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Ruffling Feathers

Dada Masilo�s Swan Lake. Photo: John Hogg.

The Joyce Theater
February 2 – February 5
New York

It takes a classic ballet with good bones, like Swan Lake, to withstand centuries of interpretations. Tchaikovsky’s timeless score is often the binding agent among variations, and the key dances by Petipa/Ivanov—the pas de deux, the quartet—often remain intact. New York audiences regularly see American Ballet Theater’s rendition by Kevin McKenzie, New York City Ballet’s one-act by George Balanchine, and Peter Martins’s more recent, full-length version.

Then there are the modern takes. Jean-Christophe Maillot’s rendition for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo included chic pleated columnar costumes and plot twists. Matthew Bourne’s rendering proved radical not only for its gay headline story, but also for its all-male corps and populist Broadway approach. Add to the list Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake, recently presented at the Joyce Theater. This South African native was seen last year in William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour at BAM, which she both choreographed for and danced in. Her Swan Lake was created in 2010 and has been touring throughout the world, only now earning a New York run.

Masilo’s Swan Lake is a giddy re-imagining of the classic ballet. Walking a tightrope between homage and satire, it’s entertaining, funny, and touching. She uses blocks of Tchaikovsky’s original score supplemented by Saint-Saëns, Arvo Pärt, Rene Avenant, and Steve Reich. Many of the ballet’s group dances become occasions for a raucous and riveting choreographic blend of African dance and ballet, done barefoot with the exception of one male, on pointe, as Odile. Masilo retains many of the musical themes from Tchaikovsky’s original. Reich’s and Pärt’s compositions are used sparingly to denote asides from the main group. Saint-Saëns’s Dying Swan is evoked as both a satiric reference to ballet’s penchant for melodrama, and earnestly, to denote melancholy.

Masilo follows the most basic storyline of a love triangle, but the roles of victim and oppressor are flipped. In her version, the white swan, Odette (Masilo) falls for Siegfried (Songezo Mcilizeli), who chafes at the marriage. Siegfried then becomes enamored with the male, black swan Odile (Thamsanqa Tshabalala). But first we are introduced to the swans: women and men in tutus (the men bare-chested), white feathers festooning their heads—even the bald ones. The tutus (by Masilo and Suzette le Sueur) are designed to flop and fan out according to torso and pelvic movements. They become almost like worn pom-poms, shaken with great vigor and visual flair, and used to punctuate rhythms.

Khaya Ndlovu, who plays Odette’s mother in the predominantly black cast, gives a brisk and affectionately teasing monologue about the ballet vocabulary, describing it in layman’s terms: seaweed arms, virility splits, twiddles, fireworks, and weightlifting. It’s a hilarious digression that doesn’t quite fit with the story, but Ndlovu’s comic timing is spot on.

Dada Masilo�s Swan Lake. Photo: John Hogg.

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 to contemporary uses, making it more a tool of unspoken dialogue than a means of passive communication or storytelling. When Siegfried is pushed to marry Odette, he stamps and twirls violently to convey, “I can’t do this!” Then he is admonished by Odette’s friend, who wags her finger at him as if to say, “Don’t even try.” And sometimes, simple body language will do: while the group celebrates, Siegfried mopes about the periphery, deflated. He and Odile have a tender pas de deux, with Tshabalala a regal ballerina to Mcilizeli’s poignantly innocent Siegfried.

In the traditional Swan Lake, one ballerina often dances the lead role in a test of stamina and artistic breadth. The swan in white, Odette, is enslaved by the bad guy, Von Rothbart, and as Odile—dressed in black—is deployed by him to trick Prince Siegfried into betraying Odette. Siegfried, like so many lead male roles in the warhorse ballets, is kind of a jerk, even if he usually forsakes his shiny new bow and arrow for the affections of a swan. He falls for the last pretty face he sees—the sly Odile—forgetting all about his pledge of eternal love to Odette (second and third fingers raised in standard ballet mime). In Masilo’s version, Siegfried struggles in an essentially arranged relationship with a person he neither loves, nor who is of his preferred gender.

The finale’s “swanicide” is performed by the entire troupe, topless in floor-length skirts, dancing to Part’s pensive composition, and blanketed in dim twilight by le Sueur. The company moves and shifts, swirling, huffing, and wilting to the ground. In their final gesture, a couple rubs their fingers together as if sprinkling dust on the earth. Despite this somber ending, the overall takeaway of Masilo’s Swan Lake is tremendously inventive kinetic fun: reassembled tradition delivered with a wink.


Susan Yung

SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2016

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