Over the past decade, the South African choreographer Dada Masilo has become internationally known and respected for her bold, socially conscious adaptations of canonical ballets like “Giselle” and “Swan Lake.” With her current touring production, “The Sacrifice” (2021), she responds to source material that is a bit more contemporary but carries just as much historical weight: Pina Bausch’s “The Rite of Spring,” which Bausch choreographed in 1975 to Stravinsky’s groundbreaking 1913 score. (The music originally accompanied Nijinsky’s earth-pounding modernist choreography, a pairing that caused a riot at the ballet’s Paris premiere.)
In a program note for “The Sacrifice,” which opened at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, Masilo explains that she first encountered Bausch’s “Rite” as a student at the Performing Arts Research and Training Studios, or P.A.R.T.S., the prestigious Brussels dance academy. She describes feeling intrigued by the ballet’s rhythmic complexity and wanting to explore its themes of ritual and sacrifice through Tswana, a dance form of her own heritage, traditional to Botswana. “I want to create a story that is deeper than a chosen maiden dancing herself to death,” she writes.
Bausch’s “Rite” is famous for its bracing, uncompromising brutality. After its New York premiere in 1984, critics commented on its utter grimness; Anna Kisselgoff, writing in The New York Times, and Deborah Jowitt, in The Village Voice, both used the phrase “no promise of rebirth.” It ends with the sacrificial virgin falling to an unequivocal death. Lights out.
“The Sacrifice” tells an impassioned but more nuanced, winding story — if not necessarily a deeper one — riding peaks and valleys of joy and mourning, dotted with humor. In place of Stravinsky’s score is music by Ann Masina, Leroy Mapholo, Tiale Makhene and Nathi Shongwe, gorgeously performed live by all but Makhene, and with the addition of Mpho Mothiba. Their compositions take cues from “Rite,” particularly in Mapholo’s startling violin and Mothiba’s invigorating percussion. But they also go their own way, with a warmth that emanates especially from Masina’s formidable singing.
The 65-minute work begins with a solo for Masilo, topless in a long, flowing skirt. Her slow trajectory across the stage contrasts with the rapid, searching motion of her arms, a kind of precise but agitated scribbling that will return again and again, reminiscent of the tangled tree branches projected as a backdrop.
A rush of energy follows the introspective opening, as more dancers arrive, joining together in full-bodied, undulatory movement that integrates the fast-paced, stamping footwork of Tswana. (The Joyce stage at times felt too small.) At one point they form a semicircle around Masilo as if to celebrate her. In the work’s most lighthearted passage, they directly address the musicians, who play from corner at the front of the stage. “Why are you going so fast?” a dancer asks. “Can we please have an adagio, so we can breathe?” Masilo adds. It takes a few tries, but the adagio comes.
In this way and others, Masilo seems to be pushing back against the ruthlessness of “Rite.” While she does play the role of a “chosen one,” she doesn’t go without a struggle, and her send-off is long and compassionate. Handed a white lily, she leaves it on the floor and exits. When three men in white later surround her, she falls into their arms but also pries herself away. Eventually, she is delivered into the embrace of Masina, who sings an anguished song while gently guiding her to the ground. The other dancers, now also dressed in white, bow before her.
While emotionally resonant at times and full of beautiful dancing — Eutychia Rakaki and Lwando Dutyulwa gave especially vibrant performances — “The Sacrifice” often feels confused in its tone and structure. Masilo has spoken about her love of narrative, but the storytelling here lacks the dramatic stakes and piercing clarity that make other versions of “Rite,” like Bausch’s, so gripping. Perhaps that sort of comparison isn’t entirely fruitful, though. Masilo set out to create something different, and in that sense, her “Sacrifice” is a success.
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org