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Dada Masilo|©Africa Centre/Wikicommons
Dada Masilo|©Africa Centre/Wikicommons

Dada Masilo, South Africa's Star Choreographer

Picture of Diana Vernon
Updated: 20 June 2016
Dada Masilo is one of South Africa’s most renowned dancers and choreographers. At only 28 years old, Masilo has placed herself as an internationally acclaimed choreographer known to deconstruct the all-time classic ballets into powerfully grounded, hip-shaking, moves of African dance, that tell the story –not of the classical damsel in distress– but of modern-day characters that suffer modern-day issues like discrimination, inequality or domestic violence.

Born in 1986 in South Africa, Dada Masilo was brought up in the outskirts of Johannesburg in a suburb called Soweto. Little is known about Masilo’s upbringing and childhood years, except that her beginnings in the dance world started at a very young age – with her all-girl street dance troupe. They performed all around the city, dancing to Michael Jackson’s songs and moves.  The troupe was invited to the Art and Dance festival, organized by the Dance Factory – a school whose purpose is to nurture and unearth young talents.

Dada Masilo immediately caught the school director’s eye, Suzette Le Sueur – who has been her guide along her dance career and invited her to train professionally in the school. Le Sueur once said in an interview: “The first thing that impressed me about her was her incredible focus. I was watching her while she was watching a dance performance. She obviously loved what she was watching but did so with extraordinary focus and concentration. On stage she commands an amazing sense of theater. It is a world with which she is completely at home”.

At the age of 11, Masilo saw her first ballet – Swan Lake. Classical ballet was then to become an obsession. She claims having fallen in love with tutus and pointe shoes, because “they are just beautiful” and also says to have slept with her first pair of pointe shoes for several nights. Her interest for choreographic creation was ignited that night and Masilo promised herself that she would one day choreograph her own version of Swan Lake. This was only the beginning of a rising star.

Under Suzette Sueur’s guidance, Dada Masilo followed professional training in both classical and contemporary dance and according to Le Sueur, Masilo’s focus, hard work and passion for dance have opened doors for her. At the age of 19, she started teaching in the Dance Factory, the place where Masilo grew up, and home to her artistic development. She actually refers to the School as “my home and comfort zone”.

She also spent a year in Cape Town, training in a notorious studio called Jazzart Dance Theater, where she gained a lot of experience and exposure as a dancer. In 2005 she obtained a teaching and training place in the international school for contemporary dance in Belgium, P.A.R.T.S (Performing Arts Research & Training Studios). Back in Johannesburg, the cultural authorities recognized her works and achievements when she received the Gauteng Arts and Culture Award for the Most Promising Female Dancer in a Contemporary Style in 2006.

Based on her obsession with romantic ballets, Swan Lake became her main drive for creating works. The art of story-telling present in classical ballet, is what attracted Dada Masilo to the classical repertoire; and her main works are pieces of the classical repertoire that have been molded into Masilo’s own version: an eclectic fusion of classical and contemporary technique, with traditional African dance. “My approach is to show that contemporary African dance and ballet can co-exist,” she explains. “It is about finding an innovative way of fusing the two. I believe that we need to collapse barriers that exist between them because they are restrictions. And as dancers we don’t need restrictions.”

In her version of Swan Lake, Dada Masilo chose excerpts of Tchaikovsky’s original music for most of the ballet, but also alternates between music from the American Composer Steve Reich, and the Estonian Classic Composer Arvo Part. In order to enhance the contrast even more, she revisits the appearance of the classical dancer on stage: her dancers are barefoot, some are naked and the original plot transforms to revolve around the subject of AIDS and homophobia.  In the majority of African countries homosexuality is prohibited by the law and is punished with a prison sentence. South Africa is in fact the only African country where same sex marriages are legal; and discrimination based on sexual orientation, prohibited. Nevertheless, it does remain a taboo.

The ballet was first presented at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa last June/July. It has since been touring France, where it was part of the 2012 Biennale de Danse de Lyon and was showcased in Paris, in October 2012, at the Claude Lévi-Strauss Theatre in Musée du Quai Branly.

Her main choreographic adaptations or parodies have been: Romeo & Juliet, Swan Lake, Carmen and Ophelia. And her main subjects tend to be taboos: homosexuality, gender inequality, nude body, social class discrimination. She defies strict codes and questions of Western stereotypes of beauty.

Dada Masilo often pushes the restrictive boundaries of classical dance codes in her choreography. Masilo’s creations are deeply rooted in her country, how she sees it and what it means to her. Shocking and captivating at the same time, Masilo has a unique way of challenging prejudice by turning race, class and gender stereotypes on their heads through her modern interpretations of classics such as Romeo and Juliet, Carmen and Swan Lake.

Masilo has chosen to work on choreographies whose stories involve a strong, protagonist woman, who are are usually victimized and then die: Juliet, Ophelia, Carmen, Odette. Dada Masilo noticed this pattern and linked it to the strong gender repression there is in South Africa – still a highly patriarchal society. In order to effectively recreate a new story and identity around each female character, Masilo thoroughly researches about each protagonist she selects: “All these women were victims and I wanted to redeem them in a sense.”

She has been awarded two awards within her country and is currently of one South Africa’s main choreographers. Her work is perceived as densely culturally oriented. She claims that portraying her roots in her dance choreographies “comes out naturally, because my culture is a part of me, it goes with me everywhere I go.” She is currently “artist-in-residence in her alma mater, the Dance Factory, where she runs a youth training program that aims to train professional dancers and open new opportunities for them, as well as placing the South African dance scene on a higher international scale.