Friday, February 5, 2016

Dada Masilo's Swan Lake

Photo: John Hogg
Dada Masilo's Swan Lake (2010) at the Joyce Theater is a giddy reimagining of the classic ballet. It walks a tightrope between homage and satire, and it's entertaining, funny, and touching. The South African choreographer uses blocks of Tchaikovsky's original ballet score, supplemented by bits by Saint-Saens, Part, and Reich; The Dying Swan is performed twice. Many of the ballet's group dances become occasions for a raucous and riveting choreographic blend of African dance and ballet, all done barefoot with the exception of one male on pointe, as Odile.
Photo: John Hogg

Masilo follows the most basic storyline of a love triangle. But in her version, white swan Odette (Masilo) falls for Siegried (Songezo Mcilizeli), who then becomes enamored with male black swan Odile (Thamsanqa Tshabalala). But first we are introduced to the wedge of swans: women and men in tutus (the men barechested); white feathers festooning their pates. The tutus (by Masilo and Suzette le Sueur) are designed to flop and flare according to pelvic movements; they become almost like pom-poms, shaken with great vigor.  

Khaya Ndlovu, as Odette's mother, gives a monologue about ballet, describing it in laymen's terms: seaweed arms, virility splits, twiddles, fireworks, and weight lifting. It's a hilarious digression that doesn't quite fit within the story. But Ndlovu's comic timing is spot on. 

Most impressive is that Masilo manages to create fluent phrases of movement from the jerry-rigged assemblage of bits and pieces from various genres. She subverts mime into contemporary uses, making it more a tool of dialogue than a means of passive communication. When Siegfried is pushed to marry Odette, he stamps and twirls violently to say "I can't do this!" But then simple body language will do—while the group celebrates, Siegfried mopes about the periphery, deflated. He and Odile have a tender pas de deux; Tshabalala is every tall inch a regal ballerina to Mcilizeli's poignantly innocent Siegfried.

Despite the finale's "swanicide," the takeaway is terrific kinetic fun. It manages to poke at ballet while reassembling it for audiences apart from the traditional. 

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