The world is not short of choreographers who have set out to update, shake up or otherwise reinvent the classics of the ballet stage. Few, though, have approached the task with the thoughtfulness of Dada Masilo, whose 2010 take on Swan Lake – made when she was a mere 25 – was both a heartfelt paean to the things she loved about classical dance and a witty criticism of its difficulties for audiences in the 21st century, not least its sexism. What’s more, in making Siegfried gay, unable to be with Odile, the man he loves, that production was also a searing commentary on homophobia in Masilo’s native South Africa, a country ravaged by AIDS. “Not everybody is going to like what I do with the classics,” she says. “If they did, that would be a problem in itself.”
Masilo is unusual as a choreographer and director of a dance company in that she takes a leading role in every piece she makes. Even at rest, she is physically remarkable – tiny in stature but giraffe-limbed, neat and pretty of feature but boldly, startlingly bald. In performance, she is a human powerplant, yet insists that she has no signature style. Instead, she says, her movement vocabulary changes with each new project: in Carmen, contemporary fused with flamenco, in Swan Lake, African dance fused with classical, and now in Giselle, contemporary fused with a range of African dance traditions, predominantly the Tswana of South Africa’s North West Province.
“I don’t use a single dance language because I don’t want to regurgitate. Once I start to feel comfortable in a style, I know it’s time to move on. That’s tough on the body and it’s challenging in every way but it’s good to keep learning all the time.” Presumably her 14 strong company of dancers go along with her on that. They certainly have their work cut out to keep up.
And yet Masilo, now 34, is far from your regular ego-driven creative, hell-bent on imposing her vision. She even claims not to like being a choreographer at all. “It’s true. I don’t like making choreography. It’s incredibly difficult, a lot of work and I’m a perfectionist who has to do everything properly. It would be easy to do cheap, quick work, but that wouldn’t satisfy me. And to do it properly demands so many sacrifices – family, friends, partners – because your focus has to be on that one thing.”
In the studio, she involves her dancers from day one. When she started the company, she struggled with that: “It’s tough because they’re all looking at you expectantly and asking what are we doing today, and often you have no idea how it will go. The upside is that they feel part of the process and we all go through the same struggles.”
Asked about her striking look (the shaven head is about the only thing that doesn’t change with each production, although it did sport a top-dressing of white feathers for Swan Lake) Masilo gives a surprising answer. As a 14-year-old studying at Johannesburg’s National School of the Arts, she fretted over having thin hair that required fiddly hair-pieces to bulk it up for performances (she trained in classical ballet alongside contemporary dance). On one occasion, she was so fed up with the fuss that she went home and shaved her head. She was dropped from the production for this act of defiance, but when she later adopted the hairless look full time, it didn’t seem to slow her progress one bit. She moved seamlessly to the prestigious P.A.R.T.S. school in Brussels, an establishment where extreme fashion statements are the norm, and it was there that she was introduced to the idea of creating dance rather than performing that of other people. “We were made to do it”, she says with a grimace. The die was cast.
She describes Giselle, the latest of her retakes on the classics, as “a rough and violent version”. Giselle had never been Masilo’s favourite ballet but she was intrigued by the idea of the Wilis, the band of female spirits who haunt the woods, hunting down men who had betrayed young girls who then died of a broken heart. All those white tulle skirts and all that delicate choreography, she felt, played down the Wilis’ viciousness, which made her wonder to what extent she could ramp it up if she transposed the action to an African village, incorporating tribal movement which, with its earthy downward vigour, is the exact opposite of the 1841 ballet’s airy grace.
Those familiar with the original will find almost all of its elements in Masilo’s version, although they shouldn’t hold their breath for the moment in “the mad scene” when traditionally Giselle’s long hair escapes its neat ballet bun. Masilo finds her own way to signify Giselle’s mental unravelling. She also finds her own way to cast the character of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, who in this production becomes a traditional South African healer, a Sangoma, and is danced by a man. She gender-bends the Wilis too: hers are a mix of male and female spirits whose ancestral call is what draws Giselle to them. Freedom awaits, but only when those who betrayed them die. At the end, there is no forgiveness.
Masilo rejects any suggestion that the #MeToo movement had any influence on the production, its final twist, or on the anger evident throughout the second act (“I didn’t realise before I made this how exhausting it is for a dancer to carry all that tension in the body”). She points out that her Giselle was made 18 months before the #MeToo campaign kicked off – it’s mere coincidence that its themes elide. “And, for the record,” she says, “I have never set out to make a work which said ‘I hate men’. I was just following the narrative! The Wilis are spirits of people that have been robbed and hurt. They want revenge on the perpetrators. They would, wouldn’t they?”
Narratively, then, this is more or less Giselle as we know it. Culturally, though, it comes from another world entirely. “When I tell a story,” Masilo says, “I want the people I grew up among to understand it. I want to make these classical works speak to someone from a township in Soweto or from a rural area. A lot of people in my community think dance in a theatre can have nothing to say to them. I want them to see my work and think, oh, wow, what a great story – I can relate to that. I don’t want anyone, from any background, to be asked to admire abstract shapes and not have a clue what it’s meant to be about. I want my work to make audiences cry, laugh, be angry, be sad. In the end, that’s what I’m aiming for. In a world increasingly dominated by screens and gadgets and with less and less human connectedness, I want people to feel.”
Jenny Gilbert is a writer on theatre and dance and is chief dance critic on The Arts Desk.