Dada Masilo’s The Sacrifice amalgamates dance, music and voice to rhythmically render an absorbing theatrical offering that is both fascinatingly unique and movingly universal.
This enjoyable and emotive new work is award-winning South African dancer and choreographer Masilo’s response to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The complex score, written in 1913 for a one-act ballet that culminates in the sacrifice of a young virgin, has long been a rite of passage for choreographers. Indeed, the seeds of Masilo’s ambition to create her own interpretation of the pounding pagan dance piece were planted when she learned a section of Pina Bausch’s 1975 choreography.
Already a fan of challenging rhythms and familiar with reimagining Western classics (she has previously adapted Swan Lake and Giselle), Masilo immersed herself in creating The Sacrifice in 2019. Of course, pandemic-related pauses protracted the process. Although frustrating, this ultimately gave her – and her company of excellent dancers and musicians – time to refine the mesmerising journey that her distinctive dance to death takes theatregoers on.
What makes this work unique is Masilo’s decision to jettison Stravinsky’s score and embrace Tswana, a belief system and dance culture native to the country of Botswana. Consequently, an original musical composition infused with rousing rhythms from Botswana drives the dancing, which blends Tswana movement with modern contemporary vocabularies. Often used in storytelling and healing ceremonies, Tswana dance evolved from close observation of animal movement – particularly that of the meerkat. Accordingly, the dancers are contained, precise and fast: legs and feet scurry and stamp to mark the beat; arms and hands restlessly flutter through rapid gestures.
The stunning synergy between live music and dance (and musicians and dancers) breathes life into an onstage society where responsibility to the tribe is valued above the wants of the individual. The collective chants, ancient rituals and desire to choose a sacrificial victim may not be universally relatable, but the themes of family and community are. Notably, Masilo’s scenario features a powerful mother/goddess figure, who must send her own daughter to her death. This will have particularly resonated with audience members at Milton Keynes Theatre as The Sacrifice was performed at the venue just before Mother’s Day.
Masilo follows The Rite of Spring’s structure, dividing her narrative into two parts. In the first part, a community is established. Specifically, Masilo’s character is introduced as an individual who belongs to a tribe, then ancestral traditions and worship practices are depicted. Lively ensemble routines, led by Masilo, unite the performers in joyous celebration and shared experiences. In the second part, ceremonial preparations are finalised before the inevitable sacrifice of Masilo’s character takes place. These formalities, which involve Masilo being gently manipulated by those around her, present the sacrifice as a cleansing ritual that brings a communal sense of gratitude, peace and renewal.
The very beginning of The Sacrifice sees Masilo’s character step, barefoot, onto the stage alone. Small in stature, with a shaved head, she is topless. Her naked torso emphasises her femininity and fragility, and perhaps nods to freedom. It reflects customs in some rural South African communities where girls and young women remain uncovered until they marry. It seems pure and innocent. Empowered by the arrival of majestic opera and gospel singer Ann Masina, who portrays her mother, Masilo completes her captivating introductory solo and leaves the stage. When she returns, she is wearing a flowing, earth-toned dress. Flanked and followed by the rest of the dancing tribe, she swirls, shimmies and claps elatedly. She vivaciously interacts vocally, in English, with the musicians, appealing for a slower tempo.
The musicians – violinist, percussionist, pianist and the singer – sit in the downstage left corner of the stage throughout the production. This leaves the main stage as a sacred space for the dancers, apart from two occasions when the singer enters. The first time is at the beginning, when her divine vocals radiate maternal concern as she slowly walks towards Masilo. The second time is at the end, when her voice soars with incredulous anguish as she cradles the limp, lifeless Masilo. Behind the performers, silhouettes of tree branches are projected onto the backdrop and drenched in an orange glow. This effectively sets the scene in the remote African bush, right on the cusp of spring. However, the dim lighting over the musicians means the fabulous array of instruments percussionist Mpho Mothiba plays – generating drumming, grinding, shaking, chirping and whooshing sounds – is not illuminated in its full glory. Still, the musicians themselves are always visible, which reinforces their call-and-response connection with the dancers.
All eleven dancers (Dada Masilo, Leorate Bessler Dibatana, Lwando Dutyulwa, Thuso Lobeko, Lehlohonolo Madise, Songezo Mcilizeli, Refiloe Mogoje, Steven Mokone, Thandiwe Mqokeli, Eutychia Rakaki and Tshepo Zasekhaya) are strong and supple. They each embody syncopated rhythms with remarkable ease, so movements are synchronised in unison yet still embellished with personal flair. The choreography flows with a satisfying growing momentum.
The programme notes do not provide any explanations, which leaves the curious keen to learn about Tswana culture and reflect on the meaning of the more bewildering moments. In the Tswana belief system, society comprises adults, children and badimo – ancestral spirits. These invisible spirits, which include deceased relatives, act as intermediaries between humanity and the supreme being. They watch over the living, striving to correct faults and protect their descendants from harm, so are therefore actively included in the daily life of the tribe. This information explains the tribe’s adoration of the earth, the enduring presence of the community and the acceptance of the sacrifice itself. What’s more, badimo make the sound of wind when they move, so that explains the significance of those whooshing sounds.
The Sacrifice is a special experience. It is entertaining thanks to its exhilarating and expressive movement and music. It is eye-opening and thought-provoking thanks to its focus on culture and rituals, community and belonging, guidance and gratitude, suffering and healing. It fluidly depicts the transitory nature of feelings, dance, life.
Over the coming days and weeks, as spring begins, the energy and emotions that the cast and audience members shared will linger. Serving as a reminder that everything we are comforted by in the known is equalled by everything there is to be intrigued by in the unknown. Be, but don’t block the process of becoming.
In essence, The Sacrifice asks you to listen for your own rhythm in the noise that surrounds you. To recognise that acceptance permits growth, from which new buds of acceptance may blossom. To be reassured that the strength of the human spirit knows no bounds.
Running time: Approximately 1 hour, with no interval.
Contains partial nudity (bare-chested bodies).
Age guidance: 12+
*Production photography by Tristram Kenton.
Dada Masilo’s The Sacrifice continues its UK tour until 12 April 2023.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.