Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Dada Masilo's swans of a feather flock to the Joyce

Songezo Mcilizeli as Prince Siegfried
with Dada Masilo as Odette
(photo: John Hogg)
some Masilo swans swanning about
(photo: John Hogg)

That blaring Tchaikovsky processional set the tone right away. Those barefoot dancers, flouncy and twitching in their gender-nonspecific tutus on The Joyce Theater stage, simulated the flight of a flock of swans while encoding every point along the movement spectrum from ballet to African. But not seamlessly, never the sort of contemporary ballet where every last element is blended out, airbrushed and...Kumbaya! We've got exotic perfection for ya!  Instead, you can see the separate techniques of dancing smacking up against each other, visibly diced, sliced and spliced by the exacting mind and sharp hand of Dada Masilo. Without question, this extraordinary work is Dada Masilo's Swan Lake.

I only became aware of Masilo when she choreographed and performed in William Kentridge's Refuse the Hour at last fall's BAM Next Wave. But, for several years, this talented Black South African woman has been turning heads all over Europe, making works called I Just Want To Be a Princess for One Day and The World My Butt and Other Big Round Things, and training her wry eye on classical icons like Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake.

Well, why not use the classical ballets she dearly loves to tell contemporary stories of top importance to her?

Her take on Swan Lake puts me in mind of Camille A. Brown. Fans of that American dance artist will find Masilo's narrative work and her own piquant, bravura performance style similar in nature and appeal. In addition, both artists draw from aspects of Black culture and artistry, have well-honed, character-driven comedic skills and an interest in showing the full range of human experience and feeling. They both step up to address challenging issues, mixing entertaining performance with social relevance. For Masilo, the story of Swan Lake sets the stage for a look at the consequences of homophobia and the devastation of losing generations of South Africans to AIDS.

This turbo-charged, enormously charming Swan Lake pairs, against his will, a closeted Prince Siegfried (Songezo Mcilizeli) with Masilo's eager bride-to-be Odette. Siegfried's parents--especially Mom--freak out when they learn that their son is in love with a man named Odile--yes, I know, usually, the sinister doppelganger of the dancer playing Odette--here danced by tall, graceful Thamsanqa Tshabalala, the only cast member rocking pointe shoes, and beautifully, thank you.

The piece--lit with true magic by Suzette le Sueur--flies by in just an hour. In that hour, nearly everything moves at a speedy, insistent pace. Group scenes are tightly-organized delirium, usually some hooplah over the expected nuptials. Which brings me back to the loud, nearly martial selections from Tchaikovsky. With this music, Masilo seems to underscore how the private life, and will, of the individual can get pounded down by the heedless force of society. This comes in sharp contrast to the tranquility of Siegfried's time alone with Odile. Without the crowd mashing him, Siegfried can get to know himself and his desires.

Because humor has such prominence in the dance, its conclusion can seem either jarring or poignant. Masilo lost her aunt to AIDS, and this work was made in memory of her. Performers in long, black skirts dance against a dark, starry backdrop. Some slump to the floor. Eventually, just two remain, each delicately rubbing fingers together as if sprinkling a handful of dirt on the coffins of loved ones until there's no one left to perform this final rite.

Swan Lake continues tonight through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. For information and tickets, click here.

The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at 19th Street), Manhattan

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