Adrienne Sichel*

Adrienne Sichel

Environmental architect and cultural activist Doung Janhangeer’s Umkhumbane to City Walk (which he started  on February 11, 2000) is the perfect analogy to attempt to describe the rich ambiguities, dazzling eccentricities, entangled histories and complexities of South African contemporary dance.

This feisty  Mauritian-born South African activist artist and academic was walking “the heritage talk,” with international producers, dancers and choreographers, to usher in this phase of the Floating Outfit Project’s Phomolong train-Station initiative—on March 21, 2016, a public holiday (the commemoration of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960). As a result, the indlela, the natural paths, alongside concrete city constructed pavements, were not filled with the 5,000 to 6,000 people walking kilometres daily from Umkhumbane to their work places in the Durban (eThekwini) city centre to save the R7 taxi fare; but we had extra companions in the form of Pina Bausch, Frantz Fanon and Paolo Freire whom our guide quoted from to keep us company.

Papi Ebotani, from Studios Kabako, Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tegan Peacock, from Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, performing Ebotani's intervention at The Workshop shopping centre, in inner Durban, as part of Phomolong train Station's Redefining Home-work residency. They are photographed by Doung Janhangeer. Photo: Courtesy of Durban Centre for Photography
Papi Ebotani, from Studios Kabako, Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tegan Peacock, from Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, performing Ebotani’s intervention at The Workshop shopping centre, in inner Durban, as part of Phomolong train-Station’s Redefining Home-work residency. They are photographed by Doung Janhangeer. Photo: Courtesy of Durban Centre for Photography

As he pointed out, the flourishing indigenous grass and weeds pushing though the pavement cracks and Ficus trees bursting through the highway fly-over, the similarities grew stronger. Since its emergence, in the mid 1970s, during apartheid and the international cultural boycott (1963-1994), South African contemporary dance has also disrupted, displaced, connected and survived. Other trademark qualities are invention and re-invention of artistic and cultural forms and functions.

The seven-day Phomolong train-Station, hosted by acclaimed dancers-choreographers-teachers Boyzie Ntsikelelo Cekwana and Desiré Davids’ 20 year old Floating Outfit Project dance company (based in Westville, Durban), epitomises all these attributes. The official programme states: “Applying collaborative methodologies and nuanced strategies as an excuse to bring artists together, for bodies to move together, for heads to dream and transcend together, the pilot event, Phomolong train-Station facilitates the convergence of four global projects—Press: Reset,  Redefining . . . Home-work, Shared Spaces and One Space. This is the culmination of a two-year process of creative, interrogative collaboration with local dance makers, continental counterparts, networks of international presenters, artists, festivals, theatres and spaces.”

In an interview at The Ar(t)chive in Johannesburg, Cekwana explained: “Our interest is to explode the Third Wall. Invent new dialogue with space and place. How do we redefine the infrastructure of performance? In Africa, we are fighting battles on so many fronts. So much re-invention is going on. We have to have strategies and methodologies. Nothing is settled. The generational aspect is important.”

The Floating Outfit Project (Republic of South Africa)/ Studios Kabako’s (Democratic Republic of Congo) Redefining . . . Home-work project started in September, 2014 in Kisangani. Cekwana elaborated: “Press: Reset, the mother project, commenced in March 2014 and is scheduled to end in 2017, but we hope to extend the residency through 2019. It incubates the local work we do with artists (in eThekwini), as well as exchanges with and in Congo and Kenya (Opiyo Okach in Nairobi).”

In Durban, three of the Redefining dancer-choreographers were from Congo and five from Durban. The One Space participants hailed from Portugal (4), Lebanon (1), Palestine (3), Croatia (1), DRC (1), Senegal (1), Burkina Faso (1) and Cape Town’s Chuma Sopotela.

The Shared Spaces component involves the Shared Spaces Network (presenters, producers, artists/companies), which Cekwana joined four years ago. Represented in Durban were Studios Kabako, Kinani Platforms, Mozambique; Switzerland’s Zürcher Theater Spektakel and Belluard Festival, Fribourg; KVS Koniniklikje Vlaamse Schouwburg, Belgium; Exodos International Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, Ljubljana, Slovenia; Alkantara Festival, Portugal; Qattan Foundation, Ramallah, Palestine. Redefining . . . Home-work and Phomolong train-Station are funded and supported by Pro Helvetia the Swiss Arts Council and the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation. Phomolong was also partly funded by Shared Spaces.

At the heart of this pilot project were facets of collaboration, partnership and co-operation across borders and conventions. Re-defining space—performance, artistic, intellectual and aesthetic—drives this evolving blueprint for dance making and training—not only for the African continent.

This initiative was an organisational nightmare for two South African artists who survive on internal commissioning and residencies in Europe. With the closure of State funded dance companies in 2000, they had the foresight and tenacity to keep working. Their company is a prototype of a mobile floating entity to enable them to create and produce.

For Phomolong (named after a train station in Cekwana’s hometown of Soweto), in kind support from the Arts and Culture Department City of eThekwini, who provided certain performance spaces, photographers and transport, was crucial. Earlier this year, the eight One Space artists attended choreographic labs in Lisbon, Ramallah and Kisangani.

The producers were exposed to the bare bones of process. Linyekula and Cekwana explained that this project was the result of 15 years of conversation. Cekwana: “We insist that the (conceptual) work we are doing has to open up to different generations. We have to find different ways of being in Africa without dealing with the one-dimensional identity of poverty, strife and material needs. This work has to be done.” Linyekula continued: “We want to share our headaches with them. There is nothing to buy for your festivals but people—eight of them.”

In Durban, the Redefining participants had a month to develop one idea in various spaces. The visitors also saw local dance companies: Musa Hlatshwayo’s Mhayise Productions, Jay Pather’s Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre and Lliane Loots’s Flatfoot Dance Company.

South African contemporary dance needs to be contextualised in a potted history. Simplistically put, this art form was largely born as a form of cultural resistance and political defiance by certain dancer-choreographer-teachers, in reaction to the race laws of apartheid South Africa, instituted after the National Party came to power in 1948, launching over 40 years of white supremacy. After decades of political struggle, South Africa became a democracy, with 11 official languages, on April 27, 1994.[1]

During and post-apartheid, South African contemporary dance has played an important role in championing a free, multi-cultural, society. These multi-cultural roots are vital when viewing, grasping or evaluating, contemporary theatre dance performance (in all its contradictions) which is embedded with these histories; which, in turn,  run deep into pre and post-colonial times. This heritage has proved very rich pickings for dance-makers who have been sourcing, de-constructing, and re-imagining strands of centuries-old experiences, histories, facts, myths and the Western classics.

The southern tip of the African continent has its own lineage of indigenous peoples such as the San (the hunter gathers known as the Bushmen) and the Khoi-Khoi (the pastoralists known as the Hottentots), prior to the occupations from Europe. The Cape of Good Hope, after 1652, was a supply station for the Dutch en route to Asia and specifically Malaysia.

The series of migrations of African tribes from the North of Africa (from Nigeria, Cameroon and elsewhere) to the south, on the mainland, from approximately 300 A.D., and the arrival from the mid-17th Century of settlers and missionaries to the Cape, Eastern Cape and Natal, from Holland, France, England, Germany and Scandinavia, and subsequent arrivals from India, Europe and the African continent (post 1994), are all part of our population mix.

The activist artists of the 1970s/1980s and 1990s have left a living legacy in the form of methodologies, techniques (such as Sylvia Glasser’s Afrofusion and Edudance), educational institutions, dance companies and a rich repertory. Dance festivals, either as components of major events such as the 42-year-old National Arts Festival (NAF), in Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape, or as entities such as Dance Umbrella (in Johannesburg since 1989); the Jomba!  Contemporary Dance Experience (Durban since 1998) and the Baxter Dance Festival (Cape Town since 2004) continue to make a valuable contribution to the dance landscape.

Dance forms which are performed and taught and are sourced by choreographers include: traditional South African dances and rituals, classical ballet, Spanish dance (classical regional and flamenco), Afrofusion, classical Indian dance (mainly baratha natyam and kathak); modern and contemporary dance; dance theatre; interdisciplinary performance; jazz dance and tap.

Uniquely South African dance forms and styles include: indlamu (traditional dances such as Zulu, Tswana, Ndebele and Xhosa dances), Die Rieldans (claimed to be South Africa’s oldest dance form rooted in Khoisan and slave history), the gumboot dance, the toyi toyi (the people’s protest and war dance); isipantsula and sbhujwa.

Physical theatre is one of the building blocks of SA contemporary dance thanks to Professor Elizabeth Sneddon, who brought the Laban method to South Africa when she founded the country’s first drama department at the University of Natal, in Durban, in 1949. Graduates included Gary Gordon, who, at Rhodes University, in Grahamstown, championed physical theatre and founded the First Physical Theatre Company in 1993. Among its founder members were Peter John (PJ) Sabbagha, Athena Mazarakis and Craig Morris

When Sabbagha was lecturing at the Wits School of Dramatic Art, in 1995, he co- founded the now celebrated The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative with fellow Rhodes graduate Tracey Human. Mazarakis and Morris (now renowned performers and teachers) developed their own bodies of work as well as a series of famous duets. They still collaborate on projects such as the digitally interactive Portal (2016).

A custom designed LED light strip replaces the stage in  Portal, a digitally  interactive performance in a gaming environment produced by The Ar(t) chive’s  BodyTech,  choreographed and performed by Athena Mazarakis (left) and  Craig Morris in collaboration with electronic engineers Bushveld Labs, which  linked audiences in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, with MANY Studios in Glasgow, on March 10 and 11, 2016.  Photo by Christo Doherty
A custom designed LED light strip replaces the stage in Portal, a digitally  interactive performance in a gaming environment produced by The Ar(t) chive’s  BodyTech,  choreographed and performed by Athena Mazarakis (right) and  Craig Morris in collaboration with electronic engineers Bushveld Labs, which  linked audiences in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, with MANY Studios in Glasgow, on March 10 and 11, 2016.  Photo by Christo Doherty

In its 20th anniversary year, FATC, with only two remaining commuting, dancer-choreographer-teachers (Fana Tshabalala and Thulani Chauke), relocated from Johannesburg in April 2015 due to funding imperatives and the government’s rural development policy. Would their professionalism survive without the infrastructure of a full-time company? In the Central Nervous System facet of FATC’s “My Body My Space” public arts festival (March 26 and 27, 2016), Tshabalala and Chauke’s performances dispelled this fear as they produced solo works brimming with creativity, ingenuity and artistic excellence.

Funded by the Department of Arts and Culture’s Mzansi Golden Economy Public Arts Programme, MBMS 2016 began on March 22 with Arteries, a series of flash mobs in the Emakhazeni district comprising the towns of Belfast, Dullstroom, Machadodorp and Waterval Boven. These free, public interactions were themed around social issues including gender violence, HIV and AIDS.

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The overflow audience of the My Body My Space Public Arts Festival views Unmute Dance Company’s Yaseen Manuel and trainee dancer Siphenathi Mayekiso (jumping) on the Ebhudlweni Dance Centre studio floor and Rae Claassen (seated left) and Zamukulungisa Sonjica (in the wheelchair) performing deaf dancer- choreographer Andile Vellem’s Un-mute which incorporates sign language.
Photo by Christo Doherty

Joining FATC in MBMS were other leading SA companies: Johannesburg’s Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MIDM—founded by Glasser in 1978), Gregory Vuyani Maqoma’s Vuyani Dance Theatre and Wits University’s Drama for Life, Cape Town’s integrated dance company Unmute (directed by MIDM graduate Themba Mbuli) and dancer-choreographer-teacher Mamela Nyamza.

Naming a public arts festival “My Body My Space” in a racially fractious country like South Africa is far from as innocuous as it sounds. Particularly, as the vision of, and mission for, this site and culturally specific event is, in the words of founder Peter John (PJ) Sabbagha, to “puncture, penetrate, puncture and rupture” historically charged social and political space. In this second edition, PJ Sabbagha and his The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative (FATC) dance company team not only achieved these goals in rural communities, but perforated cultural and artistic barriers and boundaries with sharply astute curating, programming and partnerships.

During his visit to Johannesburg, in March 2016, New York based internationally revered architect, artist and filmmaker Alfredo Jaar publicly (in his lecture It is Difficult) asked the question: “How do we make art when the world is in such a state? We change the state of reality, change perceptions. We create models of thinking in the world. Context is everything. We are speaking to a particular audience and reality. . . .  We create collective narratives.”

Essentially, through its public interventions and performance strategies, what MBMS 2016 achieved, in certain locations in the province of Mpumalanga and in conservative, racially divided towns like Machadadorp, was not only to answer Jaar’s question but to humanise and un-demonise the black South African performing body. That was not achieved without physical risk. An irate young white Afrikaner male nearly reversed his truck into Fana Tshabalala, in the butchery parking lot, as he was completing his Man 1 solo.

The first version of this festival, also funded by the Department of Arts and Culture, was held in Ekurhuleni (east of Johannesburg) in streets like Katlehong culminating in the main programme at the OR Tambo Cultural precinct, in Wattville, on February 7, 2015.

FATC learned valuable lessons from this excursion and, while the new location in this 20-year-old dance company’s new rural home was more daunting and challenging, MBMS 2 succeeded on various levels producing valuable art along the way.

One of the reasons why this festival showed so much gravitas and magnificent potential is the fact that it is not a one-off. For the past year, Sabbagha, associate artistic director Fana Tshabalala, and, dancer-teacher-choreographer, Thulani Chauke, have been networking and mentoring youth leaders in townships such as Sakhelwe, Dullstroom; Emthonjeni, Machadadorp; Siyathuthuka/Belfast, as well as the Vroue Federasie Belfast Childrens’ Home, teaching movement and dance technique to children and their care-givers once a week. What had been achieved was evident at the opening of the Ebhudlweni Rural Dance Centre (on Waterval the Sabbahga’s family cattle farm) on October 24, 2015. This progress was even more startling five months later.

Unprecedented collaboration from the local municipality (who cleaned drains,  mowed overgrown sidewalks and chest-high grass in Pholani Park the day before the festival), the Metro police (who blocked roads for the MBMS procession), local businesses, like the Machado Slaghuis (Butchery), the Car Wash, Greys Inn and the Chazon Tekna school, made this event possible. The FATC students, plus children eager to see and perform, arrived in taxis and busses from surrounding towns.

Sabbagha did the welcome (the political partners, the local municipality leadership including the mayor did arrive but did not participate in giving speeches as planned). Then, the four-hour 2 kilometre-long Central Nervous System began, led by PJ and his green umbrella, with police cars in tow. First stop, two blocks away, was the Chazon Tekna private school hall. Marina Magalhaes (Brazil/ USA), currently choreographer residence at Drama for Life (Wits University) till May 2016 kick-started the dance component on the tiled floor with an extract from Limbs created by New York City based Maria Bauman. Resonating formulaic purity, this solo deals with issues of exclusion, natural and political space, as the dancer speaks with her voice and pliant body and as she navigates ways around and over the wooden jigsaw set. Most of the text, in English and Portuguese, about discrimination and resistance, was lost on the young audience, who were startled by the bareness revealed by the white Lycra top worn over brown pants, but they responded to the physicality and emotion of the performance.

Asamebeni(Zulu for: let’s go) called Sabbagha, the leader, and we walked to the LA Eggs Shopping Complex, where the Sakehelwe Gospel Choir sang as Bobby Gordon tapped away writing impromptu poetry written on his vintage typewriter mounted on a bicycle. This American mobile poet (also in residence at DFL) was one of the interactive hits of the festival.

In the main street, on the tar in front of the Municipal Building, Emthonjeni teenagers impressed with their assured ability to interpret and execute Tshabalala and Chauke’s training and choreography in a complex work of tight ensemble and expressive solos.

At the Car Wash, over the road, Standard Bank Young Artist 2016, Themba Mbuli, from Cape Town, stunned the audience (standing on three sides all shaded with their umbrellas) with a rendition of his famous solo Dark Cell. This work references apartheid history including the prisoners on Robben Island. Mbuli’s stage, as he entered in khaki prison uniform his feet and hands chained, was gravelly sand. Even without the projections and full nudity at the end (echoing Bob Gosani’s iconic 1954 Mr Drum Goes to Jail tauza dance image of naked men being body searched at Johannesburg Central prison), Dark Cell hit the mark. This dancer-chorographer’s technical virtuosity and aesthetic savvy, paired with his ability to adapt to physical circumstances and performance spaces, ensures that he can communicate his messages of resistance and endurance—anywhere.

The bitter debate on racism, which has swept the country since January 4, 2016, when (white) Kwa-Zulu Natal estate agent Penny Sparrow posted a comment on Facebook comparing black beach-goers on Durban beach on New Year’s day to monkeys, received a powerful response from dancer-choreographer Chauke. Nothing Makes Sense, performed within the narrow confines of a pre-fabricated container building at the Eco Centre, distilled the outrage of this comment (which has led to criminal charges and a call for the banning of racism).

A black male body in distress, surrounded by suspended printed racist images, is trapped in a card board box (suggesting a ballot box): is boxed in by prejudice, expectations and limitations. Clad in a white shirt, green tie and grey socks, its movement is contained, the vocabulary compressed and urgent. With slogans such as: NO race, I’m Human Being 1st; # Humanity written on the cardboard, this dance is a searing declaration of the right to live, to dance to be seen–as a human being.  Nothing Makes Sense ends with the dancer physically connecting with his multi-racial audience lining the claustrophobic space and leads them outside in a human chain. That makes sense.

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The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative’s Thulani Chauke engages with the race debate currently inflaming South African society in his solo Nothing Makes Sense at the My Body My Space Festival in the country town of Machadadorp on March 26, 2016.
Photo by Christo Doherty

In contrast, Chauke’s Bearded Swan, performed the next day on the jetty on the trout fishing lake at Gooderson’s Kloppenheim country estate, tackled another hot potato: South Africa’s Eurocentric ballet history. Inspired by a “swan,” a white Ibis the choreographer had seen on Sabbagha’s farm, he imagined what Swan Lake, performed by a South African man, would look like.

Clad in an Ndebele grass skirt (used for male initiation), made on the farm by Katie Sindane and Susan Sabbagha, Chauke fused classical line, demi-plié, pirouettes and bourrées with the deep Zulu traditional dance plie’s and a pinch of the toyi toyi marching stamps, as he travelled the wooden “stage”—first, to a recording of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s famous acapella Homeless, the natural wind; then, a piano setting of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Act 2.

A leg, splashed playfully in the water, put the seal on robust hybridity, in this muscularly sinuous valuable addition to the dance repertory already enriched by celebrated South African flavoured deconstructions of the classics by Robyn Orlin, David April/Gregory Maqoma and Dada Masilo. Fresh additions are Mamela Nyamza and Nelisiwe Xaba’s viciously intelligent The Last Attitude (2015/16) and Jay Pather’s choreography for The Firebird (July, 2016), for a company of handpicked Cape Town dancers and giant puppets, in theatre director Janni Younge’s re-imagining of this Fokine ballet with the Stravinsky score. After Grahamstown, The Firebird, co-comissioned by NAF 2016 and major US summer festivals, travels to Chicago, Washington DC, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

The myths and realities of the Western classical ballet tradition, the danseurs and the ballerinas, from the perspective of African female dancer-choreographers Nelisiwe Xaba (pictured), from Johannesburg, and Cape Town’s Mamela Nyamza drive their subversively entertaining, viciously intelligent, The Last Attitude commissioned by the 2015 National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, and staged at Dance Umbrella 2016 in Johannesburg. Photo by John Hogg
The myths and realities of the Western classical ballet tradition, the danseurs and the ballerinas, from the perspective of African female dancer-choreographers Nelisiwe Xaba (pictured below) from Johannesburg, and Cape Town’s Mamela Nyamza (above) drive their subversively entertaining, viciously intelligent, The Last Attitude commissioned by the 2015 National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, and staged at Dance Umbrella 2016 in Johannesburg.
Photos by John Hogg

The myths and realities of the Western classical ballet tradition, the danseurs and the ballerinas, from the perspective of African female dancer-choreographers Nelisiwe Xaba (pictured), from Johannesburg, and Cape Town’s Mamela Nyamza drive their subversively entertaining, viciously intelligent, The Last Attitude commissioned by the 2015 National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, and staged at Dance Umbrella 2016 in Johannesburg. Photo by John Hogg

Tshabalala’s Man Part 1 and Man Part 2 the next day (atop the mountain road to Kloppenheim and, then, the entrance to the hotel foyer) were equally inventive, as he also merged socio-political themes with geographical landscape. Using Rocky, the boxer, as motif (the Eye of the Tiger score was provided by minibus taxis transporting the young audience), the dancer then ran the rest of the way, finally channelling the memory of Nelson Mandela the passionate boxer. Chauke was his absurdly macho Ring Girl.

South African contemporary choreography’s chameleon-esque/installation-style ability, in which mindscapes meet bodyscapes, has historical precedent. A prime example is Robyn Orlin’s Daddy, I have seen this piece six times before and I still don’t know why they are hurting each other, which premiered at the 1999 FNB Dance Umbrella and then toured internationally for 12 years (winning a Britsh Oliver Award). Originally, the audience was required to stand to view the performers who were wreaking havoc with SA dance history and politics.

Another classic is visual artist, performance artist and dancer Steven Cohen’s Chandelier (2001), a performance art video shot in Newtown Johannesburg on the day an informal settlement was violently being dismantled by the city’s “red ants” squad. Chandelier was subsequently performed as an interdisciplinary work-in–progress on The Wits Theatre stage at the 2002 FNB Dance Umbrella and has been presented internationally.

A more recent example of a dance theatre conception that can migrate from a public space to the stage is Jay Pather’s Qaphela Caesar! This director-choreographer’s ability to exorcise historical and socio-political essences out of the architecture was proven in his Cityscapes series, which began in Durban in 2002 and then relocated to cities including Johannesburg, Cape Town, New York and Copenhagen. Qaphela Caesar! (Beware Caesar/Caesar Beware!) debuted at the Cape Town City Hall, in September 2010, performed by Pather’s Durban based Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre (founded in 1994) and guest dancers from Cape Town schools and companies.

In 2012, Qaphela!, invited by Dance Umbrella director Georgina Thomson, was performed in the dusty, cobwebbed old Johannesburg Stock Exchange and offices used by the apartheid government security police—a brilliant fit for the themes of political betrayal and abuse of economic power in South Africa: past and present.

The spoken, visual and performed texts, astutely synergised with Shakespeare’s play and Pather’s mixed media, installation style, and conceptual wizardy, vividly spoke to South African realities of the time. The director-choreographer and his company caused a sensation with their courage, inventiveness, creativity and artistry.

In 2015, Siwela’s Qaphela! resurfaced—in a formal theatrical setting, with the addition of new bodies from Durban’s Phakama Dance Theatre. This 90-minute work, staged at the South African State Theatre Arena Theatre from October 21-31, was being performed at the height of the #FeesMustFall movement. The day tertiary institutions from around the province gathered at the Union Buildings on October 23 and violence ensued; that night, up the road, at the State Theatre, Qaphela! CaesarA Dance Theatre Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was providing astonishingly relevant, visceral, dangerously satiric food for thought on politics and corruption. Artistically and aesthetically, Qaphela! had lost none of its potency. Original concepts were extended and amplified for the dance stage.

The founding, in 2008, of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA), in the Faculty of Humanities, at the University of Cape Town (UCT), has provided a practical and academic home for the blossoming interdisciplinary component of South African dance. Funded on a grant from the Donald Gordon Foundation, until 2014, GIPCA, directed by Pather, presented a series of ground-breaking events and colloquia and two editions of the GIPCA Live Art Festival (2013 and 2014).

After a year of limbo, with bridging support from UCT, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation came to the rescue with a three-year grant of just over R9 million for the newly born Institute for Creative Arts (ICA) to fund all scholarships, fellowships, symposia and events, including the Live Art Festival and Symposium, in November, 2016. Live Art 2014 edition recently won the Creative Collections Category at the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Pather’s ICA opening address on April 5 2016, in Hiddingh Hall (built in 1911), pulled no punches:

The programme for this evening begins with two art works—Khanyisile Mbongwa’s Umnikelo Oshisiwe (A Burnt Offering) and #Untitled by Owen Manamela-Mogane and Themba Mbuli (performed by Mbuli), that question even the place of this launch, and concludes with an introduction of the programmes for the next three years.

The evening has already begun with performances downstairs by Commute 2 by iQhiya (featuring a mini bus taxi) interrogating conversation and mobility and Stumbling Block by Gabrielle Goliath (lying at the door of this hall) complicating access, throwing into question the privileged remove of this space.

Ritualistic African  tradition fused with theatrical modernity infuses curator, artist and  University of Cape Town (UCT) Master’s student Khanyisile Mbongwa’s  Umnikelo Oshisiwe (A Burnt Offering), performed by Tankiso Mamabalo, at the launch of the Institute for Creative Arts in Hiddingh Hall, UCT, on April 5 2016. Photo by Rob Keith
Ritualistic African  tradition fused with theatrical modernity infuses curator, artist and  University of Cape Town (UCT) Master’s student Khanyisile Mbongwa’s  Umnikelo Oshisiwe (A Burnt Offering), performed by Tankiso Mamabalo, at the launch of the Institute for Creative Arts in Hiddingh Hall, UCT, on April 5 2016. Photo by Rob Keith

The subsequent media ICA release clarifies the ICA’s mission:

It is becoming clear that the work lies in questioning the boundaries between modalities—this is to say that it is not just music, drama, dance or fine art, where the audiences are not quintessentially one public, but a range of publics where space is not one space, but several, stable and mobile, gazed at and immersive, characters are not singular and homogenous, but complex, heterogeneous, and blur between ‘self’ and the playing. The decolonising project asks us for the conservatoires and modalities to be questioned, the simple question of access to a gallery space or a theatre is not answerable with a series of development programmes of bussing children into these spaces. The publics are not the problem, the problem may lie in the conception itself, the spaces, the modalities, the inherited claims to purity, the sets of codes available to a few.

One company which embodies the ICA’s objectives is Sello Pesa’s Ntsoana Contemporary Dance Theatre in Johannesburg. Thanks to National Lotteries Commission funding, Ntsoana will celebrate its first decade with another In House Project. “Ntsoana,” is, to quote its site-specific showing programme,  “a dance collective that generates and implements projects framed within socio-political concepts, committed to exploring the diverse and evolving South African cultures and cultural practices through the medium of contemporary dance” (May 1 2016). Pesa and seasoned performer/facilitators Humphrey Maleka and Brian Mtembu have interrogated in situ the politics and problematics of urban living from Addis Ababa to Cape Town, from Istanbul to San Francisco, from India to Haiti.

In preparation for In House, in December 2016, a two-week workshop process was conducted in April 2016, in Alexandra Township (Joburg’s oldest black township). The participants included MIDM graduate dancers, actors and refuse recyclers. Umvubu (a Xhosa word for the sjambok whip), a two-hander by UCT Drama graduate Thando Mangcu and Thomas Manamela, violently confronts patriarchy and rampant gender violence.

When performed in the street, this astutely constructed vent about women not being protected by the law and, alternatively, a man’s right to keep a woman in her place, as the men in the audience vocally agreed alongside silent women—this intervention—had a chilling relevance and resonance. In March 2015, renowned rapper Nkululeko “Flabba” Habedi (38) was stabbed to death at 2 a.m. with a steak knife, in his Alex home, by his girlfriend Sindiswe Manqwele (26) who claimed self-defense. In March 2016, she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 12   years in prison.

Theatre, or concert dance, is not as consistently present as it has been. But there are still surviving companies who persevere with creating and presenting choreographic seasons namely Debbie Turner’s 21 year old Cape Dance Company, and Sean Bovim’s Bovim Ballet, Underground Dance Theatre, Kelsey Middleton’s KMad Dance Company, Tshwane Dance Theatre, MIDM and Vuyani. On the purely classical front, there is Joburg Ballet and Cape Town City Ballet.

Flatfoot’s double-bill Homeland (April 6, 2016), at Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, yet again proved the mettle of this company which originated as a part-time university training programme, in 1994. Guest dance maker Sbonakaliso Ndaba’s eponymous work was introduced by this programme note:

Homeland for me speaks about where I come from, where my umbilical cord lies, where I speak my mother tongue with pride without fear of shame. Homeland is where my great-great-grandfathers fought wars so that I can walk, speak and dance in freedom. Homeland is loving my own brown skin and waking up each morning to see another day despite so much.

A refined hybridity underpins Homeland, a group memoir skillfully crafted by guest choreographer Sbonakaliso Ndaba for Flatfoot Dance Company’s annual season at the Eliizabeth Sneddon Theatre, University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College Campus), in Durban, April 6-10, 2016. Photo by Val Adamson
A refined hybridity underpins Homeland, a group memoir skillfully crafted by guest choreographer Sbonakaliso Ndaba for Flatfoot Dance Company’s annual season at the Eliizabeth Sneddon Theatre, University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College Campus), in Durban, April 6-10, 2016. Photo by Val Adamson

Homeland and Loots’s Homeland (security) are fuelled by the experience and expertise of accomplished Flatfoot dancers (and educators) Sifiso Khumalo, Jabu Siphika, Zinhle Nzama and Tshediso Kabulu. Durban’s Ndaba is now based in Cape Town, where she founded Indoni, the attention-grabbing youth development programme, and regularly choreographs for Cape Town Opera, which tours internationally.

Homeland (security) was prompted by images Loots has seen on TV news and in the media of migrants, of refugees flooding into Europe in treacherous sea voyages. Once again, the choreographer collaborates with film maker and installation artist Karen Logan, whose footage of the Indian Ocean provides the set and context.

Bodies float on a raft of light, memory, history, contemporary realities and ironies, against the sea sights and sounds. Flatfoot, and guest Kim McCusker, are buffeted by internal impetuses, rhythms in response to waves of the collaged music. Dislocation and dispossession underpin fractured narratives. The undulating movement quality, undeniably influenced by the company’s training in Hawkins and other release techniques, as well as Zulu traditional dance weaves, is intense yet holistic.

SA dance’s international profile is not as strong as it has been, but there are choreographers and companies who continue to be programmed at festivals and theatres. Dada Masilo’s African Swan Lake (created in 2010), acclaimed at the Lyon Biennale de la Danse 2012, reached Canada (Ottowa and Montreal) in February 2016, then debuted, with her Dance Factory pick-up company, in the United States, with a well-received run at the Joyce Theatre  (February 7), with the choreographer in the title role of Odette. Swan Lake and Carmen will be staged in Germany in July 2016. Performer and choreographer Masilo collaborates and tours the globe with artist-director William Kentridge’s celebrated Refuse the Hour.

Johannesburg-born SA contemporary dance pioneer Robyn Orlin, who was knighted by the French government in 2009 for her contribution to art and culture, although now based in Berlin, continues to make startling theatrical creations and films. At the same time we were pointing a finger at you, we realised we were pointing at ourselves, her collaboration, in Senegal, with Germaine Acogny’s Compagnie Jant Bi, debuted at the 2014 Avignon Theatre Festival. And so you see . . . our honourable blue sky and ever enduring sun . . . can only be consumed slice by slice, with Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza (a Soweto, Wits University trained, performer who is also a practising sangoma, a traditional healer) premiered at Montpellier Danse 2016, on June 30. Her latest TV film Water . . . anything can happen!, shot with Pacific Islander women on Banks Islands in the Vanuatu archipelago and in Paris, was screened on France O, on June 16 2016 and at Montpellier Danse, on July 1 2016.

Also on the international radar is MIDM’s Oscar Buthelezi (25), as one of three finalists (for his duet Road) selected from 70 choreographers from 26 countries for the Kurt-Jooss-Prize 2016. On May 14 2016, after a performance at PACT Zollverein, in Germany Road was awarded both the jury and the audience prizes.

In 2015, Gregory Vuyani Maqoma headlined the American Dance Festival 2015 with his autobiographical solo Exit/Exist. In 2016, he choreographs Masekela! starring the iconic 77-yearold trumpeter, composer and political activist in an adaptation of his autobiography Still Grazing The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela. In November 2016, Maqoma tours Spain again in Lonely Together, co-created and performed with Roberto Olivan. They met as students, in 1996, at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s P.A.R.T.S., in Brussels. This well-travelled duet about middle-aged masculinities premiered at Barcelona’s Grec Festival, in July 2014, and was restaged, in September, at Dance Umbrella, in Johannesburg.

Drama for Life’s AfriQueer Project—a site-specific journey of solos presenting “an intimate evocation into the lives of men living on a continent that violently rejects the ‘other,’” and performed by male actors and dancer-choreographers from Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa—reaches the 2016 NAF in July.

A surge in registrations by seasoned dance professionals and undergraduates for MA and PhD studies, at institutions such as the ICA and Arts and Culture Management (Wits School of Arts) University, will no doubt strengthen the legacy.

But, there is no doubt South African contemporary dance is in survival mode. Yet, it is experiencing an unprecedented developmental growth spurt as it redefines and reforms structures and practices in a turbulent African democracy.


Adrienne Sichel

*Adrienne Sichel is a South African born theatre journalist and critic who, since 1978, has focused on the development of South African theatre as well as the evolution of South African and African contemporary dance. She is a freelance writer and visiting researcher at the Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, where, in 2012, with film-maker Jessica Denyschen, she co-founded The Ar(t)chive for South African contemporary dance and physical performance history.

[1] Adrienne Sichel, Legacies of Violence/Art Resolution: Body Politics: Fingerprinting South African Contemporary Dance, The Open Participate Enrich Negotiate. lecture series, Singapore International Festival of Arts, June, 20, 2014.

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Enigmatic Bodyscapes – Sampling South African Dance