because the personal is cultural
In 1970, Joann Kealiinohomoku (who just passed away in December) caused somewhat of a stir when she published her seminal essay “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” Hopefully, that ballet is a form of ethnic dance is now more obvious than it is controversial.
As such, we could say that with her version of Swan Lake, South African choreographer Dada Masilo is making two ethnic dances – ballet and African dance – meet. (There is no such thing as “African dance”, Kealiinohomoku would say, rightfully.) Furthermore, Masilo queers ballet by having Siegfried fall for a male black swan rather than Odette, whom he is set to marry by his parents. As such, her Swan Lake is explicitly about the compulsory heterosexuality that permeates both ballet (countless gay dancers constantly having to act straight, except for that bisexual orgy in Kader Belarbi’s La Bête et la Belle) and life in general.
After having a quick run-through of your typical ballet (like Dave St-Pierre running through the whole of La Pornographie des Âmes in the first tableau of the show), a dozen dancers plunge into their own version of Swan Lake; for they do not dance like they did in the summary. Thanks to African dance, the women are more vivacious, shaking their hips and stomping their feet; and, thanks to queering, the men are lighter. When they dance together, their movements are the same, ungendered. Similarly, all dancers sport white tutus. By toying with the conventions of classical dance, Swan Lake plays like a parody of ballet.
Despite these subversions, the show otherwise remains quite conventional. All of its politics are in its content and none are in its form. We are inevitably reminded of the poverty of dance as a medium for storytelling. What storytelling and ballet have in common is that they are mere rearrangements of the same elements. Since we already know this story, as we do all stories, we are free to wander off and come back to it without ever having missed anything.
As a light nerd, I was also disappointed with Suzette Le Sueur’s permanent blanket lighting provided by twelve equally distant spots at the front of the stage.
The ballet ends with a collective suicide (the result of the toxicity of homophobia, I assume), which I presume is meant to be emotional since it is set to Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel.” There’s no reason to dance to Arvo Pärt. What more could there possibly be to add? What remains is the stellar performance of the dancers of the Dance Factory Johannesburg.
January 14-16 at 8pm
514.842.2112 / 1.866.842.2112
has an MA in Film Studies and works in contemporary dance. His fiction has appeared in Headlight Anthology, Cactus Heart, and Birkensnake.
s.verstricht [at] gmail [dot] com