During her post-show talk, South African choreographer Dada Masilo commented “I like ballet, just not all the nonsense”. Masilo’s interpretation of the classic Swan Lake is a refreshing retelling of the archetypal ballet that combines African dance, ballet and contemporary dance – contrasting dance styles that are stylistically linked by a spattering of highly comical moments that pulsate through the work.
Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake, begins with a tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of many of the tropes used in the original work, referring to the corps de ballet as “surplus girls in the moonlight” and branding the male dancers’ grand jetes as “virility jumps”. In a similar vein to Matthew Bourne (famous for his all-male version of Swan Lake), Masilo, like Bourne also drastically alters the familiar narrative. In this version Masilo herself dances the lead female role of Odette as a rather coquettish swan whose shimmies and tutu-shaking evokes carnival-like exuberance. Her groom-to-be Siegfried (Songezo Mcilizeli) is somewhat intimidated by his betrothed’s confident and overpowering nature; however, it soon becomes clear the reason that he is reluctant to commit to Odette is that his heart belongs to a male swan called Odile who is danced gracefully by Llewellyn Mnguni.
One clear thematic thread that runs through this Swan Lake is the lack of the division between the genders, a divide that is normally so commonly defined in classical ballet. One way that Masilo shuns this convention is by having both her male and female dancers wear white tutus, another is that whilst the rest of the company dance barefoot, Odile, the forbidden object of Siegfried’s attention, is the only dancer that dances on pointe. Freed from the stringent constrictions of classical ballet provides the work with both comical and truly poignant moments. Siegfried’s and Odile’s duet in Act II was a tender amalgamation of beautiful movements as both men supported each other in a series of suspended lifts. This was performed superbly to the sounds of ‘Slow’, from Steve Wright’s Variations for Vibes, Pianos & Strings (2005), a reworking of Tchaikovsky’s original Swan Lake score. One of Masilo’s overriding messages within the work seemed to be challenging the idea that there is only one possible way to tell a familiar tale.
Being performed for just two nights as part of Sadler’s Wells’ Sampled Festival, Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake marks Masilo’s UK premiere. Her choreographic voice that blends African dance with ballet and contemporary technique is not only refreshing but uniquely different; she is quite unlike any other choreographer who is currently producing work in the UK. As I left the theatre two thoughts ran through my mind: the first was that I felt very lucky to have just watched such a remarkable piece of dance, the second was the assurance that Dada Masilo would be a name that we would be hearing a lot more of in the future.
Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake was performed as part of Sadler’s Wells Sampled Festival on the 17 and 18 June.