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Diminutive and dynamic, choreographer Dada Masilo brings the vibrant energy of her African hometown, Johannesburg, to the international stage. Her choreographic language combines classical, contemporary, and African dance, and in her re-visioning of popular ballet stories, she confronts controversial issues head-on with a mix of humor and wisdom. A dancer who reluctantly became a choreographer, Dada Masilo is passionate about making the theatre a place to experience emotion. In her new work, The Sacrifice, she brings both the pain and the healing.
ICONS: You say you stumbled into choreography. How did this happen?
Dada Masilo: When I was training, I just wanted to be a dancer, but at P.A.R.T.S. (Performing Arts Research & Training Studios) in Brussels, they forced us to choreograph. After doing my first solo, I thought: "Okay, I can do this," and because no choreographers in Johannesburg were doing the kind of work I wanted to do, I just had to do it myself.
My first work was a solo about grief made for my aunt, who died of AIDS. She didn’t really die because she was sick; she died because she was shunned by the family and the community. The solo grew into a group work and then a work for a company of twelve.
ICONS: Was there a lightbulb moment when you realized this would be your profession?
DM: When I was doing dance training, and I was on stage for the first time, it felt okay, and I felt at home. Then I saw Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s company performing Drumming, and I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was marrying my passion. It consolidated everything that I’d been working through from the age of twelve.
ICONS: Where does your inspiration for the movement come from?
DM: All of my works are emotionally charged. I look at what is happening around me in the society and in the world, and I’m affected by it. Life in South Africa is very harsh. I look at what is going on here, and when people say: ‘Would you consider moving to Europe?’ I say, ‘No!’ Because as much as Johannesburg is frustrating and angry-making, it’s what gives me drive for my work.
Going home the other day, the driver went through central Johannesburg, and it was horrific. There were people living on the street, people sleeping on the street, cooking, and cutting hair, it was a complete mess. I’m not saying it’s good, but if I had to live in Europe, I wouldn’t be experiencing all of this, and I don’t want to become a clinical person just living in my brain. I’m angry and sad and need to feel it in my core.
ICONS: So what you lack in subsidies you gain in creative stimulus?
DM: Yes, and then it’s real. For me, it’s not about money it’s about people and when I’m not touring, what I’m normally doing is people-watching so I can see what state they are living in. And the state of living for people around the world at the moment is incredibly difficult. Then I go to these amazing theatres, and the contrast with the reality of the situation is so hard to deal with.
ICONS: And your choreographic inspiration?
DM: In terms of my movement vocabulary, I always try to challenge myself to go further. My choreography is eclectic; with Swan Lake, it was African dance and classical ballet. I just open my toolbox and see what I can pick out.
It’s also about learning something new, and with The Sacrifice, I learned Tswana dance. It’s a dance from my heritage but one I had to learn as an adult. It was difficult because of the rhythms and then trying to match it to the paradigms, and the complexity of Stravinsky was also very difficult for me.
ICONS: Tell us more about creating The Sacrifice.
DM: I made The Sacrifice in honor of my grandmother. She passed away in 2015, I was on tour, and I chose not to go to her funeral. My grandmother and I were incredibly close, and we would sit and talk until three in the morning – and then the next day, I would have to go to dance training. That’s how close we were. So, when she died, I didn’t want to see her lifeless body. I want to remember the times we shared together and the moments we laughed together. The Sacrifice is, for me, just about honoring her. I say I love you and thank you for the woman I have become.
ICONS: Are you using the full Stravinsky score of Sacre?
DM: No, I’m not using Stravinsky because I felt it’d been used enough, so I’ve got a new score. I chose four musicians, a violinist, a percussionist, a singer, and a keyboard. I asked them to listen to the score, and I said I wanted them to get the discordance of the Stravinsky score, so it was a challenge for them and for the dancers too.
ICONS: What practical preparation do you do before stepping into the studio with your dancers?
DM: With The Sacrifice, I spent a couple of months working with the Tswana dance teacher before the dancers came in. Then I had three months with the dancers just learning Tswana dance. Tswana dance is all about rhythm, and it’s not the easiest thing to learn. After that, it’s about fusing this with contemporary dance. I love a challenge but trying to put moves with rhythms that are not matching was really difficult. It nearly killed me, but I think we got it.
ICONS: What part do the dancers play in the creation? Do you set the movement?
DM: Absolutely! It’s a conversation, and I see what the dancers are bringing to it but obviously, there can’t be too many cooks. There has got to be someone checking the direction. But I don’t take dancers into the company to be passive people. I’m choosing them because they’ve got presence and personality. At the end of the day, we are doing this one work, and I think everybody understands that point.
ICONS: What are the advantages of working exclusively with your own selected group of dancers?
DM: I prefer working with people that I select. It’s really important that I feel the energy of the dancers, and our energy must match. I prefer to audition, and from the audition, I choose so I don’t put myself in a position of where I’m working with people I don’t know. To do my work, you’ve got to have a sense of humor and a passion, and you’ve got to be different. If you don’t have these qualities, then I’m not interested. If we’re not on the same page to begin with, then what’s the point?
I like to choose dancers who are eclectic in their training. They have to have classical ballet, contemporary dance, and African dance and to be versatile. If you are coming with just one thing, it doesn’t work because I can’t throw you into a classical moment or an African moment or a contemporary dance moment. You need to be able to deal with everything.
ICONS: You spend a lot of your professional life on tour. Is that exhausting?
DM: No, I’ve got an incredible support system, and we are dividing things up, so I don’t have everything on my shoulders. There are twelve dancers, so there are people who are very good at teaching and also at giving workshops. Other than that, I just love teaching.
ICONS: As a choreographer, when is your happiest time? In the studio, on the stage, watching the finished product?
DM: I don’t have the happiest time as a choreographer! It’s incredibly stressful. I think I’m very hard on myself because I never think of anything as good enough. So, I never reach a point where I’m happiest as a choreographer - only possible when it’s done. I have to tell you, I hate choreography! And the hard work that it takes to do it. Making a new work feels like I’m pregnant and struggling to give birth. With COVID, it was like I was an elephant with Sacrifice inside me for two years before I could get it out and send it into the world.
ICONS: Do you continue to develop a completed work?
DM: The work is always in development. The Sacrifice six months ago is not what it is now. It continues to grow. I don’t get to a point when I can say, "the work is now done." I always say to young dancers training never stops, you don’t get to a point where you can say, "my training is done." Your training goes on, so you learn new things and mature.
ICONS: What would the successful Dada of today advise the 16-year-old Dada just starting out?
DM: That’s a difficult one. At sixteen, I wasn’t able to take advice. At sixteen, it was just... go, go, go! Now I know so many beautiful things happen when you slow down, but when you’re young, you just want to go fast. Just before Pina Bausch died, I saw her in Café Müller -- she was graceful, petite, and innocent. One day I hope to get to that point when I can just slow down and breathe. Of course, the body makes you slow down because you can’t do at thirty-seven what you were doing at sixteen; you can’t do that. Your body tells you to slow down.
ICONS: You’ve mentioned Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, are there other choreographers who have inspired you?
DM: I’m inspired very much by Mats Ek’s work, especially what he’s done for his wife, Ana Laguna. She’s one of my favorite dancers. His Swan Lake and Carmen. Carmen just blew me away. I also think Akram Khan is incredible.
ICONS: For someone who strives for innovation, what is consistent in your work?
DM: Definitely, passion and energy are big for me at the moment; I want people to feel. I want the audience to leave crying, laughing, angry or sad, whatever.... but feeling something because we live in a world that is so desensitized. So, when you come out of a Dada Masilo work, I don’t care if the audience is angry or if the audience doesn’t like the work or it didn’t come up to your expectations, but at least please feel something. I definitely like to pull on people’s heartstrings because I think people could feel more. Okay, it’s not a therapy session, but go to the theatre and cry it out. For my part, I just want to have people leave the theatre saying, "OMG!"
ICONS: Do you feel expressing emotion comes more readily in the African culture than in European culture?
DM: Yes, definitely. From what I’ve experienced, people in Europe function very much in the brain, in the head. In Africa, it’s more visceral, we feel pain more viscerally. In South Africa, we don’t have resources. We don’t have money for three years to make a work, so we have to make a plan and get up and go. We live on the edge, so when joy comes, it comes as a relief. When sadness comes, well, it’s sad, so there is nothing that happens that you would not feel emotionally.
ICONS: You grew up in turbulent times in Johannesburg. How did that shape you?
DM: This is the thing. I was born in 1986, so I did not experience any part of Apartheid. My mother did, and my grandmother did. But I cannot speak about that. I can’t say okay, Apartheid this or Apartheid that, because I don’t know. It was over when I started school. I’m not saying I’m not acknowledging it, but I can’t ride on it.
ICONS: You tend to choose controversial subjects like homophobia. Do you think it’s important to expose these issues?
DM: Well, I struggled with this for a very long time. When I was about 15 years old, I said to my mother: "I think I’m a lesbian." My mother is very religious and couldn’t accept it. From that moment, I made it a point to try and make people understand it’s a choice. If you come out to your parents, they’re not going to have a heart attack and die! No. This is who I am, and you deal with it. I do not want to discriminate; I want to be the person that I am without having to hide.
I just want to say The Sacrifice is the hardest work I’ve done, and it has incorporated so many people’s pain because of COVID as well. I have just felt so much pain, and I wanted to make a work that was about healing. To help people heal and just cry it out. The work is about crying it out, letting that grief out, and going, okay, this is the beginning of my healing.
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MORE ABOUT DADA MASILO -- BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION:
SAMPLE VIDEO TRAILER:
The Sacrifice, choreography by Dada Masilo & The Dance Factory
Dada Masilo – portrait photo courtesy of TMC, repertory photos of Dada Masilo’s choreographic works: The Sacrifice, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, and Carmen, performed by dancers of the Dance Factory. Photographer © Stella Olivier, featuring images of Giselle, 2018; Photographer © John Hogg, featuring images of Carmen, 2005; Romeo and Juliet, 2008; Swan Lake, 2017; and The Sacrifice, 2022.
Interviewer: Maggie Foyer
Executive Content Editor: Camilla Acquista
Executive Assistant: Charles Scheland
Executive Director: Vladimir Angelov
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