Jonathan Gray sees Dada Masilo's The Sacrifice in Brighton at the start of a Dance Consortium tour
|Date||21 February 2023|
When is Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring not The Rite of Spring? The answer is when it's turned into a rite of spring. This is something award-winning South African dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo and her company explore in a new, hour-long production, The Sacrifice, which can be seen on tour in the UK until the middle of April courtesy of Dance Consortium. It opened at Brighton's Dome (the venue where ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest back in 1974) on 21st February.
In a programme note, Masilo explained she was intrigued by “the complex rhythms of Stravinsky's score,” when learning parts of Pina Bausch's choreography for The Rite of Spring whilst studying in Brussels. “I am a big fan of rhythms that are challenging,” she continued, adding how she wanted to study Tswana movement, the culture of her heritage, and use it to explore ideas behind ritual and sacrifice “to the Tswana people then and what it means now. Narrative is very important to me. I wanted to create a story that is deeper than a chosen maiden dancing herself to death.”
The Sacrifice, therefore, is not Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and instead Masilo has commissioned a new score from Ann Masina, Leroy Mapholo, Tlale Makhene and Nathi Shongwe that includes voice, keyboard, strings and percussion. It vividly captures a sense of complex African rhythms and sounds that can also be danced to. As with many versions of Rite, the work shows a lone figure – Masilo herself – selected from within a community to make a human sacrifice. We see her alone on stage at first, topless, her hands clapping and her body bending as she slowly travels across the stage. She is joined by Ann Masina, a soprano, who sings whilst carrying a white ball on her head. Masina gives the audience the impression Masilo has already been selected for the sacrificial ceremony.
Other dancers enter the stage, dressed in grey, moving back and forth and rhythmically lifting, stamping and tapping their feet. Behind them, on a backcloth, are projected bare tree branches, an indication that spring is yet to come. Unlike Rite, however, this is a joyful gathering, with no sense of fear or menace, and the dancers, Masilo amongst them, form circles and semi-circles, stopping and starting, lowering themselves to the floor and rising again, clapping and chanting, lifting their arms.
At certain points in the dance, or ceremony, the men and women perform separately in groups, or break into short, percussive solos in which they also sing and chant. At other times Masilo takes to the stage to dance alone. As the sequences develop, one woman, dressed in white, enters holding a lily, a symbol of death, which she forces into Masilo's hands. Masilo tries to resist this presentation, then places the flower on the floor, although she surely knows by now it is she who is the one who has been chosen. The dancers return, also dressed in white, and they shimmy in circles with jumps and turns, their arms windmilling around them.
Eventually, Masilo is surrounded by four men, who carry her aloft, almost as if she were a rag doll, but in her last dances there is no sense of terror or fear, only a feeling of inevitability. Masina enters again. She cradles Masilo, gently moving her across the stage and helping her to the floor, her hand covering Masilo's face. She then sings a tragic lament over Masilo's prone body, her voice rising higher and higher. As The Sacrifice comes to its end, the ensemble return, all of them topless, each holding a lily. They kneel and prostrate their bodies on the floor, quietly paying their respects to the woman who has sacrificed herself on their behalf, whilst Masina stands over her like a protecting angel.
Masilo's choreography creates a world on stage simultaneously known and unknown, an evocation of a society both unique and universal. It is an intriguing piece, and magnificently performed by the musicians (mentioned above) and the brilliant dancers – Lehlohonolo Madise, Refiloe Mogoje, Thandiwe Mqokeli, Eutychia Rakaki, Leo Dibatana, Lwando Dutyulwa, Thuso Lobeke, Songezo Mcilizeli, Steven Mokone and Tshepo Zasekhaya. As much as I admired The Sacrifice, however, I couldn't help hoping that, at some point in the future, Masilo might be convinced to make her own version of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring – wouldn't that be fascinating?
For tour details of Dada Masilo's The Sacrifice, visit danceconsortium.com.
Jonathan Gray was editor of Dancing Times from 2008 to 2022.
He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. He was on the Curatorial Staff of the Theatre Museum, London, from 1989 to 2005, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet's productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times and The Guardian, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.
African art needs more womenish power and not a victim.