Dada Masilo: Moved by her body’s emotions

Dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo’s signature speed and endurance have been put to the test during a successful two-year run of mesmerising European audiences with her extraordinary work. 

“At 29 I’m asking myself where I got my energy from,” she says. But her bones and soul are content when she moves, so she doesn’t stop. 

Masilo has toured extensively with her version of Swan Lake and given 189 performances in France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Greece and the United Kingdom. Now she is preparing for the European premiere of Carmen at the Lyon Biennale in France.

This comes after local audiences sampled the show at three performances at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Johannesburg, in September. 

Taking a moment to catch her breath and ponder on the two years she spent performing in Europe, Masilo allows herself to take it all in again.

“I did not know what hard work was before this. Touring is difficult, it is not glamorous — but it is exciting. We got an amazing response for Swan Lake. European work is very different from South African, but the audiences appreciated our raw energy. 

“It was the first time we got to perform to full houses of up to 950 people. This kind of experience matures you. You start to think differently from how you did before and I’ve learnt to take care of myself.”

“When I created Swan Lake, I did not have a cover [substitute] and I had to do all the shows. But now I’ve learnt that it’s good to have someone covering me because it relieves me of the stress. You can lose the passion for your work if you don’t share it.” 

A notable progression is that Masilo now has a company — of old and new friends and long-time collaborators, some of whom she has created a shorthand with, such as Tshepo Zasekhaya and Songezo Mcilizeli. 

Her maturity as a performer is a personal affirmation; she remembers that she was only 23 when she created Carmen

Besides her ability to move stylishly and swiftly, embodying her characters with a distinct theatricality, Masilo has made a name for herself out of her deep love for the classics. 

Her clever interpretations that daringly fuse various dance techniques and different scores have produced ingenious takes on Romeo and Juliet (2008), Carmen (2009) and Swan Lake (2010). 

Classically trained in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Brussels, Masilo was initially frustrated with Shakespeare until her teacher in Brussels encouraged her to fall in love with the language. 

“Once I understood the language I got hooked on Shakespeare and the classics. I started by dancing Lady Macbeth and going deep into her character. To embody a role; finding its strength and weaknesses is challenging and I find that to be an interesting way to tell a story. I enjoy having to find the different characters in my body. 

“Juliet is light and I find her in my upper body; Lady Macbeth is visceral; and Carmen is more in the hips — rough, sexual, sensual. It’s not only about telling the story but about finding the movement vocabulary for it. You have to find the emotion in the body, physically,” Masilo says. 

Creatively she’s at a point where she feels she wants to push things a little further, with no apologies. So her new Carmen will be enhanced with a bit more edge.

“I want to bring realism into the production. There are quite a lot of fight scenes in Carmen and I didn’t want to choreograph them. I want things to be real and a little scary for the viewer.

“We’re also being more vocal with Carmen now because it is a dramatic story. I have found with dance there’s a point at which you can’t move anymore, and you have to vocalise an emotion.

“When we did this in Europe, they were amazed. But for me it’s about working with, and taking from, the edge and energy of Johannesburg, the edge of my roots and where I come from.” 

Looking ahead, she’s toying with the idea of doing the classical ballet Giselle. She is also itching to challenge herself with Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

“Stravinsky’s music is difficult; with it I want to fuse contemporary dance with Tswana dance. That’s the next big thing I want to do.”

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