How a new contemporary dance work was inspired by African dance and song, traditional cleansing rituals – and the meerkat. Dada Masilo brings The Sacrifice to Salford
Acclaimed South African choreographer and dancer, Dada Masilo brings together European and African influences in her latest show which comes to The Lowry, Salford in March.
The Sacrifice blends contemporary dance with the unique rhythms and moves of Tswana, a traditional African dance inspired by one of the continent’s most iconic small animals – the meerkat!
Soweto-born Dada was 12 when she started contemporary dance and ballet classes. She went on to study in Brussels, one of just 30 dancers accepted to study at the acclaimed P.A.R.T.S school. However, on her return to South Africa she struggled to find productions which brought together the different international elements of dance and music which she enjoyed so much.
“To begin with I didn’t want to be a choreographer” she says. “But we had to create work as part of our training. Then when I came back to South Africa there were no choreographers making work that I wanted to perform.
“I wanted to do the narrative, the dance drama…and nobody was creating that kind of work. So, I thought ‘well if no-one is doing it, then it has got to be yourself!’
She has since created a series of hugely successful works which take Western classics and fuse them with elements of storytelling, movement and music from her own African heritage. Her re-interpretations of Carmen, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and Giselle have been critically acclaimed worldwide.
Dada both creates the work and performs in all of her productions. “For me it’s easier to be both choreographer and dancer because I’m not sitting out watching what I want people to do, I’m doing it too. I want to feel what everyone else is feeling. Then I know that when I’m tired then everybody is tired. I need to be there, it is what I love to do.”
For The Sacrifice, blending traditions meant a lot of work for Dada and her dancers. The Tswana dance, traditionally performed at festivals, originated among the people of Botswana and is also popular in South Africa and Namibia. Although Dada and her cast knew of the dance, it took a lot of work for them to master its intricate movements.
“Tswana is a dance from my heritage which is inspired by the meerkat,” says Dada. “The meerkat is a very small, very fast animal and I was drawn to that because I love to move very fast. In the past, I’ve fused contemporary dance with flamenco, with ballet and many other things but not with a specific dance from my own culture so this is an opportunity to do that.
“I had to learn Tswana from scratch – I spent three months with a teacher, just by myself, and then we brought in the company for about a month. It was incredibly difficult but I always love learning something new.”
Dada also sought the advice of the elders of her community to ensure the work remained respectful of her people’s traditions.
“There is a section where we call out all our surnames, basically calling the ancestors and saying the ancestors have come, and I had to ask the elders whether that was all right to do. I needed to get their permission.”
The Sacrifice is inspired by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring but Dada and her team have developed a new soundscape which is firmly rooted in African music.
“There are so many versions of The Rite of Spring set to Stravinsky’s music that I wanted to create a new score. I have four musicians, a percussionist, a violinist, a keyboard player and a singer, and they listened to Stravinsky’s music. Then I said ‘OK, what can we do with those references?’ and they created the score while I created the movement vocabulary. We worked closely together as the live music is such an important part of the show.”
The UK tour, which comes to The Lowry Theatre on 21 & 22 March, is presented by Dance Consortium, a group of 18 large-scale theatres with a mission to bring the best international dance to stages across the UK and Ireland.
“I’m forever grateful that we can take our work to different people in different countries,” says Dada. “It’s great to talk to different audiences and find out how they feel and what they think – because a lot of the time they will feel something different.
“It’s great to return to the UK. With this tour, we are going to quite a lot of new places so I’m really excited about being back in Canterbury.”
Dance Consortium presents Dada Masilo’s The Sacrifice at The Lowry, Salford on 21 & 22 March.