In the ghetto

The newest take on Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ is by South African choreographer Dada Masilo, who sets her tale in the slums of Johannesburg.

Dance (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In March of 1875, Georges Bizet presented the world with a novel concept of woman in his opera Carmen. The leading lady of the story, Carmen was unlike any other female character created before her. Based on Prosper Merimee’s novella, she was strong, sultry and vengeful. Although Bizet’s daring debut was poorly received, Carmen had made her mark. In the following years, this Gypsy siren was taken around the world in dozens of productions, reimagined by as many artists.
Almost every opera and ballet company around the world has performed some version of Carmen.
The newest take on Bizet’s Carmen is by South African rising star Dada Masilo. Wielding Carmen’s power and ferociousness to make her own personal statement, Masilo has situated her tale in the slums of Johannesburg. She has replaced Bizet’s score with one by Rodion Shchedrin. However, the plot stays true to the original 19th-century vision. Masilo will perform Carmen this week at the Suzanne Dellal Center and Herzliya Performing Arts Center as part of Tel Aviv Dance 2010.
This production has fulfilled a long-time dream of the choreographer. “Since the age of 16, I always wanted to do Carmen,” says Masilo. “I saw Matts Ek’s Carmen and fell in love with how Anna Laguna danced it,” she explained in a recent interview.
Ek, former artistic director of the Cullberg Ballet in Sweden, is Masilo’s favorite choreographer and a source of inspiration.
Masilo, 25, has a taste for classics. Before tackling this age-old story of passion and violence, Masilo made a name for herself with Swan Lake, Lady Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. In each of these productions, Masilo injected the plot with issues she experiences in her daily life. The same is true for Carmen.
“I am obviously influenced by what is going on in South Africa. I address violence against women, rape and insecurity. We are dealing with issues that are universal. Issues like domestic violence. These things happen everywhere, not just here,” she explained.
On the day we spoke, Masilo had hurried back from a performance of Swan Lake, which she continues to present in her hometown.
“We brought it back to the ghetto of South Africa.
I wanted to make it for South Africans, using popular culture from here so that it would be accessible to people from the country. Most black people don’t read or listen to opera in my country. I wanted to find a way that opera could be accessible. It’s not just for the elite,” she said.
ALTHOUGH MASILO aims to convey the political and socioeconomic climate in her own country, her opinions will remain on the stage alone. When asked about her views on the parallels often drawn between South African and Israeli politics, Masilo was evasive. “I am there for the work; my visit is for work. I don’t take a stance on things. I’m there for what I do, and that’s dance.”
During a period when many artists canceled or withdrew from tours to Israel, Masilo visited the country for an extended period of time. In 2009, she spent the month of December teaching children in Even Yehuda. The experience was well worth it in her eyes.
Seeing Masilo take on the character of Carmen, it is difficult to imagine her in any other role. The fit is quite perfect. Her portrayal is intelligent and compelling. “I wanted to portray Carmen as the passionate woman that she is,” she said.
Orchestrating a cast of 12, along with the stress of performing herself, has its own difficulties. “It can get very frustrating wearing both hats. The line blurs when you can’t separate the two – dancing and directing. That means taking care of 11 others.
It’s quite hectic. But once it comes together, it’s a lot of fun,” she said.
Last year, Masilo was awarded the prestigious Standard Bank Award, an annual prize given to an artist for outstanding contribution to the South African dance community. The boost this gave her, both psychologically and financially, has propelled Masilo into a new echelon.
“Since I won Standard Bank, things have been great. The attention has brought me into the forefront in terms of publicity and such. Suddenly I wasn’t hiding in the back anymore. I feel that many eyes are on my dancers and me. It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s great for my confidence. If I want to do something, I do it. I feel that each year, working with mostly the same cast of dancers, I gain their trust more and more. I am also more willing to take chances in the studio, which means that sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t.
Now I go into the studio and I play,” she said.
Since the premiere of Carmen earlier this year, the response has been positive.
“What I want to do is tour the world with the work. Everyone isn’t always going to like what I do. But I like to see what risks I can take,” she said.
This is Masilo’s first tour abroad with Carmen.
After an engagement in Cape Town, Masilo will return to one of her favorite cities, Tel Aviv.
Carmen will run October 14, 15 and 16 at the Suzanne Dellal Center and October 17 at Herzliya Performing Arts Center.