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REVIEW: Dada Masilo’s ‘The Sacrifice’ at Theatre Royal Newcastle

The Sacrifice

Theatre Royal Newcastle

Until Wednesday 12 April 2023

The Sacrifice was inspired by Pina Bausch’s ballet The Rite of Spring but with an original score and using the rhythms and style of Tswana dance, which originated in Botswana. Dada Masilo has created a hauntingly beautiful and exhilarating combination of classical and African dance styles and an apparently effortless marriage of music and dance. Much credit is due to the powerful and emotional score that is played live on stage, particularly the extraordinary vocal performance of Ann Masina, a singer of great power, warmth and versatility.

Dada Masilo is a pioneer of dance fusion, though previously she has worked with classical ballets, adapting the original scores. For The Sacrifice, she has drawn on the dance style of her native Botswana and has commissioned a completely new score, though it was inspired by Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, written for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in 1913 and depicting the rituals of pagan Russia.

 The ballet was controversial when first produced but it has remained in repertoire and undergone a number of reinventions over the intervening period. It was modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch’s 1975 version that inspired Masilo to create this piece.

Drawing on Tswana rituals, as well as the original story, it depicts an African society carrying out various rituals in celebration of the coming of spring, culminating in the choice of a young woman, portrayed by Masilo, to dance herself to death.

Masilo’s work has brought the music very much into the action and in this case, the singer Ann Masina is directly involved in the performance. In the beginning she appears to give a form of benediction to the chosen girl, who is undergoing what looks like a cleansing ritual, and at the end she joins the girl to comfort her in her last moments and sings a heartrending lament.

Being aware of the original score, one might have been disappointed not to hear it but the new score, written and performed by Masina, Leroy Mapholo, Tlale Makhene and Nathi Shongwe, is a thing of beauty in its own right.  It combines African rhythms, using traditional instruments, with jazz, blues and classical influences using keyboards and strings and most persuasively, voice.

There are soaring passages with a pastoral feel that evoke Vaughan Williams or Aaron Copland and in Masina’s tender vocals there are hints of Nina Simone. From this it is clear the music defies genre or classification beyond saying it is highly effective and emotionally powerful. Like Stravinsky’s original, I believe this piece may have sufficient merit to be performed independent of the dance, though the two are so perfectly integrated in performance and one feels the rapport between dancer and musician throughout. 

After Masilo’s solo that opens the piece, there is a joyful and highly rhythmic ensemble section where, one suspects, the Tswana elements are most strongly to the fore. There follows a powerful solo where Thandiwe Mqokeli identifies Masilo as the chosen one and presents her with a lily, the flower we associate with death.

As well as group sections, there follows an athletic and muscular male solo and an achingly beautiful pas de deux before the chosen one starts to fail and is joined by Masina for the previously described denouement. An elegiac dance by the company, carrying lilies, echoing the moment of the families visiting Juliet’s tomb, completes the evening.

Performed essentially on a bare stage with a little projection, the focus is entirely on the dancers who demonstrate technique and athleticism, all in the service of the emotion that runs high throughout. Masilo is a strong and lyrical dancer of great presence and the ensemble provide worthy support. This is an imaginative, moving and powerful dance piece that deserves to be widely seen and celebrated.

The 12 April show marks the end of its tour but one hopes it may be revived in the future, should this magical mix of dancers and musicians be able to be brought together again. 

Review: Jonathan Cash

Photos: Tristram Kenton



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