Dada Masilo discusses art, narrative and her NYC debut with ‘Swan Lake.’
Jody Williams, Contributing Writer and Mark McLaren, Editor In Chief, January 29, 2016
South African-born dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo and Johannesburg’s The Dance Factory arrive in New York City next week with a radically reimagined Swan Lake that is both personal and political. Ms. Masilo, who studied classical, modern, and jazz, has reconstructed other iconic theater works including Romeo and Juliet and Carmen. She spoke with ZEALnyc yesterday as she prepares The Dance Factory for next week’s engagement at The Joyce Theater.
‘I think that it was very important to not just have a Swan Lake that is about homosexuality. You can have gay people on stage. But it was much more than that, which is why it had to have a narrative. I think that is much more important than just this person is this, this person is that. There had to be more weight to it.‘
So says Dada Masilo of her new, perhaps revolutionary Swan Lake.
ZEALnyc: You mention that you first saw Swan Lake as a young dancer. Can you describe that experience?
Masilo: It was magical. I think for each twelve year-old, seeing people dance on pointe is magical and its out of this world, and the tutus are beautiful. I think that every twelve year-old wants to own a tutu. I loved that about it, the surrealness of it – being transported into this world, this world that is not real.
But I think that when I created my version of Swan Lake, I really wanted to bring the reality back into it because life is not a fairy tale. I wanted to make it as real as possible. I also wanted to make it accessible to not only the dance audience, but to real people. Which is why it was so important to me to have the audience understand the story – that was a very important part for me.
ZEALnyc: Swan Lake is such an iconic work. What drew you to that work in particular?
Masilo: Swan Lake is the first ballet that I saw when I started dancing, and I just remember falling in love with the tutus, with the music, the design, everything. But I think it was mostly the tutus! I knew that I wanted to dance the work some day. But I did not become a ballet dancer, I’m a contemporary dancer, so I had to make my own version.
I wanted to over-fuse classical ballet with African dance which is something that had never been done before, because the two techniques are so different. Trying to set the African dance to the Tchaikovsky, it was very challenging, very difficult. I spent about two months just working on my own, trying to find out how the movement was going to be. It wasn’t anything that I had done before. So I think that was the most challenging part of it.
ZEALnyc: You have added alternative music to the Tchaikovsky score. Talk about that process, about your music choice.
Masilo: Well, because it is contemporary dance, it would have been very tricky for me to use the whole of the Tchaikovsky score. Because I want to do floor work, because I want to dance fast, some of the pieces really don’t work.
Steve Reich was great because it is fast and so I use his work mostly to introduce the movement of the corpe de ballet. I also use the Dying Swan by Camille Saint-Saens for the end, for the sad part of the work. And I’m also using a version of the Swan Lake theme composed by the South African composer René Avenant.
It was very nice to put together the different pieces that would hang nicely together, and not only the Tchaikovsky. I chose all the pieces that I like from Tchaikovsky, and pieces that would work well with the African dance.
ZEALnyc: Do you hold to the Swan Lake story?
Masilo: Loosely. There is still a narrative, there is a Siegfried, there is an Odette and there is an Odile. Odette is female, Odile is male, and Siegfried is gay. In my story Siegfried’s parents buy him a bride, and they force him to marry Odette. But Siegfried is already involved with Odile, and that is how the story unfolds. You don’t know that Siegfried is gay until that moment when he dances a duet with Odile, who crashes the wedding party.
ZEALnyc: Describe your personal dance history.
Masilo: I was trained in classical ballet and contemporary, I trained at The Dance Factory in Johannesburg, and studied in Cape Town at a place called Jazzart Dance. At fourteen I saw a company from Belgium called Rosas, and I’d never seen dance like that before. I really wanted to learn how to move like that. And so in 2004 I went to Brussels to the Performing Arts Research and Training Studio, and I stayed there for two years. It was an amazing experience.
ZEALnyc: It sounds like you found your dance journey by following your passion and the dance that excited you. Would it be fair to say that your choreographic journey is similar?
Masilo: I love narrative. I don’t like abstract dance at all. When I was in high school, I had a lot of difficulty with Shakespeare. but I had an amazing teacher. So we read MacBeth, we did Romeo and Juliette. I just fell in love with the stories and I wanted to create work that dealt with narrative as opposed to just being a body in space.
There weren’t any other choreographers that were doing that. I worked on a MacBeth, and I wanted to do more of that kind of work. But there weren’t other choreographers who were doing that, so I had to start doing that kind of work myself.
ZEALnyc: Which brings us to Swan Lake. We’re looking forward to your stop in New York.
Masilo: I’m looking forward to it as well – a bit nervous, but very excited!
Dada Masilo and The Dance Factory bring Swan Lake to The Joyce Theater, February 2-7. Tickets are available here. $10 tickets are available by calling (212) 242-0800. Running time is one hour.
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