You know the feeling: you get suddenly spooked by something, like a scurrying mouse or spider, a swooping bat, an alarmingly close coyote howl, or a terrifying thought. We call it getting “a case of the willies.” But where did those “willies” come from?
Most historians point to the ballet Giselle, which debuted in Paris in the 1840s. In it, an innocent young woman falls in love with a man who turns out to be a scoundrel engaged to another woman. When the heroine discovers the betrayal during a passionate dance scene, she dies of a broken heart and, after death, joins a band of “wilis,” pronounced “willies,” who are the spirits of girls for whom love went wrong. Now they seek revenge upon men in general, luring any male they encounter in the woods to a dance to his death.
Fatal seductress, 19th-century style.
Also called “wila,” “vila” and several other variants, wilis have been staples of Slavic folklore for centuries. More recently, spelled “veela,” these alluring, fatal creatures even made an appearance in the fourth book of the Harry Potter series.
One artist’s vision of the veelas in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Boy, can they accessorize!
The version of Giselle created by South African choreographer Dada Masilo, coming to the Hop April 6 and 7, takes wilis a step further. Casting both men and women in the roles, Masilo amps up the creatures’ power and fury – and she turns the Queen of the Wilis into a , a traditional African healer. Played by a tall man and dressed in blood red, this wili is guaranteed to live up to the name!
The Queen of the Wilis in Dada Masilo’s “Giselle.” Photo by John Hogg.