Girls Get Busy Review: Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake
Written by Minnie
Dada Masilo's reinterpretation of the canonized ballet, Swan Lake (NO, TRUST ME, KEEP READING!), is one of the most uniquely beautiful live performances I have seen in a very long time. Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of ballet or 'classical' arts, this production is worth seeing.
A South African dancer and choreographer, Masilo melds classical and contemporary dance technique with traditional African steps to create high energy, incredibly fluid works of art that delve into such topics as queer issues and race relations. Swan Lake draws upon Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s original ballet but right from the start, it is clear that the performance will aim to shake off all the antiquity associated with the title. The cast emerges, all dressed in tutus regardless of gender, and Nicola Haskins begins a parodical explanation of the hackneyed trajectory of a typical ballet. I’m all for gender-bending and mocking dominant western art forms but I find that attempts often stop short at critique and fail to create something new or alternative. However, this production offers a humorous analysis and then segues into an achingly beautiful, complex exploration of queer identity and problems in South African society. Masilo simultaneously dismantles a predominantly white art form (ballet) with gorgeous African dance and contemporary music (including Steve Reich [!!!!], Rene Avenant, and Arvo Part) but somehow manages to also retain the obvious beauty of Tchaikovsky’s score and general grace of classical ballet.
For those who don’t know the story of Swan Lake beyond the Natalie Portman movie (I literally just wrote Kiera Knightley and then had to google it – I was wrong, duh), like most ballets, it’s about love: Prince Siegfried has just turned 21, the age at which he must be married, so he takes to the woods with some friends because, like, who wants to be married (ever) at 21? While in the woods, he spots a beautiful swan with a crown on its head who later turns into an equally attractive Human Gurl named Odette. She informs him that the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart (who eventually disguises himself as Siegfried’s mentor) cast a spell turning her and the other girls into swans and the lake is formed by the tears of their parents (woah). The only way the spell can be broken is if a man pledges his love to her (ugh, come on). So he’s about to do it because she’s pretty, etc. but then Von Rothbart has to show up and ruin everything, obviously.
The next day, at Siegfried’s birthday bash, he’s presented with all these women he can choose from because he’s a prince and that’s okay. Von Rothbart shows up IN DISGUISE with his daughter who is also IN DISGUISE (because of magic) as Odette. Siegfried confesses his love to her thinking it’s Odette but the real Odette has actually been watching from afar the whole time!!! She flees! Siegfried, realizing his mistake, chases after her. Von Rothbart is like, ‘haha, yes, you idiot’ and reveals his and his daughter’s true forms. Basically everything goes wrong from there and Odette and Siegfried kill themselves (and the other Swan Girls drown Von Rothbart and daughter). It’s all very upsetting!!!
So, take all the heartache of this story and contextualize it into real-life issues: Masilo’s Siegfried is attempting to explain to his parents that he cannot marry because he is in love with someone else… that someone else is revealed to be another man. The pas de deux between Siegfried and his real love is otherworldly. Their bodies barely touch but are so connected in this liquidy hybrid of classical ballet and African dance. Masilo swaps in Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” here (and several other times throughout the ballet) and I think it so perfectly captures the unbearable feelings the characters are attempting to express. I can’t describe this scene in any other way except to say I cried. What hurt my heart even more was the rhythmic, pulsing group dance in violent response to Siegfried’s forbidden love.In one moment, a friend or relative silently walks up to Siegfried and mimes that her heart has been broken because of his love for another man. This was the hardest thing for me to handle, that queerness is so fundamentally wrong in some people’s eyes that it would break their heart if they found out such a thing about a family member or friend. Gah.
The ballet reaches its climax of emotional devastation by invoking the horrors of AIDS and violence in South African society but none of this is excessive; it is all done so carefully and beautifully. The dancers come out all together for the final scene with long black skirts and bare tops. As their bodies stretch on the shadowy stage, it is difficult to tell which are meant to be read as ‘male’ or ‘female’. Each body collapses to the floor one by one until only Siegfried’s true love is left. He drops too, finally. I couldn’t speak once it ended but I knew that I had lived through something really important.
Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake just finished its run in Paris. If you have an opportunity to see it in a city near you, I can’t recommend it enough. At the very least, check out the videos on Vimeo and Youtube!