Not only is Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake brave and energetic, but it is also humorous and sensitive. Masilo turns the original story of Swan Lake on its head. This South African choreographer and cast reinvent and take control of a famous Russian ballet, bringing richly distinctive elements and choreographic finesse to the stage. The work’s universal appeal is brilliantly self-evident.
Her male Odile (the black swan) is, in fact, not evil but merely homosexual and in love with the betrothed. Thami Tshabalala is meek, fierce, catty and delicate all at once, bringing in the idea of duality from the classic. Siegfried is played by a hapless and wonderfully naive Thabani Ntuli, who clings to his “virility splits” as if this supposedly-masculine display would save him from his confused state. Dada Masilo, the choreographer, and Odette (the white swan) plays innocence and girlishness in the best way – sassy, cheeky, confident. The characters never completely deviate from an innate fragility and grace that ballet is famous for, but they are very much human, and more specifically, South Africans.
The work bears the mark of the cast’s shared national identity. The moves are a brilliant mix of gyrations, foot-stamping and recognizable balletic lines. They vocalise and ululate. The dancers leap and twirl and release into the ground with fervent precision. Their energy leaps off the stage, while their synchronicity never fails to impress. This is a Swan Lake that harnesses the power of the group, without losing the specific individual. Significantly, Nicola Haskins plays the MC and Siegfried’s mother. The colour of her skin marks her out as the only white person in an ensemble of black bodies. When she first appears with the microphone to make jokes about the classical ballet (“virility splits and virility wiggly toes” — you have to hear this extraordinarily witty script), white supremacists gets torn down. As does the questionable stereotype of a proper, uptight (white) woman. At the same time, the fact that she gets to speak first in the work highlights the thoughtfully-layered politics of the work. Who has the power? How does she use it?
(Later on during the post-show talk-back I am especially moved when Dada Masilo takes the microphone, walks across the stage and gives it to the newest dancer to speak first. A gesture speaks volumes.)
The choreographer’s joyful sense of humor plays a huge part in drawing us along. The flipping of the tutu – both the men and the women – with multiple types of hip gyrations bring an extraordinary feeling of freedom. Some gestures are heartfelt, moments are tender, but nothing is ever too precious, beyond reproach. Though the dancers clearly love the ballet form, it can be made fun of. Though the music of Tchaikovsky is so important to the ballet, it can be mixed powerfully with silence, and with new, equally famous, music.
In spite of, or because of, the work’s overarching hilarity and wit, when the closing scene happens I am moved to tears. It is a horrid shock to the system. There is no beautiful, well-rounded closure. I do not want this ending. It happens anyway. I will remember this for a good long time.