What’s better than a classic? South African Dada Masilo and her company Dance Factory Johannesburg transform Swan Lake by taking the white tutus and grand jetés and pairing it with African dance’s foot stomps, booty shakes, and ululations. The result is a new classic that is deliciously subversive, visually arresting, and an original masterpiece.
Along with the Nutcracker, Swan Lake is among the most popular classical ballets of all time. While Musicologists and classical ballet fans probably know the story of Swan Lake quite well, but most people only know that there is a “black swan” thanks to the eponymous movie with Nathalie Portman. In the original ballet prince Siegfried falls in love with a white swan queen, but is tricked into nearly marrying her seductive look alike (the black swan). When the swan queen observes her beloved falling for another woman, she flees. Siegfried sees what he has done, follows her, and the two commit suicide by jumping into the lake.
In Masilo’s version, Siegfried falls not for the young woman her parents have chosen nor her doppelgänger. Instead Siegfried’s white swan queen is an enormous black man in a tutu and pointe shoes. While we in Canada consider a gay couple unremarkable, in South Africa, this hits every nerve imaginable. Laws to end sexual-orientation discrimination and permit same-sex marriages have not put an end to widespread homophobia (see also here and here) and the killing of homosexuals. Through this gay swan, the audience is treated to many of the traditional ballet forms associated with Swan Lake. The combination of gender-bending, crossdressing, dance form, and pairing (traditionally the female dancer is pint sized next to her prince), is wonderfully subversive.
Most of the company dances are an exuberant celebration where African dance and ballet come together in a lively contemporary form. Ballet’s precision, steps and arm positions are maintained. Then suddenly the company begins to shake their behinds, flipping the tutus up in polyrhythmic forms. They bend their arms at angles, scuff, stamp, move in group circles rather than neat flocks, shouting out. Improvisation creeps in. Then, without a pause, they go to an arabesque penché or an entrechat. The playing of one form against the other and the combination of the two gives this piece great richness that is as challenging to the dance purist as the homosexual relationship is to heterosexual norms.
While I am all too happy to regard this piece as a stupendously choreographed new classic, Masilo threw another kick at me. The second dance is narrated as a ballet for beginners instructive. A narrator comes to the stage to explain the generic all-ballet story as the company illustrates with matching moves. She explains how most of the company takes the role of “surplus girls stand in the moonlight” with “seaweed arms.” Men leap across the stage in “virility splits” and scorn them, resulting in their “nobody loves me fall downs.” A “Let’s get married dance” is followed by a “fireworks and weightlifting dance” of the happy couple, before things end tragically. The hilarious piece can easily stand alone as a short, and doesn’t fit well with the mostly wordless performance.
Given its context in Swan Lake (not at the start or end), this narrative dance portion makes me wonder if Masilo’s entire show is intended to poke fun at the original rather than reinterpret it. This opens the door to questions as to whether Masilo is elevating African dance by combining it with traditional confectionery or making sport of both forms. Are the fast and stylized moves of the dancers meant to be a burlesque of African dance? Is this mere comedy or serious art that refuses to take itself seriously? When our dancers die at the end by dropping to the floor rather than gracefully folding like a blade of grass, are we to feel embarrassed by the emotional resonance? Laugh at the deliberate disregard for tradition?
Ultimately, though, I find this kind of challenge only adds to the whole piece. Masilo is fearless in pushing the audience’s comfort levels. Why not mix comedy and commentary, ensuring that dance can strike many notes? The artistic skill of the dancers, their joy in bringing this complex, multi-level work is evident. The emotional feelings this piece evokes shows that love triangles are a classic moving story, no matter what form taken. Completely gripping, with cohesive creative choreography, this piece is a classic in its own right.
Danse Danse brings Swan Lake by Dada Masilo’s Johannasberg’s Dance Factory to Place des Arts on January 14-16. Tickets can be purchased HERE. $34