Review: Dada Masilo - Swan Lake - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 17 & 18 June 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 23 June 2014

Dada Masilo's 'Swan Lake'. Photo: Bettina  Strenske

Performance reviewed: 18 June

As a 29 year-old dancer, Dada Masilo might ordinarily expect that her future in Swan Lake still has thousands of fouettes yet to spin. But this young South African has been more concerned with making her own version of the best-known classical ballet. Masilo’s Swan Lake was made for the South African National Arts Festival in 2010, and following an extensive European tour, it made its UK premiere by way of opening the Sadler’s Sampled season, a festival that provides a host of ‘taster’ performances and events over a fortnight (ending 29 June).

To be fair, Masilo hasn’t exactly choreographed her own version of Swan Lake, but rather she has deconstructed it as comprehensively as one might expertly fillet a Dover sole. The story is told in little over an hour, beginning with a very witty narration by Nicola Haskins that rips into the formulaic structure of ballet, labelling the corps de ballet as the “surplus girls in the moonlight”, destined never to get a man! Prince Siegfried (Thabani Ntuli) on the other hand is identified in the commentary as the “top man” because he can do the “virility splits”. It is all very funny stuff.

I have lost count of the number of interpretations of Swan Lake I have seen over the years and Masilo deserves great credit for finding her own way to present the story in a refreshingly new and entertaining light. It is fast-paced, truncating the four acts into one, and punctuates Tchaikovsky’s music with some unexpected extras, such as Steve Reich’s Fast, Saint-Saens’ The Dying Swan (ironically, since I guess many think it is from Swan Lake, anyway) and ending with the tragic passion of Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt. Tchaikovsky’s composition is, in any event, heavily abridged and played in random sequences, with the Act III coda coming before the Act I waltz, for example. Rather as Eric Morecambe once said to André Previn (or, as he called him, “Mr Preview”) the score is “playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in all the right places”!

Masilo’s dancers can do classical ballet, for sure, but the conventional snippets of Petipa/Ivanov choreography are accentuated by comedy vaudeville and African dance. There are even the shimmying, shaking tutus of a whole corps of ballerinas – rear ends pointing at the audience – indulging in the balletic equivalent of twerking.

Masilo’s narrative twist lies in the fact that while Siegfried is married off to Odette, he is in love with Odile (a white-tutu-wearing male – Boysie Dikobe – who is the only dancer to perform on pointe). There will be an inevitable comparison with Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, if only because guys dance as swans (the men wear tutus but with bare chests instead of bodices) but Masilo has found clear blue water for her ideas that are a very long way from Bourne’s iconic production.

I knew nothing much about Dada Masilo before this week and so the objective of Sadler’s Sampled worked for me. It’s remarkable that this made when she was just 25 (and that her Romeo & Juliet was created even two years’ earlier that that). On this evidence, here is an innovative choreographer with an intuitive understanding of how to make dance theatre that is not only clever but enjoyable and entertaining; these being essential capabilities that are so often lost amongst the cleverness.

Part of Sadler’s Sampled, which continues with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s 4D (23 & 24 June) and Playlist (28 & 29 June). You’ll also find lots of free activities, talks and performances in the foyers and workshops at just £2 a session at the weekend.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for,, Dancing Times, Dance Europe and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK.

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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