Paul Weinberg: A Man Who Can Honestly Attest to Living Through History

April 26, 1994 Nelson Mandela casts his vote for the very first time, an iconic photograph by Paul Weinberg.

April 26, 1994 Nelson Mandela casts his vote for the very first time, an iconic photograph by Paul Weinberg.

It’s almost a year since Nelson Mandela passed away. To commemorate this great man, award winning art professional Natalie Liknaitzky has curated an exhibition of South African art, which will be shown at the Stephan Welz Studio in Sandton from December 5 until January 11.

The show, another in the series of shows which Liknaitzky has put together celebrating Mandela, will be called We Love Mandela: In Memoriam; it will include a selection of works from the exhibition recently shown in London, plus new works by Jane Makhubele, Ilan Ossendryver, Alfred Thoba, Zapiro and Cape-based photographer Paul Weinberg (pictured, below) – a co-founder of the 1980s photographic collective Afrapix – who took arguably the only photograph of Mandela’s first vote at Ohlange School in Inanda, Durban, the site of the grave of John Dube.

Last week, speaking of the past, the present and the future through his lens, he told My View how that photograph happened: “I was working for the Independent Electoral Commission as a freelance photojournalist during the 1994 elections. Mandela voted a second time for hundreds of photographers outside.”

But being first in line hadn’t always been Weinberg’s privilege when it came to filming Mandela. When Mandela was released from the Victor Verster prison in 1991, Weinberg was a little late in arriving to cover the event. “I sheepishly tried to find a spot and a relatively good vista. My initial position was behind a Time magazine photographer and his partner. As the wind blew, her long flowing hair kept obscuring my vision.

“‘Do you mind moving slightly to the left?’ I asked her at one point. ‘Yes I mind!’ she said. ‘I’ve been waiting here for eight hours.’ My response was immediate: ‘Well, millions of us have been waiting all our lives!’ I then settled on a place which was more like a worm’s eye view. At least I had a clear path of the gates.

“And after more waiting, Nelson and Winnie walked through the gates towards the media. I focused and pressed the shutter. As I did, a group of comrades who were to my right, surged. My cameras, camera bag and I went flying. My Madiba moment consists of blue sky and telephone lines! To add further ignominy, I lost a lens in the fracas.

“In an attempt to redeem myself, I rushed to the grand parade and it was jammed packed and after hours of waiting Madiba arrived in very low light – his driver had gotten lost, which resulted in a long wait. I have a blurry photo of him waving to the crowd. I was really freaked out that two historic moments had passed with nothing to show for it.

“Caught up in the events that followed I joined the Mandela train to some extent as he connected to the South African public. On one occasion I was commissioned to do ‘a day in the life’ of Nelson Mandela. As we walked along the corridor, Madiba remembering my name, turned to me and asked, ‘Are you related to my good friend Eli Weinberg?’ I replied with the same answer, ‘Not directly but our forebears came from the same city, Riga in Latvia.’ ‘I see,’ he said generously. But I knew my answer was not going to get me much closer to the great man.

“One got then a very clear impression that Madiba knew when he was talking to you or allowing his photograph to be taken, he was connecting with the world. You were as important to him as he was to us. The media were his direct artery to the world which he so brilliantly has managed throughout his life.”

Weinberg, who was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg describes his participation in Liknaitzky’s project as something that grew out of a conversation. “I got into the show through the side door. I went to see the work she did on Mandela at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, I told her I’d done a bit of work myself,” he adds, referring to the collection on show in this exhibition as a “series of firsts.”

Skirting from describing himself as having a comprehensive focus on Mandela he says, “As a photojournalist, I kept my eyes peeled and was cognisant of the significant moments that were happening. I had been documenting politically significant moments from the 1980s.”

paulweinbergpic2

When Weinberg was 11 he won a Hebrew prize designated for the purchase of books. “But I ran off and used it to buy myself a very nice little Canon Rangefinder, it was better than a Brownie and was my first real camera. On my barmitzvah, I upgraded to a Pentax, with all the lenses, which I bought from a press photographer.

“In high school I dabbled and kind of did what I thought I needed to do, and learned how to take pictures and develop. My interest in photography was percolating. Then I did all the usual things: I went to the army and came out and went to the university and I was half way through a law degree at ‘Maritzburg University when it was suddenly June 1976. And I thought I just can’t do this anymore. I have to take a stand.

“So I handed in my rifle and registered as a conscientious objector, not really knowing what I was doing, but that moment was pivotal because then I realised it was real and pondered: if I do get arrested or charged, do I really have the balls to sit in jail?” He decided to get some kind of qualification that would give him the skills to earn a living elsewhere. “A law degree would get me nowhere.

“I went back to the local technical college where I did a certificate in photography, but I also completed my BA at the same time and then I headed for Jo’burg, to escape from the army commando that I was at.

“And the rest is history. I lived out of a suitcase with a passport next to me and never paid tax and got totally involved in the world around me in trying to play my part in documenting what was going on. And I tripped and fell often, as I went.

“Narratives can be delusional,” he laughs, speaking of the flawed sense of romance in the hard life of a freelancer. “It was incredibly exciting. We were living history. I was caught up in events and the world was happening around us. On reflection, what a phenomenal privilege it was to live through those times.”

Afrapix was founded in 1982, by Weinberg in collaboration with Omar Badsha, Lesley Lawson, Biddy Partridge and Mxolise Mayo. A decade before the photographers associated with the Bang Bang club – Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovic and Joao Silva – “Afrapix’s ethos was different to that of the Bang Bang Club. We were like a family. We were uncompetitive with each other: it was quite phenomenal. We had a lot of people who weren’t traditional photographers – there were housewives and people from the townships like darkroom assistants like Santu Mofokeng, who developed into heavyweights in the industry. We were there for strays and waifs, and anyone who was committed to the cause.

“It’s a big jump for documentary photographers like myself to enter the artworld,” he adds. “It’s a whole new vocabulary. I am in the minor league,” he says, but as the creator of several photographic books containing his different series, he’s developed a lot of street cred as a photographer who knows his stuff.

“But when I think of the 1970s, I remember how David Goldblatt’s books, like Some Afrikaners and On the Mine were available at Estoril books for R1.50: they were commercial failures at the time, but have gone on to become enormously iconic, and I believe there’s hope. Someday, maybe someone will be buying Paul Weinberg books in the same vein.”

In his capacity as photographic curator, where he is employed by the archives of the University of Cape Town, Weinberg is currently in the process of putting together a project called The Other Camera. “It’s about vernacular photography, which I have been researching over years and years. The opening of this exhibition at the Wits Art Museum will coincides with a Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser) conference at Wits University in mid February.

“For this project, I have dug and found stuff way off the beaten track. Being aware of this genre has been amazing. Okwui Enwezor and Simon Njami have discovered the west African form of this genre of portrait photography and have exposed it to the world through Malick Sidibé and Sedou Keita but they’ve left out the southern African part.

“Does it make sense? This is really where urbanisation took off first in Africa. The connection with the camera and identity all that stuff to do with modernity was definitely going to happen.

“Photography has a weird place,” he concludes. “Photographers are sometimes inarticulate in various ways but they kind of know that this, in this moment, they have got something special. Often it is for the wrong reasons – fame and glory… but at the end of the day, one looks back at them and sees their value.”

  • We Love Mandela: In Memoriam is at the Welz Studio, Shop L38, Nelson Mandela Square, Sandton, December 5-January 11. Call Christa (011)026-6586 or Nadine 082-891-8252.
Advertisements

Ketekang: celebrating so much, it hurts

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

From the moment band leader Tshepo Mngoma lets rip into his electronic violin, in the opening number Bungazani, you are convinced that this anthology of music, theatre, dance and poetry will be extraordinary. And you won’t be wrong, but Ketekang is not without decision-making flaws, which bruise its impact.

Couched in celebratory cliché, the work is not monolithic, and boasts an unusual body of song, poetry and snippets of theatre in its repertoire of 30 works. In many, though, the narrative thread holding them relevant, is disappointingly absent.

What does pin the work together is the choreographic moments. By and large, choreographed and danced by Luyanda Sidiya and dancers associated with Vuyani Dance Theatre and Moving Into Dance Mophatong, they pepper Ketekang with a bold freshness which really takes your breath away. There’s a moment commemorating Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson on June 16, 1976 which will etch itself into your heart. Embodying a sense of the urgency and horror of the situation, it is beautifully constructed, like a piece of poetry.

Similarly, there’s a paean to “dustbin men”, important characters in the grotesque pedestrianism of apartheid. It’s danced with a brusqueness and a sense of potency that will resonate with your heart.

But after the show, as you glance through the rich song list, you might be forgiven for thinking “Really?” There are too many really important iconic works here that jostle with each other for focus. With snatches of Athol Fugard, Khayelihle Dominique Gumede, Zakes Mda and Omphile Molusi, some of them too obscure to trigger memories of the full works, songs from the likes of John Legend, Sibongile Khumalo, Simphiwe Dana and Hugh Masekela are pushed, cheek by jowl with snippets of poetry from people such as Fred Khumalo, Professor Keroopetse Kgositsile and Langston Hughes, to name a few.

There’s an unmodulated richness to this work which makes you so heady your focus sways. And while there are references to dates: there’s a ‘1940’ on the back of one dancer, and the 1976 riots are beautifully clear, the trajectory of time is not convincingly developed, and the work does feel hurriedly put together, with no time for the piece to breathe easily and come into its own.

Also, there’s a jingling and a jangling between South African and American values, accents and works: it’s not clear what this is pitched at.

While the performers, including the gorgeous Aubrey Poo, Lesedi Job and Lebo Toko are honed and articulate and smooth as can be, there’s several jarring elements of discomfort. Costumes are not always comfortable on the bodies of the singers, which troubles the act of watching the work.

The production’s set is defined by a halo of barbed wire that surrounds the piece, teetering between a strangely celebratory image and one of oppression, and a curious interplay of spaces used in the theatre, which are innovative and exploratory, but not always comfortable to the viewer.

In short, Ketekang is magnificently celebratory: it showcases some of the finest musicians, singers and dancers on our stages right now, and gives voice to songs obscure and well known. But it’s a production in which you can’t easily see the wood for the trees and you become lost in the spectacular spectacle of it all. It just tries too hard.

  • Ketekang is directed by James Ngcobo with musical direction by Tshepo Mngoma, choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, set by Nadya Cohen, costumes by Nthabiseng Makone, lighting by Nomvula Molepo and sound design by Gladman Balintulo. It is performed by Caroline Borole; Nokukhanya Dlamini; Lesedi Job; Katlego Letsholonyana; Vuyelwa Maluleke; Mahlatsi Mokgonyana; Aubrey Poo; Sonia Radebe; Dionne Song; and Lebo Toko on stage and musicians Ezbie Moilwa; Godfrey Mgcina;Ntokozo Mgcina; Johan Mthethwa;and Sakhile Nkosi. It performs at the Market Theatre’s John Kani theatre until December 14.

On Michael Elion (or trying to take the speck out of someone’s eyes, when there’s a plank in your own)

Elionpic

They’re big. They’re shiny. They’re funky and puerile and they’ve gotten the local art world into a frenzy. This is Cape Town-based Michael Elion’s sculpture ‘Perceiving Freedom’, a gigantic pair of sunglasses, bedecking the public space on the Sea Point promenade in Cape Town.

Having been asked to voice my opinion about the piece for Cape Talk last week, it’s comforting to be able to think about it more cogently in 900 odd words, rather than two minutes on air and on the spot. It’s a funny thing, this academic art fraternity. We’re very quick to condemn bullying, but when banded together in a forum like this when we believe we have moral right on our side, we are alarmingly quick to articulate that very same behaviour, offering to dismantle people, literally or figuratively.

Regardless of the quality of the gigantic pair of sunglasses made of stainless steel touting commercial crassness and sullying Mandela’s name in the mix, this is a work in the public domain, not unlike South African-born performance artist Steven Cohen’s gestures.

And Cohen himself can speak of his own experience of a litany of filthy bullying tactics from the unwashed public, some anticipated, some not. The difference is Cohen understood from the outset in the 1980s when he started doing his impromptu interventions, how unkind and merciless the public can be, and that the tyranny of art spaces is nothing compared to that of public spaces.

But Elion’s no performance artist. The erection of his piece was a committee decision. At no point has he boasted coming out there and making this thing off his own bat. He was paid to do it. If we want to pillory someone, shouldn’t it be the guy who signed the contract with Elion? The woman who ticked all the boxes that approved these glasses? The committee members who collectively sanctioned it? Shouldn’t we be shouting against the democratisation of public art?

Indeed, public space is a very touchy one to mess with. Someone clearly screwed up here, but the understanding is that this public art gesture is temporary and that the work will not be up for longer than a year. The art community, in some kind of a phalanx of moral disapproval, is baying for Elion’s blood.

These are people boasting oodles of credential, degrees and overseas teaching and writing and exhibiting experience. Surely they understand the complexity that censorship lends to the arts?  That publicity of any stripe is good? Surely they know how anti-art through the annuls of the discipline, like Marcel Duchamp’s 1918 Fountain, which is actually a graffitoed urinal, has slipped quite smoothly into the discipline itself.

In my view, this attention focused on the work strengthens it: these protests, these Avaaz petitions, this ire and fury is something that some academic sometime soon will use as grist for their dissertation mill: forcing virtual unknown Elion up there, amongst practitioners like Igor Stravinsky, whose ballet The Rite of Spring, had rotten tomatoes thrown at it because its audience considered it pornography in 1913; or like South African-born arts practitioner Brett Bailey whose Exhibit B, a complex comment on colonialism, over 100 years later, has been censored by the British and French public as being racist; and even the Impressionists who raked up public ire in their ability to thumb their noses at established tradition. Does Elion belong in the company of these giants? Unquestionably not.

There’s a grotesque sculpture on William Nicol Drive in Sandton. It sits in some corporate building speaking obscenely of too much money. It has a motor in it, which sometimes makes the thing turn. It’s a poke in your eye as you drive that way, but do you see protests about it? Is there kicking and screaming and bullying threats in its wake? No. And as a result, it is completely invisible to the great narrative of art history. As it should be.

There’s another aesthetically sinful trend in building acumen where building-sized adverts are rigged over whole buildings or building sites. And there’s a disgusting plaster vertical shawarma spit which turns, installed on the freeway between Johannesburg and Pretoria. These are nakedly commercial. They’re hideous. They’re in our faces and have been for years.

But, you may argue, these monstrosities of excess are in private properties. Their remarkably ugly heads and headlines peek over at us in our public space, but they are not erected in a space deemed completely public. Further, by virtue of what it is, public space must be taken care of by the city in which it exists on behalf of its tax-paying citizens. And taking care means cutting grass, emptying dustbins, getting rid of dog poo. The space needs to be celebrated for itself. And a giant silly gesture like this speaks of undeveloped sensibilities: it’s student-quality in its thinking and disrespectful to those who frequent the space.

But, why has this Elion work tipped the scales of academic fury? Because he said it’s celebrating Mandela, as an afterthought after it had been accepted by the committee that installed it? Or because Elion’s an outsider to the art establishment? Or maybe it’s because it indiscriminately bends aesthetic guidelines in a public space?

The question must be asked: what public art is successful? And who deems it so? And how is it measured? You need only cast your mind’s eye around the country to think of so many shamefully ugly renditions of Nelson Mandela, let alone public monuments the world over celebrating tyrants and values in civilisations that have passed away. Whatever else Elion’s work is, it does entice the children and the graffitos to play with it. And it is temporary

Oz: the sumptuous sum of all its parts

The Look of Enthusiasm says it all. Dorothy (Emma Hayden) centre, with her new found friends: the Tin Man who has no heart (Sean Louw); the  Scarecrow who has no brain (Phillip Schnetler); and the cowardly Lion (Gamelihle Bovana). Photograph courtesy National Children's Theatre.

The look of enthusiasm says it all: Dorothy (Emma Hayden) centre, with her new found friends: the Tin Man who has no heart (Sean Louw); the Scarecrow who has no brain (Phillip Schnetler); and the cowardly Lion (Gamelihle Bovana). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

Just when you think that you may have seen the Wizard of Oz – first brought to the silver screen in 1939 with a young Judy Garland in the starring role – enough times, along comes a production like this, bursting at the seams with the kind of freshness and enthusiasm which has the power to take young audience members and transport them for the rest of their lives.

Director Francois Theron has magicked a brand new version of this work which teeters, narratively, between the insanity and surrealism of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the standard tradition of a yarn like that that informs The Lord of the Rings. It offers a moral by way of a caveat in understanding that things are seldom what they seem and that dreams need to be followed to their logical conclusion, which is wrapped in a bit of sugar and a lot of really top class lyrics, like Somewhere over the rainbow.

There’s not really much that can be done to the tale of Dorothy from Kansas who unwittingly unseats and destroys a wicked witch when her house is blown away by a twister, and meets some idiosyncratic friends en route to finding her way home, but there are subtle tweaks and gestures, which pay important tribute to the film traditions behind the work, and indeed, to the original text, first published in 1900.

With Devon Flemmer as the debonair emcee and tiered curtains evocative of 1950s traditions, the tone is set: and the magic happens from curtain up to curtain down.

The show, featuring shadow manipulation and tight creative engineering is directly premised on the presence of a book: characters jump out of the larger than life publication on set and the emcee himself is armed with an encyclopaediac version of the text that he reads from.

While local children might struggle to understand the deep American southernness of the accents that predominate, particularly on Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm, they will be blown away by the perfection of the colour, light, choreography and sequences, which simply exude faultlessness in their placement and construction; with the cherry on top being fabulous costume design, completely appropriate to the work’s history and tradition.

Patricia Boyer as the Wicked Witch who remains undefeated, until Dorothy (Emma Victoria Hayden) gets into a tussle with a bucket of water, is deliciously incomparable. The role she casts is not unadulterated evil, as we have seen her do elsewhere; rather this physically monumental and monumentally fine performer pegs her evilness down a step or two, creating an unspoken bond of complicity with the children in the audience on the cushions on the floor. She’s an evil witch tempered by an insecurity that makes her human and completely appropriate.

The singing and dancing stakes are not as sophisticated and tight as they were in this theatre’s previous production of the same work, and similarly the dollop of nostalgia is a little diluted; but the work in entirety is beautifully honed, imminently satisfying and smile-inspiring.

When you can vicariously watch a show of this nature through the focus of a little six year old boy who remains completely transfixed throughout its run, you know they’re doing something right.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is adapted and directed by Francois Theron from the original book by L. Frank Baum. It is designed by Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Stan Knight (set); Caitlin Clerk (choreographer); Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes) and features performances by Gamelihle Bovana; Patricia Boyer; Devon Flemmer; Emma Victoria Hayden; Suzaan Helberg; Sean Louw; Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri; Nomonde Matiwane and Phillip Schnetler; and child performances by Sakhenati Faniso; Tamara Faniso; Samuel Hertz; Katlego Matihake; Hloniphile Myaka; Khawulani Myaka; Gabriella Oliveira; Boitumelo Phaho; Buddy Sacks; Rufaro Shava; Sebastian Steiner; and Ricci Waksman. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until  performs at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg until December 21.

Stranger: An angry, therapeutic exercise

Strangerpic1

For first person narrative to sing with a poetry that pushes it away from petty personal accounts, separated by the phrase ‘and then’, you need to be a strong, experienced writer with an intimate understanding of the discipline and an ability to read your own work with scathing outsiderness. This self-published debut publication trips and falls into all the flaws in the process with a level of naivete that would be almost charming, but for its anger.

In Stranger in the Guest House: From Survivor to Thriver, Charlene Scott Levin tells the consistently furious story of her life. She was adopted by people who were flawed in their emotional ability to raise her. She married a man who maltreated her. She suffered from a great lack of self-love. Her relationship with her brother was thwarted. As was that with her daughter, Nola. Essentially her writing of this book was about therapy more than achieving literature.

Replete with errors – in grammar and spelling as well as context – and peppered with cliché, it’s a bumpy read, clearly missing the presence of a strong editorial hand or even advice from a seasoned writer. Lacking any voice other than her own, this material, ostensibly based in fact, but with names changed, takes a child’s vision into areas so dramatically and obviously out of her ken, like her parents’ bed, it challenges the way in which she has constructed her own character in the tale, often doing things like putting words into people’s mouths and casting assumptions around decisions they take.

It offers comments about Judaism which are questionable  – a batmitzvah (or the coming of age of a young girl in Jewish tradition) is not a ritually essential affair, for instance – and mumbles confusedly around chronology. It is dotted with Jewish phraseology, not all of which is self-explanatory and a lot of which is inward looking. Further to that, it is a tale peppered with bitter tears at incidents and anecdotes which read as petty rather than as monumentally sinister as Scott Levin intends. He said, she said arguments between her and her brother as adults, are particular cases in point that do not serve the publication or its writer’s dignity.

At several points in the text, you feel a great sense of pity for Pessa, mother of Sharlene, who is lambasted from top to bottom unrelentingly. Splinters of the kinds of challenges she might have been going through herself appear – when nine miscarriages are mentioned, for instance – and you also feel a curiosity as to how this narrative would have played out were the different protagonists in Sharlene’s story given the chance to air their side of things.

Clearly writing a book of this nature was an important and empowering gesture for Scott Levin. Whether it will have a committed readership responding to her prose, outside of her immediate circle, is a moot point.  And it’s a pity: her content has enormous potential. Without the backing of proper research or more carefully honed writing, it becomes very light weight and flagrantly emotional. The book is also too detailed, which makes for a tale so replete with incidents that the broader narrative is bamboozled.

Having said that, the therapeutic exercise of writing this book is symptomatic of the kind of abuse behind closed doors that predominates in a parochial community, like that of Jewish Johannesburg. Her writing it and publishing it is indicative of the lackadaisical attitude of the lay and religious authorities to engage with this kind of domestic malevolence, and emotional incompetence: behaviour which is often smoothed over by money.

  • Stranger in the Guest House: from Survivor to Thriver by Sharlene Scott Levin (2014: Point Rider Publishing, USA and South Africa).

Oh, father!

Huddled together, the three basement bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Huddled together, the three basement-bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Take three sisters. Clad them in severe black lace tops, white skirts and insufferable black tresses. Cast around them a vague tale of a missing father, an ever-absent black horse and tuna crumbs. And put vulgar hysteria and arbitrary cruelty into their mouths and souls, and you will have what amounts to Father, Father, Father, a collaborative work which might make you question the value of driving to downtown Johannesburg.

Horror and cruelty are interesting elements to depict onstage. They’re a bit like showing sex: the more that’s implied, the sexier it is. The more that’s shown, the more ridiculous it can become. Father, Father, Father treats all those potentially fascinating notions of mental illness, sinister intent, horror and pain with as much subtlety as a blunt instrument deployed by a hefty child. The work lacks tonality or nuance, and its consistent off-key-ness makes it lose impact.

These three sinister girls would work honed into a vignette in a larger story. They make you think of Dickens’ Miss Haversham, or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or the mad woman in Jane Eyre, played out and touched upon by their respective authors with a great sense of wariness, leaving you, as the reader, or the audience to deal with your own horrors in conjuring up these scary women.

Film director Stanley Kubrick achieved this with split second extreme horror in his 1980 film The Shining: there are twin girls in that tale who have screen presence for maybe four seconds, but whose impact lasts a viewer a lifetime.

All this wisdom is missing from Father, Father, Father: instead we see everything about Sonya (Roberto Pombo), Marcy (Rachael Neary) and Lucy (Joni Barnard) and very little of it hangs with conviction, savvy or sophistication. There’s too much screaming and running about. Too much bald cruelty and no back story.

If you’re past the age of believing in the value of blunt scariness, you might feel you’re too old to see theatre of this nature. With a sniff of Chekhov, a poke at narratives of abuse and a whisper at Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Father, Father, Father is the kind of play that makes you wish this theatre auditioned work with greater stringency before they presented it to the public.

It lacks convincing narrative, a meaningful denouement, and above all, a sense of balance. The story is a roly-poly display of too much guttural emotion with no evidence of strategy or beauty. And the use of the piercing scream is the clincher: rather than tilting at genuine scariness, its potential to disturb factor sways toward the deeply annoying and you may find yourself edging to the exit before the play finishes.

Father, Father, Father is conceived, written and performed by Joni Barnard, Rachael Neary and Roberto Pombo and directed by Toni Morkel. It enjoyed a four day season at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg during November.

Gregory Vuyani Maqoma: flame-bearer of empathy, pragmatics and SA dance

Gregory Maqoma giving a Master Class at the Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, in 2013. Photograph courtesy Velocity Dance Center.

Gregory Maqoma giving a Master Class at the Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, in 2013. Photograph courtesy Velocity Dance Center.

Everywhere you look, at the moment Gregory Vuyani Maqoma is present: He’s on the current cover of Gordon Institute of Business Science’s Acumen Magazine. He’s one of the judges in the Arts and Culture Trust Award for 2014. He’s just been in New York accepting the prestigious Bessie Award for his company, Vuyani Dance Theatre. He was recently at the Standard Bank Young Artists Award event in Johannesburg, celebrating one of his protégés, Luyanda Sidiya, this year’s winner for Dance. With all of this, Maqoma truly has earned his accolades. On the cusp of this year’s Dance Umbrella, he spoke to My View, about life, the universe, the Moon and migrant workers.

In 1990, Maqoma but 16. He met a white woman who dramatically changed his life. For good. Iconic dancer/ teacher /choreographer/dance anthropologist Sylvia Glasser at that stage was running her groundbreaking dance company Moving Into Dance Mophathong informally. It was a time in the country before it was considered acceptable or permissible for white and black dancers to share a stage. But share a stage they did, and Maqoma quickly became a MIDM flame-bearer.

“Vuyani Dance Theatre started in 1999,” he picks up the story almost a decade later. “I was in Belgium, on a scholarship at the renowned contemporary dance school PARTS;  it was an opportunity for me to look at South Africa from outside. It made me ask myself questions about my role as a dancer/choreographer and where I want to go in life. I had the chance to ponder how I wanted to be part of the changing political landscape in the country and how I was going to contribute to the development and sustainability of dance in South Africa.

“It was then that I created my first independent work, Rhythm 1-2-3, the founding piece for VDT. In that work, I was looking at Johannesburg: its roots, its unpredictability, its energy. It set the tone for what I wanted to do: to create work that responds to my own circumstances; work that was also questioning socio-economic imbalances in this country. It was also a work that got me quickly around the world,” he laughs. “We started getting bookings and before we’d even realised it, things were happening: there was no turning back.

“It was scary. I was 24. I started writing proposals. My first attempt at a proposal failed, but my second, to the Dutch embassy was successful. It was a small, tiny grant, but it was enough for what we wanted to do. Rhythm 1-2-3 was a simple work with just three dancers. The set was made with boxes from Pick ‘n Pay. The work, using visuals and text, was foundational for all my subsequent work.”

But it opened doors in other directions too. He started working with choreographers Moeketsi Koena, Sello Pesa, David Matamela April, Vicki Karras and Mandla Mchunu. ”We were all playing at the Dance Factory in Newtown Johannesburg, making work. It was not about egos. It was about sharing information. It was about working with what we had. We had to make and energise the dance fraternity. That was the founding ethos of VDT.”

Beyond its ethos, the now teenaged company, with a very strong outreach programme has started taking on apprentices this year: “These are dancers who have just left institutions,” Maqoma explains. “It’s an opportunity for them to work as professionals and with professionals. They get to perform in our works. Some have already had the chance to travel overseas with us. It’s hands on experience: the training you get at VDT shows immediate results.

“These apprentices are paid stipends from the company’s savings. At the same time, each apprentice is obliged to visit schools all over Gauteng: we see the results during our annual Vuyani Week at the end of the year. The Week is purely about development. It’s about young choreographers making new work.” It’s also about growing young dance audience.

VDT under the steerage of Maqoma drove contemporary dance which is renowned for its obscurity, into a popular framework with Full Moon, an extravaganza of a work staged at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein, in March this year.

“The work was premised on the idea of creating a social enterprise,” Maqoma explains. “As a company, we needed to be thinking beyond the Lotto funding, to diversify our income streams. We needed to look at a model that was going to be an income-generating one. And works that would be able to go to big spaces like the Joburg Theatre, the Sydney Opera House – into spaces that produce work on that big a scale.

“For me Full Moon was very much about saying as a contemporary black dance company, there is absolutely nothing stopping us from accessing spaces like Joburg Theatre. There is nothing stopping us from dreaming as big as the Alvin Ailey American Dance theatre company. We’ve tried to do this for years,” he grins, recalling how VDT was rebuffed on its tenth anniversary, from staging a work of this scale, with the claim that the theatre was fully booked months in advance. “This time the theatre seemed to realise something.

“I told the theatre’s decision makers, we’re talking 20 years of democracy here, and we’ve never had a black contemporary dance company on this stage. And we’re not only talking 20 years: we’re talking more than 50: there has never been a contemporary black dance company in this theatre: it was opened in 1961!

“So, here we are, I said. We are taking a chance on ourselves, but we want the theatre to take a chance on us too. I also explained that it is easier for our company to get onto the books of the Paris Opera than the Joburg Theatre. I said how do we balance the scale? If the work can appeal to that kind of audience in Paris, what makes it unattractive to Joburg audiences?

“It is about transformation, I argued, saying how this work should be at the epicentre of what democracy should mean,” he commenting on how a good relationship has been established between the Joburg Theatre and VDT. He is positive that Full Moon will have legs in other seasons “it created such a hype on social media. Now we’re in conversation with Artscape in Cape Town. There are possibilities for China; for London: it’s growing its own feet.”

‘Lonely Together’ is the work Maqoma created and performed in collaboration with Spanish dancer Roberto Olivan whom he had met at PARTS in the early 2000s, for this year’s Dance Umbrella in September. “At the dance school, we connected socially. Then we graduated and went our separate ways. Both of us developed dance in our own countries. We kept in touch. We kept meeting at festivals. And then recently we decided it would be interesting, after all these years, and because of the time we have spent giving so much to others, to refocus ourselves on ourselves and to see what comes out. And to focus on the issues that affect us personally. We realised one of those issues is that with the role that we have been playing, we have been extremely lonely in our own leadership: it’s a topic which continued to come back in our conversations, alongside growing and ageing.” The piece performed in Barcelona and Malta.

Maqoma is quick to dispel illusions of easiness or grandeur about his life and career: “Dancing is always a scary challenge for me. That is when you are really naked.” He’s  travelled all over the world. “The glamour is an illusion,” he grins. “It’s a job.

“And running VDT is a job in itself. It is important for me to create a balance for myself. I am not an administrator, so I have to put together a pool of people who will be efficient in terms of administration, which will give me the liberty to do other things. More and more I am taking on the role of artistic driver: Luyanda Sidiya has just been appointed VDT’s artistic director. We have to find a balance of creating a business model: I am good with talking to people, but maybe not so good in writing proposals. My strength is in engaging one on one with people.

“When you say to people I have a product, a something to sell to you, business people will listen. When we’re approaching it as a business, not a charity, our chances are greater.”

This thinking acumen didn’t sprout out of nowhere. “In 1993/4, I was very confused about what I wanted to do with my life. When I wasn’t accepted to study Medicine at Wits University, I took a business course offered by Wits. It was something they offered as a bridging course. Part of my apprentice programme was to be with a company. I worked with Alliance Insurance company for a period of two years. It had many prospects, a comfortable pay, but I knew very well that this was not me. So I do know that world a little,” he grins.

He comes, however of a world in which contemporary culture was irrevocably fused with traditional expression. “As a young boy, I was always the entertainer in the family. My cousins always believed I would be a singer. I loved Tina Turner. I loved Michael Jackson. Pop culture was really in my head. I was always dancing and singing.

“But I grew up quite close to a hostel in Soweto and I think the exposure to traditional forms in the township helped me to have empathy – something I only understood later – I was so very deeply moved and touched by migrant labourers who danced over the weekends. It dawned on me, years later that it was their own way of surviving the displacement of their circumstances.

“And it helped me to be able to create a formal aesthetic which became a bit of a cocktail: I was taking what I was seeing from the Pop culture in which I was growing up, as well as the traditional forms. I was fusing the two. At that stage, I was working with Vincent Mantsoe and we were not even aware that we were creating a medium, an aesthetic and a form that would be the driving force for my work.

“That’s never changed. I always start from the basics in creating new work.”