A New Odette

UnCommon Ground - A New Odette

World-renowned dance artists Dada Masilo and Lulu Mlangeni traveled more than 8,000 miles in February from their homes in Johannesburg, South Africa, to Granville. During a 10-day stay in the village, Masilo held student dance workshops at Denison, spoke to classes about issues of feminism and urban life in Africa, and rehearsed for her American debut, which took place on Swasey’s stage. In the midst of all of that, Masilo found time to sit down with Gill Wright Miller, associate professor of dance, and talk about her work, in which she blends classic movements with African dance.

What was your early attraction to dance?

Dance really saved my life. I started at the age of 11, just as a hobby. There was this street group called the Peacemakers. I used to dance with the group to Michael Jackson songs in the afternoons. What was great about it was that I was introduced to structure and discipline, which is something that I didn’t have as a kid. In 1996, the Peacemakers were introduced to Suzelle LeSueur from the Dance Factory when she saw the group perform at the international dance festival. She was interested in the group, and she offered us formal dance training. It was like another world for us. We had to point our feet, wear leotards and tights (which I really hated), but I think that’s when I really fell in love with dance.

You really favor narrative form, and you have become Shakespeare’s Juliet, Lady Macbeth, and Ophelia, and Swan Lake’s Odette on stage. What is it about the narrative form that attracts you?

When I was a teenager, we always did this abstract dance thing. It was arms and legs everywhere and choreographers were always saying: “Engage with it emotionally,” and I thought, “What am I engaging emotionally, if it’s just a movement piece?” So narrative has been really great because it takes my ego out of the work; instead it becomes about the character that I’m trying to portray. How do you put yourself in Juliet’s shoes? Or in Carmen’s shoes? Or Ophelia’s? Or

Odette’s? Lady Macbeth is manipulative but she’s also really clever. Juliet is this innocent woman living in her head where everything is beautiful. Carmen is very grounded. And Odette is just cute, she’s coy. But I think they all know what they want. The challenge is trying to find each woman in my body.

Where do you imagine your path as an artist will lead you?

I think I’ll just let it unfold. It would be great to get to a point where I’m not making work because I’m under pressure to do it. Last year I took a year off and joined a dance company, but it drove me crazy. I couldn’t do the company thing—I don’t like the monotony of 9 to 5 because I don’t think creativity works like that. I don’t think you’re always creative between 9 and 5. A lot of the things I come up with happen at 3:00 in the morning. So I love the instability of not knowing how things are going to pan out. I want to just let it be and struggle through it.

Published April 2012