The South African contemporary choreographer Dada Masilo, based at Johannesburg’s The Dance Factory, has re-imagined some of the most familiar works in the western canon, including “Giselle” and “Swan Lake,” through an African lens. In “The Sacrifice,” she takes a juggernaut of early 20th century modernism, “The Rite of Spring.” But it is more complicated than that; as Masilo writes in her program note, she is responding not to Nijinsky and Stravinsky but to Pina Bausch, whose punishing 1975 “Rite of Spring” for the Paris Opéra is a juggernaut of its own. (Bausch’s work comes to the Park Avenue Armory later this year, in a version performed by dancers from 14 African countries.)
But what elevates Masilo’s 2021 “The Sacrifice” is the fact that it transcends its model in every way: musically, structurally, thematically. Though it concludes with a ceremonial death—danced by Masilo herself—the dance does not depict a soulless sacrifice to a faceless collective, which is, after all, a very turn-of-the-twentieth-century idea. If anything, this “Sacrifice” is a celebration of being alive, of moving, of being part of a group, and an illustration of the pain that follows when life is cut short. Joy is replaced by grief and loss. Private pain, represented by the motherly embrace of the singer Ann Masina, who cradles and consoles, flows into the pain experienced by the larger group.
The reason for the sacrifice is never made clear. It could be a death from natural causes, or the result of something more sinister. Before her character expires, Masilo is surrounded by four men in white, seraphim who place their hands on her, raise their arms in prayer, and catch her when she falls. Then Masina folds Masilo into her arms. The two women weep together. The religious symbolism is strong: the conjuring of spirits, baptism, the pietà. What Masilo is sacrificing is clear: life itself, and the joy, warmth, and community spirit that come with it.
For much of the show, that is what we see. Masilo and her ten dancers, all powerful, all wonderfully different in size and look and movement quality, dance together and apart, responding to and commenting on the music produced by the four musicians, who play onstage. (If the music takes cues from Stravinsky’s score, I did not notice.) The music here has a life and character of its own, becoming an integral part of the stage action. The musicians chant, sing, play the violin and various types of percussion; there is also a rope that whistles when it is twirled in the air. Their playing and singing are matched by the dancers’ clapping, stomping, and speaking. (I was sorry not to know what they were saying.) These two ensembles are not separate, but part of a larger, fuller world of sound and movement. Around them floats Masina’s lush operatic voice, and her opulent, warm physical presence. When she enfolds Masilo in her arms, you wish you could nestle there with her.
The movement language is, Masilo explains in the program, derived from Tswana, a style of dance and music that originates from the Tswana people of Botswana and South Africa. (It is the culture Masilo was born into, though she explains she had never before studied the dance.) Highly rhythmic, celebratory, and laced with large and calligraphic movements for the arms, it involves the whole body, and encompasses sound as well as movement (slaps of the chest, clapping, stomps). At times the loose stance, elegant arm movements, and complex footwork reminded me of tap or soft-shoe.
At the start, the group surrounds Masilo in a semi-circle, as she dances, smiling, her back pulsating, fingers rustling like feathers. Repeatedly the dancers rub their hands together, as if washing them—the gesture becomes a theme throughout the dance. There is a fast, energetic, almost competitive ensemble dance that reminded me more of the “Dance at the Gym” in “West Side Story” than of “The Rite of Spring.” In a humorous taunt, one of the dancers asked the musicians to slow down, so they could breathe. And they did, shifting to a lilting triple meter, though only briefly. Call and response, push and pull, fast and slow—all this added to the playfulness and variety of the dance.
There are also solo dances in “The Sacrifice,” in which individual dancers leap and fall, pirouette on their knees or on deeply bent legs, or balance on one foot as the other traces large arcs in the air. And smaller group dances, like one in which three women lean perilously backward as they shuffle across the floor. Sometimes their fellow dancers watch, sometimes they join in.
Eventually, the dance takes a more serious hue. A woman hands Masilo a single calla lily, which she rejects, dropping it on the floor. But the die is cast. A man arrives, bare-chested and wearing white trousers. There is something shamanic about his aura as he lunges and pirouettes, his long legs slashing the air. Masilo returns, now also in white, and, like him, bare-chested. A second man comes on, partnering her from behind, gently placing his hands on her, lifting her up into the air.
Then the ceremony begins. Moving within a circle of men who tower over her, Masilo seems to go through a transformation, almost a molting. Whatever came before has now ended, and a new, tragic chapter has begun.
At the end, as Masilo lies still, the community mourns, enveloped in Masina’s vocal lament. It is a moving ending, even if it goes on for too long, milking the moment, and its quasi-religious imagery, for effect. In this, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and Bausch had it right. The end of this sacrificial process should be a sudden, painful flash, not a slow burn. But this late intrusion of sentimentality notwithstanding, Masilo’s “The Sacrifice” is an engrossing work, buoyed by its sense of play, humanity, and the enlivening repartee between dance and music.