The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, February 2-7, 2016
In her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag examined how diseases become “awash in significance.” “Nothing is more punitive,” she wrote, “than to give a disease a meaning—that meaning being invariably a moralistic one.” Sontag identified tuberculosis and cancer as two diseases that have moralistic meanings. In 1989, Sontag added AIDS to this list. “The sexual transmission of this illness,” she wrote in AIDS and Its Metaphors,” is “considered by most people as a calamity one brings on oneself.” It is, therefore, “judged more harshly than other means—especially since AIDS is understood as a disease not only of sexual excess but of perversity.”
South African dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo, who was born five years before Sontag published AIDS and Its Metaphors, also probes this public perception of AIDS. In her production “Swan Lake,” she reimagines Tchaikovsky’s classical ballet as a tale of spurned love, illness, and homophobia. In plot and style, Masilo sets her version of “Swan Lake” apart from those of Alexander Gorsky, Peter Martins, and George Balanchine. In the original narrative, a strapping, virile Prince Siegfried pursues Odette, an innocent maiden who has been cursed to live as a swan by day and a woman by night. The wily Odile, a black swan, complicates this narrative by seducing Siegfried. The same principal dancer traditionally plays both Odette and Odile. In Masilo’s narrative, Prince Siegfried is gay, and he pines after Odile, not Odette. A long-legged male dancer plays the Black Swan; Masilo plays a shrill, theatrical version of the White Swan. Men and women in white tutus comprise the corps de ballet. What’s more, Masilo intersperses the Tchaikovsky score with Steve Reich’s minimal compositions, and her dancers shift from sautes to releves to African dance.
Masilo’s conception of the Odette and Odile roles is clever. In splitting the characters between two dancers—one male and one female—she is able to tease out the tension in South Africa regarding homosexuality and AIDS. Masilo’s Odette, the White Swan, is welcome among her peers and deemed the most eligible maiden to marry Prince Siegfried. But she suffers, like the classical Odette, from a curse: instead of being turned into a swan, though, she is self-centered and naive. In contrast, Siegfried’s male lover is giving and compassionate. As the Black Swan, though, he represents what some South Africans, according to Masilo, see as dark forces in society: homosexuality and AIDS.
Masilo plays up this dichotomy between the two swans in a pair of pas de deux. In the first, Odette courts Siegfried, whom she is set to marry. She struts across the stage, self-interested and smug, and smoothes her hands down her bodice. Her movements are desperate, ridiculous, and even humorous—until one looks at Siegfried. The husband-to-be is solemn; his gaze, distant. As Odette prances, Siegfried takes a knee near the front of the stage. He slumps, then pivots towards the life partner he has not chosen. When Odette claps, Siegfried briefly snaps to attention and then stands out of obligation. But when she leans on him, he sways like a reed. When she falls to his feet, he shudders. He is patient, pensive, and devoid of passion. He is hollow. He is elsewhere.
In contrast, Siegfried’s pas de deux with Odile—the only dancer in the production to wear pointe shoes—is rich with passion and vitality; it is Masilo’s choreography at its sharpest. When Siegfried kneels, it is to touch his partner: his calf, his knee, his thigh. When Siegfried turns away from his partner, it is not to shun him or recede into a distant reverie. Instead, it is to take in a sharp breath, kiss his finger, and raise it to the sky, grateful for the moment.
This sequence is nuanced and romantic without being sentimental. But these powerful moments must compete for attention with brassy group numbers. When Odile leaves the stage and Siegfried moves to kiss his finger again, a raucous corps de ballet floods the stage to sing “It’s wedding day.” The dancers slap their thighs, strut, and throw their hands up with zeal. Siegfried’s parents trot out to center stage for the celebration; they are, notably, the only white performers in this production, and they lead the group in garishness. Siegfried hesitates—he wants to complete his ritual, but instead, he flees the stage.
This transition from a pas de deux to a group number makes narrative sense; still, the tonal shifts from contemplative to ensemble scenes are jarring. Take the moment when it becomes evident that Siegfried has contracted AIDS. Siegfried has just watched his male partner transform a showy, puffed-up victory dance into a desperate series of coughs, gasps, and writhes. Almost immediately after the audience is exposed to the possibility that Siegfried, too, will cough, gasp, and writhe, Odette’s friend confronts him on stage. She wags her finger at Siegfried as the rest of the company joins her for a public inquisition. But in the hasty transition, it is unclear whether the corps de ballet shames Siegfried for being gay, contracting HIV, or both. Perhaps Masilo means to muddle these circumstances in order to show how Siegfried’s community links the two factors. Still, her choreography does not challenge this conflation.
This pacing points to a more sweeping issue with the ballet’s structure. At only sixty minutes, the piece—particularly its second half—is rushed and underdeveloped. Had Masilo more space, more time to plot out her performance, she could have preserved swift sequence transitions and still spent more time unpacking certain plot points and relationships. We’ve only just met Odile when he physically fights Odette for Siegfried. Who is this man and what are his weaknesses, his convictions? Similarly, audiences don’t have the chance to see Odette’s emotional unraveling beyond the moments after she learns that Siegfried is gay. He hands her the red feather from her torn headpiece, she clasps it against her heart, and then trudges off stage. When both the Black Swan and White Swan navigate this scene, there seems to be anger and shame underpinning their movements. Still, what is beneath this anger? Likely, a vulnerability much like Siegfried’s. (Although Masilo should be praised for presenting Odette as a physically confident, strong-willed woman, despite—or perhaps in addition to—her flaws.) And yet Odette and Odile do not have the opportunity to dance out such introspection until the piece’s culmination.
The final sequence begins with Siegfried’s departure. He gasps and writhes while Odile and Odette, dreamlike, dance in sync in front of him. As he moves away from the pair, he lifts his hand as if to sprinkle something—love? regrets? sickness?—in his wake. The Black Swan and White Swan take in a sharp breath, kiss their fingers, and raise them to the sky. The moment passes.
The company emerges in long, green-black skirts. These men and women mimic the core characters’ movements: they, too, sprinkle some imagined substance in their midst. They advance, ghostly, as if they have sharp pains in their chest. They arch their back towards the heavens, looking for life force, but they are limited to taking sharp breaths. Together, they demonstrate the solitary nature of an epidemic.
Masilo’s “Swan Lake” is not so much a victim’s narrative as it is an indictment of those who ostracize gay people and AIDS victims. In this capacity, Masilo sets herself apart from choreographers who create “victim art,” a term that dance critic Arlene Croce coined in the New Yorker in 1994 in reference to Bill T. Jones’ “Still/Here.” Jones, an HIV-positive gay man, debuted “Still/Here” just six years after his partner Arnie Zane passed away from complications of AIDS. The multimedia piece features taped interviews with terminally ill subjects across the country, which he called “survival workshops.” For Croce, these factors amounted to the performance’s being a reflection of reality, not art; she refused to both see and review the engagement. “By working dying people into his act,” she stated in “Discussing the Undiscussable,” “Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. I think of him as literally undiscussable—the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs.”
Whatever one thinks of Croce’s notion of “victim art” (here are some reactions), Masilo’s work defies this label. Even though Masilo works death into her act, she does not—as far as the audience is concerned—work dying people into her act. And she invites criticism of her characters, save for Siegfried. Her emphasis on Siegfried’s community feels imbalanced because it is; Masilo is more concerned with condemning his critics than she is with tracking Siegfried’s tragedy.
In another stark departure from “victim art,” Masilo presents the process by which an illness becomes “awash in significance” with humor. When, for instance, Siegfried frets over his pending wedding, he voices his concerns alone on stage. “Well, there’s something I have to tell you,” he stammers. “Well, she’s the problem, not me.” The audience chuckles at this twisting of the “It’s not you, it’s me” excuse. Similarly, when Siegfried’s mother reacts to the news that her son will not be marrying Odette, the audience laughs; her reaction lends a moment of comic relief to a scene that is otherwise vicious. As she falls to the ground, wailing “Siegfried, why?! What will people say?” she seems more like a reality star having a meltdown than a parent who has been let down. Through humor, Masilo is able to add levity to a subject that is, otherwise, morose and morbid. She is also able to criticize the wedding party for its self-centeredness and, later, its homophobia.
Critics have praised Masilo’s “Swan Lake” as radical. But her work is not technically or stylistically unprecedented. British choreographer Matthew Bourne’s vaudevillian interpretation of the ballet also features men touting tutus. And Masilo is not new to updating classical ballets; she has also produced versions of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Carmen,” and “Death and the Maiden.” If Masilo deserves praise for being bold, it is in the realm of framing. She focuses on the people who shame society’s most vulnerable members. And her tale is cautionary, not sentimental. “To get AIDS,” Sontag states in AIDS and Its Metaphors, “is precisely to be revealed, in the majority of cases so far, as a member of a certain ‘risk group,’ a community of pariahs.” Here, Sontag speaks to the sting of being not only stricken with an illness but also banished from civil society. In order to combat this split between a “community of pariahs” and a community of civilians, Sontag calls on those who are not ill to to strip illness of its social stigmas.
In “Swan Lake,” Masilo takes this call to action one step further. She envisions the endgame of a society that is split between a community of pariahs and a community of civilians. Masilo’s company members dance in unison, but fall, one by one, dead, dancing until they drop. The last two survivors are Odette and Odile, who, facing death, can finally face one another. They embrace, separate, writhe, sway, raise their fingers to sprinkle some love or life force or last wishes, drop their arms, wave goodbye to the already dead, and then fall among them. The set lights twinkle, then go dark. Odette and Odile outlast the rest, but the Black Swan and White Swan ultimately share society’s fate. Herein, Masilo reveals the risks of social division: everyone falls.