Words by Diane Parkes.
Acclaimed South African choreographer and dancer Dada Masilo brings together European and African influences in her latest show which comes to Sadler’s Wells this February before a UK tour.
The Sacrifice blends contemporary dance with the unique rhythms and moves of Tswana, a traditional African dance inspired by one of the continent’s most iconic small animals – the meerkat!
Soweto-born Dada was 12 when she started contemporary dance and ballet classes at The Dance Factory in Johannesburg. She was inspired to take her training further when she saw the world-famous Belgian company Rosas perform. She applied to their school in Brussels and was one of 30 dancers selected out of 800 candidates to study there.
It was in Brussels that Dada began choreographing although initially her interests lay mainly in performing. However, on her return to South Africa, she struggled to find productions which brought together the different international elements of dance and music which she had enjoyed so much.
“To begin with I didn’t want to be a choreographer because it’s too difficult,” she says. “But we had to create work as part of our training. Then when I came back to South Africa there were no choreographers making work that I wanted to perform.
“I wanted to do the narrative, the dance drama, I wanted to tackle that and nobody was creating that kind of work. So I thought ‘well if no-one is doing it, then it has got to be yourself’ and that is how I started to choreograph.”
Dada has since created a series of hugely successful works which take Western classics and fuse them with elements of storytelling, movement and music from her own African heritage. Over the past decade her re-interpretations of Carmen, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and Giselle have been critically acclaimed both in South Africa and internationally.
“I was trained to fuse different traditions, cultures and rituals and that is what I have done in all my work,” she says. “I try to make everything global so that if you are a person that is in Europe or a person who is in Africa you still understand what is happening. The privilege for me is in bringing the whole thing together so it’s not African or European, it’s become something else.”
Dada both creates the work and performs in all of her productions.
“For me it’s easier to be both choreographer and dancer because I’m not sitting out watching what I want people to do, I’m doing it too. I want to feel what everyone else is feeling. Then I know, for example, that when I’m tired then everybody is tired. I need to be there, it is what I love to do.”
For The Sacrifice, blending traditions meant a great deal of study for Dada and her company of dancers. The Tswana dance, traditionally performed at festivals, originated among the people of Botswana and is also popular in South Africa and Namibia. Although Dada and her cast knew of the dance, it took a lot of work for them to master its intricate movements.
“Tswana is a dance from my heritage which is inspired by the meerkat,” says Dada. “The meerkat is a very small, very fast animal and I was drawn to that because I love to move very fast. In the past, I’ve fused contemporary dance with flamenco, with ballet and many other things but not with a specific dance from my own culture so this is an opportunity to do that.
“I had to learn Tswana from scratch – I spent three months with a teacher, just by myself, and then we brought in the company for about a month. It was incredibly difficult but I always love learning something new.”
Dada also sought the advice of the elders of her community to ensure the piece remained respectful of her people’s traditions.
“There is a section where we call out all our surnames, basically calling the ancestors and saying the ancestors have come, and I had to ask the elders whether that was all right to do. I needed to get their permission.”
The Sacrifice is inspired by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring but Dada and her team have developed a new soundscape which is firmly rooted in African music.
“I was really amazed at the complex rhythms in Stravinsky and that was our starting point but there are so many versions of The Rite of Spring set to Stravinsky’s music that I wanted to create a new score. I have four musicians, a percussionist, a violinist, a keyboard player and a singer, and they listened to Stravinsky’s music. Then after that I said ‘OK, what can we do with those references?’ and they created the score which is rooted in South Africa while I created the movement vocabulary. We worked closely together as the live music is such an important part of the show.”
The UK tour, which comes to Sadler’s Wells on 24 & 25 February, is presented by Dance Consortium, a group of 18 large-scale theatres with a mission to bring the best international dance to stages across the UK and Ireland.
“I’m forever grateful that we can take our work to different people in different countries,” says Dada. “It’s also great to talk to different audiences and find out how they feel and what they think the work is about because a lot of the time they will feel something different.
“We create and perform the work and they will react to it but we cannot dictate how they will respond, that’s for them. But I would love for audiences of The Sacrifice to feel – I would love for them to know its sadness but also to feel the joy and the love.
“It’s great to return to the UK. With this tour, we are going to quite a lot of new places so I’m really excited about coming back to London and Sadler’s Wells.
Dance Consortium presents Dada Masilo’s The Sacrifice at Brighton Dome on 21-22 February. Book here. For more information on the tour see https://danceconsortium.com/touring/dada-masilos-the-sacrifice-2023/.
Header image by Tristram Kenton.