To open the show, the company of men and women came out, all dressed in tutus and gathered on stage with their backs to the audience. Then they began shaking their tail feathers. It was unexpected and fun. It’s not often I am caught off guard and have to laugh involuntarily, explosively and more than once. It happened again when Nicola Haskins, in her role as the Master of Ceremony, related the original story of Swan Lake with a great deal of wit and good natured silliness. She referred to the “top man” doing “virility splits” around a lot of “surplus girls in the moonlight”, which was pretty funny. But the next one was even funnier. Haskins described the iconic pose of Swan Lake in which Odette is on the ground with one leg under her, the other extended in front and her arms are gracefully crossed at the wrists. When she referred to this as “the nobody loves me fall-down,” Dada Masilo, enacting the role of Odette, played it for laughs and dropped to the floor like a sack of beans. It reminded me of a toddler throwing a full blown tantrum. That was just the preamble. It loosened up the audience and I think it also loosened up our pre-conceptions of the old fairy tale enough to make room for a new one.

© John Hogg
© John Hogg
Dada Masilo is a delightful performer whose warmth and goodwill instantly captures your heart and that’s risky to the reviewer. I found myself having to remember that I was present to review the show and not just enjoy it. Briefly, Masilo places the story in her native South Africa. Odette is purchased by Siegfried’s mother for an arranged marriage with her son but it turns out that he is gay and in love with a man named Odile. Nobody is happy. The hour-long show deals with the fraught themes of sex, homophobia, AIDS and women’s rights. It utilizes the music of Tchaikovsky, René Avenant, Camille Saint-Saëns, Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich. Masilo quotes from the original choreography here and there but this is her own vision, a hybrid that includes her own vocabulary of native South African dancing. It is raucous, rambunctious and heartfelt, beginning with comedy and ending with tragedy. Masilo has said in interviews that she doesn’t think of her creation as a fairy tale but I’m not convinced that it isn’t. It is transporting, instructive and magical. It elevates the spirit and asks us to open our hearts. That’s a fairy tale in my book.

A variety of elements are brought together in service of telling the tale. The spoken word is used frequently as is singing in the call and response style. The original mime is referred to and augmented with South African gestures, especially one that has the fingers rubbing back and forth, as though sprinkling something on the ground. It represents the eternal truth of ashes to ashes. Masilo’s choreography is at its best and most vibrant when she sticks to her traditional dance style. It seems to have more energy and feels like the right way to tell the story. I would like to see her do this without using any ballet steps.

© John Hogg
© John Hogg
Odette’s marriage to Siegfried doesn’t work out and neither does Siegfried’s relationship with Odile. Siegfried is shunned and it all falls apart. The finale begins with the trio of Odette, Odile and Siegfried, dressed in long black skirts. They dance an eloquent elegy and are joined by the rest of the company. AIDS begins to take its toll and they die, one by one. It is handled with perfect sensitivity and culminates in reconciliation. At last, Odette and Odile are the last two left. They come together in an embrace of forgiveness and then they too die.

Dada Masilo is a courageous and wonderfully creative choreographer. Her Swan Lake has boldly staked a claim to its place among important new works. At the age of thirty she is at the peak of her dance career and is just beginning to take on the world with her dances. Hopefully she will continue to be productive for many years to come and will keep shaking up the establishment with works that take on tough subjects. 

****1