In the run up to her bold and brilliant reimagining of Giselle, dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo talks to Shirley Ahura about retelling the classics of ballet, empowering women and using dance to break down cultural barriers.
You’ve danced a multitude of roles over the course of your career, shining in those of Carmen, Ophelia, Odile/Odette and now, Giselle. My first question to you is: who is ‘Dada Masilo’?
I’m a 34-year-old woman, a South African woman. I’m passionate, I’m loyal, loving, unapologetic…sometimes stubborn. I try to be kind and I’d say I’m someone who is aware of the world around me.
Giselle is widely considered as one of the greatest romantic ballets of all time. What was the inspiration behind, and impetus for, retelling Giselle’s story?
I really wanted to improve my storytelling with Giselle. Culturally and traditionally in South Africa, it’s not a piece that many Black South African audiences have come across. I wanted to zoom in on certain aspects of the piece. The narrative about the Wilis being traditionally vicious, and dangerous and powerful for instance – I wanted to zoom in on them and their stories. There are so many other characters to shine a light on in the piece, it’s not just about Giselle. I wanted the audience to see the work not only through Giselle’s eyes, but through the eyes of the other characters too.
In much of your work, there is a clear attempt to interrogate and redefine the representation of women in the classical repertoire – in particular, their roles, positionality and agency in the societies in which they find themselves. Would you say yours is a feminist take, and why?
When I’m making my work, I don’t go into it thinking ‘I’m making this piece with a feminist take’ But I am a big believer in empowering women. We have so many expectations put on us from society. To not complain, to just accept things. In my work, I am all about reclaiming our respect and acknowledgement as women.
I hate boxes, I always have. I want to find the connections between the stories in my culture and the wider world.
The personal is the political. Have you encountered any challenges in your career as a dancer / choreographer? How has this informed your work, if at all?
When we go to Europe, I’m often asked the question ‘Why do you tell European stories? Why are you not telling ‘African’ stories?’ I’m fortunate enough to have had an education that has made me more generally aware of what’s happening not only in South Africa, but around the world. I’m not just in my ‘African’ box (laughs). I hate boxes, I always have. I want to find the connections between the stories in my culture and the wider world. The most important thing for me is that I have to learn and know the rules of classical ballet. If I learn and know the rules, I find that I am in a better position to break them.
In your reworking of Giselle, you take the story of an ill-fated young peasant girl who falls for her deceitful and disguised lover and transpose it to the context of rural South Africa (with an all-African cast telling the tale of a young Black village girl betrayed and deserted by a white nobleman.) What is the importance of reimagining the story through this lens?
When I started the piece, I really wanted the contrast between Hilarion and Albrecht to be shown. The clearest way at that time was the height differences in my dancers. The dancer who plays Albrecht is quite tall in comparison to Hilarion. In Hilarion, you see the boy next door, whereas I wanted an Albrecht who would make Giselle fly and make her feel like a queen. Of course, I am dealing with issues of status and power struggles, but it never really had anything to do with race or apartheid or any of that. It was really about playing on the contrast, only, retold in a South African context.
You’ve developed much of your own repertoire through bold and radical reinterpretations of classical ballets, from Swan Lake to Romeo & Juliet. Is there anyone you wish to speak to through your pieces, and would you say that your retellings speak for anyone in particular?
A lot of my work is a reflection of my own life. I’m influenced by seeing people’s struggles to be themselves and their struggles to claim their place in society – whether it’s speaking through the lens of race, discrimination, inequality, homophobia, domestic abuse, rape, and other forms of violence. In my work I speak to my grandmother, my mother, my sisters. I speak also to my gay brothers. It’s not just for one person. I want to ask the questions: ‘How do we move forward? Is there a way to move forward? How do we heal?’ It’s a learning experience for me and the dancers; we’re not only educating ourselves, but we’re explaining this to the audience in the process.
If I’m not able to be vulnerable on stage, then it just won’t translate to the audience. I have to accept that I’m not just a body in space, but a human being allowing someone to come into this space, and share it with me.
You once said that “to dance is to take a stand”. Is there a duty on the part of the artist to reflect on the times and the world around them?
I’ve never liked abstract work. I choose to tell stories. It’s important for me, not just as a woman, to claim my space and be equal in the world, but as a human being. As a society, we tend to sweep things under the carpet. Likewise, when I was in my twenties, I just wanted to dance. I’m at an age now where I want to ask questions, not just to the world but to my own culture. With my Elders for instance, so much of what they know and practise in their tradition is unquestioned. There’s this ‘shut up and do’ mentality because that’s the way we’ve always done things. But now I’m at a stage in my life where I want to go further and, respectfully, ask the deeper questions like ‘Why?’ ‘What is the meaning behind this? Help me understand.’
How do you view dance as a medium for story (re)telling?
I use my body to express myself. As of late, I’m very much into finding the visceral in everything, the emotive. I want to tell my story with honesty, and with vulnerability but also with joy. I want the viewer to feel everything – the joy, the pain, the sadness, the grief. But it starts with me. If I’m not able to be vulnerable on stage, then it just won’t translate to the audience. I have to accept that I’m not just a body in space, but a human being allowing someone to come into this space, and share it with me. Really, it’s about putting yourself out there, even if that means doing that every night on a 3-month tour.
Do you have any words of wisdom for dancers who are looking to become choreographers?
I actually never wanted to be a choreographer. It’s only now, over time, that I’ve developed the skill to choreograph as default. I’m passionate about dance, but I always found choreography difficult. I would say with choreography, you have to have a vision. You have to be willing to work hard and put in the time. You might find yourself awake at 3am with tears because of the mental or creative block you’re experiencing. You have to accept that. You have to give it your all, and accept that some aspects of your life might have to fall away to the side – your social life, your friends. You have to be committed, disciplined, and open. Continue to challenge yourself. Sometimes the process will take one night. Sometimes it will be over the course of a few months, I’ve never experienced pregnancy myself, but I imagine the making of a piece much like the stages of a trimester. There are stages before you are able to experience the beauty of giving birth to new work. It’s tough, but you have to persevere.
I’ve heard that you’re already working on a new piece. Could you tell us a bit about it and what else you have planned for the future?
So I’m working on a piece I’ve called The Sacrifice, and it’s inspired by The Rite of Spring. The reason why I’m calling it the Sacrifice is because I’m hoping to zoom in on what it is we sacrifice on a daily basis. In the majority of reworkings, you have the maiden dancer dancing herself to death at the end of the piece. I’m interested in looking at the different sacrifices happening throughout the piece. What isa sacrifice? And as an extension of that, what are we sacrificing in our daily lives? Because the narrative behind Rite of Spring is very thin, creating the story behind it is challenging. I’m also dealing with African rituals as part of this focus on ‘sacrifice’. As part of my research I have spoken to the Elders about practises, specifically around ‘cleansing’ – something I’m more and more attuned to because I feel that our world is in need of it right now. The Elders have been really open about our rituals around cleansing – we cleanse when there is sickness, but also when there is cause for celebration. I’m learning so much and the process continues to be extremely insightful.
Dada Masilo’s Giselle will be shown at Sadler’s Wells on 4th-5th of October and will tour venues around the UK until 2nd November. Click the links to book tickets: Sadler’s Wells (4th-5th October), Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall Nottingham (8th-9th Oct), Alhambra Theatre Bradford (11th-12th Oct), Birmingham Hippodrome (15th-16th Oct), The Lowry Salford Quays (22nd-23rd Oct), Milton Keynes Theatre (25th-26th Oct), Brighton Dome (29th-30th Oct) and Marlowe Theatre Canterbury (1st-2nd November).