Swan Lake in Africa

Dada Masilo's (in front) Swan Lake opens with all the dancers, male and female, clad in white tutus and striking balletic poses before they launch into an African dance.
Dada Masilo's (in front) Swan Lake opens with all the dancers, male and female, clad in white tutus and striking balletic poses before they launch into an African dance.PHOTO: BERNIE NG

South African choreographer Dada Masilo highlights the sexism prevalent in ballet and African society as she splices classical ballet with African dance

REVIEW / DANCE

SWAN LAKE (DA:NS FESTIVAL)

Dada Masilo

Esplanade Theatre

Last Saturday


One wonders what South African choreographer Dada Masilo hears when she listens to classical music. In her celebrated interpretation of the classical ballet Swan Lake, an irrepressible pulse invigorates Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's sumptuous score for the ballet in an unprecedented manner.

Throughout her 2010 work, Masilo employs her distinct movement vocabulary, which splices classical ballet with African dance.

There are twerking bottoms and undulating spines, feet both beautifully arched and fervently stomping.

She quotes liberally from classical ballet as someone who knows it inside out. But she also boldly makes Swan Lake her own, deconstructing it and fashioning it anew with great ardour and resolve.

The evening begins with the dancers filing onto the stage in two diagonals. All of them, male and female, are clad in white tutus and a tuft of white feathers adorns their heads. Their faces are stoic as they strike various balletic poses, holding their arms aloft with wrists dangling gracefully.

However, this does not last for long as the tutus suddenly quiver, amplifying the gyrating movement in the dancers' hips, from which the African dance emerges.

This is accompanied by the comic-strip narration of Paul Jennings' ballet-for-the-uninitiated essay, which pokes fun at balletic conventions such as the men showing off and doing "virility splits" while the women flap their "seaweed arms".

Deftly foregrounding the sexism that is prevalent in ballet and, indeed, African society, Masilo then launches into her Swan Lake story, in which Siegfried is headed into a forced marriage with the lead swan Odette, played by Masilo. However, he falls in love with Odile, a male swan.

Doing away with the strict decorum of ballet, Masilo is the fearless leader of the onstage wedding party. There are twerking bottoms and undulating spines, feet both beautifully arched and fervently stomping. The ballet steps are executed with abandon as these dancers claim Tchaikovsky's sweeping score as their own. This seemingly outrageous combination of the strict and loose, light and heavy, dignified and boisterous is utterly natural on these bodies.

Ultimately, this Swan Lake's narrative pales in comparison with the issues it highlights and the emotions it elicits in its more sombre scenes.

Thami Tshabalala's Odile is all sinew, digging his fingers into his stomach as if pouring out his soul to Thabani Ntuli's Siegfried, who then turns around to face a fingerwagging community which drives him out.

The piece culminates in a poignant lamentation.

Gone are the swans in white tutus. The dancers are now themselves, baring their chests and backs to reveal the true plea of their movement. Their fingers dig deep into their stomachs, then rub together as if scattering the remains of their souls. One by one, they collapse as the rhythm within them ceases.

Masilo conveys an unspeakable helplessness at the reality in her home country. No one is spared the pain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Swan Lake in Africa'. Print Edition | Subscribe