Dada Masilo, the South African choreographer-dancer whose re-imaginings of classical Western European ballets have captivated the international dance world, is returning to New York’s Joyce Theatre with one of her own works, “The Sacrifice,”from May 23–28. The highly praised piece, inspired by the late German neo-expressionist dance artist Pina Bausch’s ”The Rite of Spring,” fuses the rituals of Masilo’s South African Tswana dance form with ballet and modern dance to create an iconoclastic evening-length work that will be performed by Masilo’s company of South African dancers and musicians.
In the past, Masilo’s work has amazed audiences and critics with its passionate re-envisioning, re-telling, and deconstruction of dance’s sacred cows, capturing the essence of their narrative while injecting the original fairy-tale scenarios involving swans, sylphs, and such with a contemporary sensibility that grapples with relevant issues such as racial, class, gender inequality, discrimination, and resistance to oppression.
The plot twists are conveyed by using movement that blends ballet’s developpes, arabesques, and jetes with an Africanist presence that grounds the story in a new, more diasporic reality as Masilo wrangles the classic canon into a contemporary mode.
While her fusion of classical ballet and African dance forms have been applauded internationally, Masilo said, “Some people have gotten annoyed when I pick the classics. They say, ‘How dare you!” But I’m like ‘Do you have copyrights on this work? I’m not taking anything away from you, I’m just introducing something different. Something that opens your eyes a little bit. That’s all.’” Her defiantly innovative approach to dance comes both from love of the art form and years of study.
Born in Soweto, South Africa. Masilo started training at the Dance Factory at the age of 12 and after matriculating from the National School of the Arts, trained for a year at Jazzart in Cape Town. At 19, she was accepted to study at the Performing Arts Research and Training Studios in Brussels. After two years, she returned to South Africa and in 2008, she was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance.
Three commissions from the National Arts Festival resulted in her versions of “Romeo and Juliet” (2008), “Carmen” (2009), and “Swan Lake” (2010),. In May 2017, she premiered her “Giselle” in Oslo and in 2021, ”The Sacrifice” in Vienna.
Since 2012, her works have been performed in 25 countries and 150 cities around the world. She has been nominated for or received a Bessie Award (“Swan Lake,” 2016); Danza&Danza Award for “Best Performance 2017” (“Giselle”); Prince Claus Fund Next Generation Award (2018, Netherlands); and UK Critic’s Circle 2020 National Dance Award for Outstanding Female Modern Performance in the title role as Giselle.
Discussing her unique approach to ballet classics and shared passion for the art with American Ballet Theatre Principal Ballerina Misty Copeland, a fan of her work, Masilo described how she “fell in love with ballet” at a very young age and “stumbled into choreography” after being told that her body was not right for ballet. Finding that the types of ballets she wanted to do just weren’t there, she decided to create them.
In a recent conversation with the Amsterdam News she said, “What I try not to do is limit myself. I don’t like being put in a box. I suppose as Black people, we’re always put in that box. I saw an opportunity of [asking] what happens if we get out of our boxes and just try and see if things can co-exist without going into the mode of ‘Oh, you can’t touch that.’ For me, fusing different dance styles, breaking down the barriers, is more challenging.”
Masilo’s “The Sacrifice” is an example of what happens when her indomitable spirit takes on that challenge. The piece first grew, she says, out of a dance exercise that involved learning a 3-minute segment of the Bausch work set to Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece.
“I remember listening to Stravinsky’s music, thinking ‘this is wild,’” she said. “I became very intrigued about the music. I like working with complex rhythms. I started improvising to the music and I found it incredibly difficult and frustrating, but then I thought, I’m not giving up on this one, so I did a 20-minute version using some of the Stravinsky score.”
The result was shown in New York several seasons ago during the annual Fall for Dance concerts at City Center. But that wasn’t the end of it. Masilo wanted to do a full-length work of “The Sacrifice,” but the Stravinsky score was too short, “so I had this idea to work with live music and ask the musicians to listen to the Stravinsky score and then react to it. With the musicians, you’ve got voice, you’ve got keyboard, you’ve got violin, and then percussion. I played them the music and they said, ‘Oh, my God what is this!’”
The result was a work of music that wraps her dance into a vibrant rhythmic package, pulsating with African music and dance.
“What I wanted was to infuse the work with a dance from my South African heritage,” Masilo said. “It’s called Tswana, a traditional dance of Botswana. It’s a dance that is very much about rhythm. In fact, the whole thing is about rhythm. Not just rhythm, but also ritual—the rite of spring, the preparation of the earth and mating. I put ‘The Sacrifice’ in a South African rural context where there are so many different cultures and traditions…In South Africa, we have ritual celebrations for deaths, birth, for anything really, because ritual is very sacred. Even in ‘The Sacrifice,’ we have to honor our ancestors because that’s part of the ritual and the fact that in the African culture, ritual and religion are intertwined. They’re not two separate things. Working on this piece has been very interesting, but also very challenging and rewarding.”
Asked what she wants the audience to come away with after seeing this new work, Masilo smiled and said simply, “You know in the beginning [that] when I started work on ‘The Sacrifice,’ I was very angry and I wanted to comment on the state of the world, and then I did a 360. ‘The Sacrifice’ is about grief and healing, and I want the audience to be moved, I want them to laugh, I want them to cry because I feel like we’re so desensitized that we don’t feel anything anymore. I want to touch people.”