Dada Masilo does Swan Lake @ Sadler’s Wells

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A bare stage, the backdrop awash in pale blue light as a wedge of dancers in elaborate fluffy tutus process elegantly from the wings to a recording of Tchaikovsky’s overture. Their costumes’ snowy white makes striking contrast to the various browns of their complexions. The men are bare-chested; the women are not.  A flute of white feathers adorns every head. Feet are bare, port-de-bras fluent and precise. Enter a tall white female swan/dancer, who proceeds to lecture on ballet’s fundamentals, including “virility splits” and “toe twiddles” and “nobody-loves-me fold-UPS.”  The music re-commences. The company demonstrating these fundamentals with admirable expertise then turning their rears to the audience proceed to flounce their tutus in a distinctively spirited African style, finding previously unplumbed polyrhythms in Tchaikovsky’s familiar romance. As the 65-minute piece progresses, Tchaikovsky will be interspersed with Steve Reich, Saint-Saens and Arvo Pärt. All of these choices work.

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Premiered in 2010 when its choreographer/lead dancer was but 25 years old, Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake is a cleverly droll, fluid, and ultimately poignant mash-up of classical ballet with African dance styles and vocalization, re-shaping the classic fairy story into a tale relevant to contemporary South Africa.  Odette (Masilo) is a feisty but optimistically romantic township girl, being forced on her Siegfried by parents unwilling to acknowledge his love for the male Odile. The community’s refusal to understand this love contributes to the continuing scourge of AIDS, signified in the final scene’s Swanicide by the company, all now in bare-chested black dropping silently away to Pärt’s Für Alina.  

Born and bred in Johannesburg, Masilo has been dancing since age 10, training and teaching in Europe as well as at home, and most definitely Someone To Watch. Come September a re-working of her Carmen will be staged in Lyons.  Wish I could be there.  

A fitting start then to the second annual Sadler’s Sampled festival, a two-week overview of dance companies and styles, that includes workshops and talks as well as performance. Learn more at:  http://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/2014/Sampled/ 

photo credit; john hogg

Candace Allen lives in London. She is the author of ‘Soul Music The Pulse of Race and Music.

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