The barefoot choreographer breathing new life into ballet


Dada Masilo’s body contorts as her character’s emotions explode. She stands barefoot, chest exposed. Masilo’s feet quicken as she fuses the fluidity of contemporary and the pulse of African dance with the conventions of ballet. Her choreography is raw, rough – and should have no place near classical ballet. But Masilo takes the traditional dance and strips it of its pointe shoes. The result? An ingenious artist come to life.

When Masilo was 12 years old, she fell in love with ballet after seeing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But as a young black girl from Soweto born in 1985, it was a form of dance reserved for the white middle class. She pursued it nonetheless. As South Africa made the transition to democracy, so Masilo’s dancing style evolved. She graduated from the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg before becoming one of 30 students chosen to study at the Parts School in Brussels. It was there she discovered the potential that choreography holds to craft new narratives. It was also the birthplace of her 2010 re-imagined ballet, Swan Lake. She placed the male dancers in tutus, and turned the tale into a story of two men in love in a homophobic world.

But first came Masilo’s re-inventions of Romeo and Juliet, then Carmen, and most recently, Giselle. Masilo has collaborated with William Kentridge, and won the 2008 Standard Bank Young Artist award. She has taken her productions worldwide to great acclaim, using the classics to critique contemporary issues. “We should be opening up a dialogue, and not just using dance as entertainment,” Masilo says. “I want people to feel, I want people to laugh, to cry, to think, to get angry, to ask questions, because I think that ultimately that’s what we should be doing.” She has taken a form she loves, but injected it with her own truth. Masilo’s subversion of tradition serves to create a new genre that is more relevant and accessible to South African audiences, as her bare feet slap against the floor to the sounds of Tchaikovsky.