A New Spin on "Swan Lake" and "Romeo and Juliet" at the Lyon Dance Biennial

A New Spin on "Swan Lake" and "Romeo and Juliet" at the Lyon Dance Biennial
A scene from Dada Masilo's new production of "Swan Lake"
(© Biennale de la danse de Lyon)

PARIS, FRANCE — The Biennale de Danse de Lyon will launch its 15th edition on September 13, under the direction of choreographer Dominique Hervieu. With 38 shows over 18 days, the festival includes 19 original productions. Two of these are experimental reinterpretations of the classic works “Swan Lake” and “Romeo and Juliet."

It takes guts to tackle Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s revered ballet “Swan Lake,” which has been reimagined about 20 times since Julius Reisinger’s first production in 1877. The intrepid choreographer is Dada Masilo, a young South African choreographer who studied at PARTS, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s school in Brussels. At the tender age of 26, Masilo already has 10 productions under her belt and an international reputation.

Masilo keeps some elements of the traditional “Swan Lake” in place: the tutus, the balance between solos and ensemble dances, some of the pointe passages, and, of course, Tchaikovsky’s music — but mixed with other sounds from the repertoire of Steve Reich and Camille Saint-Saëns. In her version, classical ballet is fused, in a very natural fashion, with African dance, which is interpreted across its history — from ritual performance to modern jazz. At times, the stage resembles a tribal cabaret filled with cries, and the production takes on an inward-looking intensity and vital power.

As for Vladimir Begichev’s conventional and sentimental book, Masilo turns it on its head by depicting the hero, Siegfried, as a gay man — something that Rudolf Nureyev's performance implied in 1984 and that Matthew Bourne did more explicitly in 1995 with his male swan, in reference to Tchaikovsky’s presumed homosexuality. By taking on issues of gender and sexual taboos, Masilo has created a piece with social resonance, which she hopes will be iconoclastic. Those who like epic productions will enjoy her virtuoso and energetic “Swan Lake,” and ballet lovers shouldn’t feel too lost.

On a nearby stage in Lyon, David Bobee, who did a contemporary version of "Hamlet" in 2010, will be adapting another iconic Shakespeare play: “Romeo and Juliet.” The 34-year-old, who is both set designer and director, combines theater, circus, and dance in this production, and a new French translation by Pascal and Antoine Collin continually evokes the body.

Romeo and Juliet, played by Medhi Dehbi and Sara Llorca, have been teleported to the 21st century. The battle between Veronese clans takes on the look of gang warfare in the suburbs. Bobee aims to be political and evokes current events, while at the same time transforming Shakespeare’s Verona into copper-accented Islamic architecture that calls to mind the Arabian Nights — a combination that seems a bit jarring, at least on paper. Knowing the director’s somewhat heavy tendency toward expressive choreography and aerial acrobatics, we’re really wondering what this erotic-political “Romeo and Juliet” will look like. After Lyon, Paris will also have a chance to check it out when the production comes to the Théâtre de Chaillot in November.