballet, Helix, choreographer Justin Peck, brought all three couples on stage at the same time.

Millepied’s Sarabande, set to Bach flute and violin solos performed live on stage, was the least compelling dance of the evening.

Yag, from Batsheva Dance Co. head Ohad Naharin, was the final item on the bill. It was also the most eccentric and audacious one. A rambling 43-minute performance piece combing dance and speech, the work offered ample opportunity for L.A. Dance Project’s gifted dancers to show off their individuality and, above all, notable virtuosity.

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