She was discovered at age 11 as she performed with a street troupe of dancers in Soweto. Since then, Dada Masilo has experienced a meteoric rise in the international dance community. After intensive training at the Dance Factory in Newtown, South Africa, she went on to the National School of the Arts, also in South Africa, and then trained with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in Brussels, where Masilo danced for Queen Beatrix. And, now, this Friday, she makes her American debut at Denison, as part of the college’s storied Vail Series.
There’s a little story behind Dada Masilo’s visit to Denison. Vail Director Lorraine Wales was teasing Professor Miller about presenting the famous ballet “Swan Lake” on Swasey’s stage, (which would be next to impossible, given the limitations of the site). Miller responded with an article about Masilo’s revolutionary interpretation of the classic and said “How about THIS Swan Lake?” Wales quickly responded, “Bring her – I’ll help!” The rest, as they say, is history.
In the dance world, there are many different spheres, and two that tend to be opposed, in theory, are classical ballet and African dance.
“Classical ballet asks the novice student to replicate what the teacher is demonstrating. It’s a visual form, so the goal is to ‘look like’ a classical ballerina, with prescribed lines,” says Gill Wright Miller ’74, associate professor of dance. “African dance is primarily a kinesthetic form; it strives to share a ‘feel,’ not a look. So the novice student of African dance is being asked to replicate a kind of spirit, layered with polyrhythms. These two expressions of the art form are separate domains to most dancers, so it’s incredibly difficult for a young dancer to balance these opposing requests—make it look right; make it feel right.”
But Dada understood immediately the juxtaposition between these two worlds, and how to bridge them, Miller says. “It would be remarkable even if she’d had a lifetime to negotiate the challenges of merging these points of view. At her young age, it is truly remarkable.”
As Masilo absorbed these lessons, a passion for choreography took root in her—choreography that only an artist of Masilo’s rare agility, speed, and unique insight could give rise to. For her, it became a method of both communication and commentary. As Masilo opened herself to the world and its breadth of issues, her choreography reflected back to it her perceptions and opinions, in a manner that has astonished audiences across the world.
Masilo’s program is a creature born of her own experience, Miller says, taking the audience on her personal journey as a young woman in the world. She will perform with Lulu Mlangeli, who has been presented with many prestigious awards and has even been named the winner of the second season of South African’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”
You can catch it all on Friday, Feb. 3, in Swasey Chapel—her American premiere performance sponsored by the Vail Series. Tickets for faculty, staff, and students are free, and a limited number of tickets may be offered for sale to the general public at $15 if space allows. Details will be posted at www.vailseries.org or call 740-587-6557.