Dada Masilo
Dada Masilo
Image: Graham de Lacey

Watching Dada Masilo dance elicits a physical response. It’s her swift, precise and agile moves that captivate as she deconstructs classical dance, fusing it with dances from other cultures to create a novel movement language. She works with the classics to make sociopolitical comments that form part of her activism. Storytelling led by emotion is central to her viscerally rich dance experience.

The dynamic dancer, teacher and choreographer steps into a new role as she choreographs the world premier of Salomé for Joburg Ballet. Trained in classical ballet and contemporary dance she is the obvious choice to extend the company’s proficiency and repertoire. Her style has seen her present enthralling reinterpretations of classics such as Romeo and Juliet, Carmen, Swan Lake and recently, The Rite of Spring, with her version titled The Sacrifice.   

The opportunity to choreograph for Joburg Ballet is a challenge for Masilo: “It was interesting because when the new Joburg Ballet CEO, Elroy Fellis Bell, asked [me] to do the work, I told him I don’t work on pointe. But he was open. It’s a challenge for me and the dancers because they’re not used to my way of working. The first couple of weeks was about breaking that down. Ballet is held and controlled. I work with this thing called snake where you move the body like a snake in a good mood. Just to get that looseness and freedom of the movement. We worked quite a lot on that.”

She chose Salomé for her first choreography for Joburg Ballet. The Oscar Wilde tragic play — through its biblical characters — deals with desire, seduction, power and the destruction of unrestrained passion. The drama revolves around King Herod; his wife Herodias; Salomé her daughter; and the prophet Jokanaan and includes the dance of the seven veils.

“I chose it because I found the whole play of power intriguing,” Masilo said. “It’s really about interrogating that. And looking at the world. The power trips that are happening. How absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Sitting in on rehearsal, traces of how Masilo has South Africanised the play shone through. It’s emotively vocal in some parts, mimicking the cacophony that is the pulse of Johannesburg. It was interesting witnessing how the dancers had to reach and submit to the emotion of the play. It spoke to undressing parts of yourself in the rehearsal room; the apprehension of how that might come out or look. Trust, letting go and the precision and fluidity of movement all came into play revealing the ingenuity of how Masilo works. Contemporary dance can be abstract and conceptual, but the narrative, carried by emotion is always tangible in Masilo’s approach.

Dress rehearsal: Neo Moloi, Tammy Higgins and Thando Mgobhozi in Salomé SCARCITY Joburg Ballet 2024
Dress rehearsal: Neo Moloi, Tammy Higgins and Thando Mgobhozi in Salomé SCARCITY Joburg Ballet 2024
Image: Lauge Sorensen

“It’s about trying to play with narrative differently. In ballet they mime. And it’s about technique. Contemporary dance is about technique as well, but we’re not slaves to it. We use it as a tool to be able to tell the story. I think the whole thing needs to come from the inside out. Real emotion always works better for me. And in terms of movement vocabulary, it’s easier to generate a vocabulary if it’s coming from the inside,” Masilo said.

A lot of the movement vocabulary in Salomé happens on the ground, something that will broaden the dancers’ skill and views. This grounding can be translated in Masilo’s professional life. She maintains a connection with her roots at the Dance Factory where she started formal dance training at 12, doing ballet, contemporary dance, creative movement and improvisation. The Soweto-born dancer is devoted to a style of working that stretches her, keeping her work dynamic and fresh.

“I’m a contemporary dancer who fuses with different other dance forms. With my Swan Lake, I fused contemporary dance, ballet and African dance. It’s very interesting to put things together that don’t normally go together. It’s great for me because I keep learning new techniques. With Carmen I fused contemporary dance with flamenco. So that meant that I had to learn flamenco. And I just did The Sacrifice: contemporary dance and Tswana dance. That one was very fulfilling and close to my heart because I’m Tswana. It’s about pushing myself and challenging myself all the time, learning about different cultures and different movements,” she said.

Dada Masilo's subversive rendition of Swan Lake
Dada Masilo's subversive rendition of Swan Lake
Image: John Hogg

Her sensibilities as a teacher were visible during rehearsal. She started teaching children when she was 16 years old. Choreography came later when she studied at the Performing Arts Research and Training Studio (PARTS) in Brussels at the age of 19. She was awarded the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance in 2008 and she’s been enthralling local and international audiences with her moving works ever since. She expressed a deep love for teaching and how difficult it’s been to teach due to her touring schedule. In the works is her new production of Hamlet. But first, Salomé.

Salomé is part of Joburg Ballet’s SCARCITY season: A quartet of new works choreographed by Masilo, Chinese-German choreographer Hannah Ma, Netherlands-based Spanish choreographer Jorge Pérez Martínez, and SA choreographer Craig Pedro.

SCARCITY opens at the Joburg Theatre on March 15 and runs until March 24.

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