Don’t Miss: Rhythm and Ritual in Dada Masilo’s ‘The Sacrifice’

The award-winning South African choreographer returns to The Joyce Theater for the New York premiere of a unique dance work inspired by Pina Bausch's “The Rite of Spring.”

The award-winning South African choreographer Dada Masilo returns to The Joyce Theater to perform the New York premiere of The Sacrifice, an evening-length work inspired by The Rite of Spring.

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Dada Masilo’s ‘The Sacrifice’ performed at Dance Factory Johannesburg in 2021. John Hogg

Masilo is renowned for sinking her teeth into classic works, chewing up outdated themes and spitting them out in her fresh fusion of classical ballet, traditional African styles and contemporary dance. She started with Romeo and Juliet in 2008, then moved on to Carmen (2009), then Swan Lake (2010), then Giselle (2017) and now The Sacrifice, which premiered in Vienna in 2021.

From the moment Masilo enters the dimly lit stage, blessing it with her fluidly percussive movements, I could sense I was about to experience something. Not in an immersive theater way, but in a human-witnessing-humanity way.

But pause for a moment. To fully understand The Sacrifice, it helps to be familiar with Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring (1975), which means you have to know a little bit about the original The Rite of Spring (1913). Let’s turn our attention to the past.

Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was the first to perform The Rite of Spring on May 29, 1913, in Paris’s recently built Theatre des Champs-Elysees. The ballet featured Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral score and Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography. Stravinsky and collaborator Nicholas Roerich—an artist, expert on Russian folk art and ancient rituals, alleged mystic, costumer and set designer—initially wanted to title the piece The Great Sacrifice but settled on Holy Spring. It became known around town by its French translation (“Les Sacre du printemps”) and then, finally, by the English translation of that French translation: The Rite of Spring, with the subtitle “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”.

In Stravinsky’s libretto, he wrote that the piece “is unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring.”

The opening performance was riotous. Literally. It caused a riot. Or, maybe, a near-riot—first-hand accounts differ. Evidently, Stravinsky’s discordant score with its ever-changing time signatures and Nijinsky’s stomping, jagged choreography with its turned-in feet and sacrificial virgin dancing herself to death was more than people could handle. There were only eight performances.

A moment from Dada Masilo’s ‘The Sacrifice’. John Hogg

But the ballet was resurrected. In 1920, Russian choreographer Leonide Massine created his own version, which was first shown in the U.S. in 1930 with Martha Graham playing the role of the Chosen One. Since then, about 150 choreographers around the world have taken a stab at Rite—including Graham, many years later.

Masilo first encountered Rite while studying at the Performing Arts Research and Training Studios in Brussels. There she learned an excerpt from German dance theater pioneer Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring, known for its raw choreography, dirt-covered floor and battle-of-the-sexes ferocity. It was the first time Masilo had ever moved like that or heard Stravinsky’s music. “It was like my mind was blown,” she tells me.

Let’s get back to The Sacrifice. Since Masilo’s first encounter with Bausch’s repertory, she knew she wanted to take on Rite but wasn’t sure how. About ten years later, when creating her own Giselle, she admits she was already thinking about Rite. She created a 30-minute version in 2017’s Spring, using Stravinsky’s score (performed at the Fall For Dance Festival in NYC) but wanted to flesh out the narrative and extend it to an evening-length work.

Two dancers in Dada Masilo’s ‘The Sacrifice’. John Hogg

Rite’s concept of ritual and sacrifice interested Masilo, but she wanted her version to be about healing as opposed to violence. “I wanted it to be something sacred,” she says, “and I wanted the sacrifice to be performed by the mother to keep it soft and pure.” (The mother figure is played by one of the musicians, Ann Masina, whose voice could launch a thousand ships.)

Because Stravinsky’s score is only 30 minutes long, and because Masilo wanted to work with live music, which she’d never done before, she commissioned musicians (Masina, Leroy Mapholo, Tlale Makhene and Nathi Shongwe) to listen to the original score and then create their own in response to it. The result is a beautiful mix of classical, traditional and contemporary African music.

Masilo also wanted to incorporate Tswana dance—the traditional dance of Botswana, her cultural heritage—in her choreography, which she’d never done before. Tswana, rooted in storytelling and healing practices, is inspired by the small, quick movements of the meerkat. It is very intricate and very fast. “It’s so difficult,” Masilo tells me, laughing. “I thought my rhythm was good but, my god!”

Masilo studied with a master Tswana teacher for three months, then invited her company to study with him for one month. “I didn’t want to give them the information second-hand.”

She is pleased with the outcome. She loves the new music’s intricate rhythms and the inclusion of Tswana dance, which is also intricately rhythmic. “The whole work is really about rhythm,” she says. “Rhythm and Ritual.”

The Sacrifice maintains Rite’s rebellious spirit, with its raucous world-on-the-brink-of-war energy, but turns the rest of it on its head. While Roerich’s original set depicted a lush and idealized rural Russia, Suzette Le Sueur’s projection of the African bush is spare, with bare trees as it is not yet spring. While Roerich’s costumes were heavy and clownish, David Hutt’s are airy and elegant. While Rite is about sacrifice, The Sacrifice is about ritual.

Masilo made sure to consult with elders before deciding if she would perform the Tswana rituals on stage. “You always have to ask,” she says. Their response was: “Keep it sacred. Keep it sacred, and respect it.”

So, she did. Which brings us back to Masilo blessing the stage with her body. After she is done, the production’s other ten dancers rush on and the celebration begins.

The first half of the piece is truly joyful. The musicians occasionally dance, and the dancers occasionally sing. They laugh and talk to each other—“Why you playing so fast? Can we please have an adagio?”—and sometimes the performers look directly into the audience. It’s not that they’re breaking the fourth wall but rather that there is no wall. We are all in this together.

Then things take a sinister turn, which is when both the choreography and music are at their most soulful, most gut-wrenching best. The audience remained still and hushed, acting as witnesses for the rest of the piece.

When I asked Masilo what she hoped the audience would gain from the performance, she said, “I think we’ve become so desensitized that we don’t feel anymore. I want them to feel. Laugh, cry, feel anger, feel joy. Cry it out if they need to. There’s nothing wrong with that! Cry it out, grieve and heal at the same time.”

I’ll be honest—I did. If you can see only one dance performance in what’s left of spring, let this be it.

The Sacrifice continues at The Joyce Theater through May 28.

Don’t Miss: Rhythm and Ritual in Dada Masilo’s ‘The Sacrifice’