Contemporary dance

In Praise of Dictators with Vision

A giant: theatre director Barney Simon during rehearsals for "Silent Movie", 1993. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

A giant: theatre director Barney Simon during rehearsals for “Silent Movie”, 1993. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

“Compressor Pump” we used to call him, behind our hands, behind his back. Nasty caricatures were drawn of him on toilet doors and in the margins of lecture notes: a man with a big stomach, his nose in the air, a red face. He was the king. We hated him with the petulant and benign hatred young adults use to confront authority. This was Professor Alan Crump: a man who, with a straight-talking tongue and a clear hand defined excellence in the South African visual art world, arguably like no one since has done. He died from cancer on May 1, 2009 and his absence remains obvious and unsurpassed. But his presence in the art world, over the years when he reigned as such, attests to the truth that democracy has its flaws and that dictators with vision – people with the guts to say “no” to people not sufficiently talented – are necessary.

Consider Bill Ainslie, the founder of the Johannesburg Art Foundation, in 1971. A quiet man with a vision of fire. Consider Martin Schonberg, the founder of Ballet Theatre Afrikan in 1996: a brilliant dancer and unrelenting teacher. Consider Jacques Lecoq, the irrepressible founder of a mime school in Paris in 1956, that was immensely popular and influential to a myriad of directors and performers all over the world, including South Africa. Consider Barney Simon, the life blood of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre and priceless mentor that inspired and infuriated hundreds of artists. These individuals, amongst many of their ilk, are or were people of huge vision. Intensely gifted, maybe unpopular as teachers, because they were not considered gentle, but ultimately people who understood the weight of what they were teaching, who they were shaping and that it mattered. These people were the gatekeepers, the line drawers, the nurturers of talent and the individuals with the courage to keep the sacred space of their disciplines sacred and accessible to only a select few.

But all these potent and fiery leaders, with the sense of a movement in their vision, were human. And mortal. And what happens in their wake? Someone must fill their shoes. Or must they? So many of these initiatives were the fruit of the dreams of maybe one person. Put someone else in the driving seat of a project pioneered a generation earlier, and that someone else is at a disadvantage from day one: it’s not their dream. Or their investment. It becomes a mere job. The challenge of driving someone else’s project to a new height is almost bigger than giving your own dreams voice.

Ultimately, the editor who slashes your precious writing to pieces with a blue pencil, deeming it “a pot of shit”, but inviting you to address its errors and redress its red herrings, is significantly more valuable to the developing – or even experienced – writer, than the guy who lets everything through.

I believe that the integrity of the microcosm of our South African art world is under grave threat right now.  In tune with shouting the values of democracy, it seems anything goes and as a result, Johannesburg’s stages, galleries, dance spaces generally hold no bars in allowing material that would never have seen light of day, in years past, to be presented to the unsuspecting and paying public. Not every dancer is a choreographer. Not every actor is a director. Not every artist can teach. Not everyone who can wield a paintbrush is a giant with vision.

Critical arts platforms are weakening and haemorrhaging writers because the newspaper industry seems to have lost its way and so many people with huge egos and scant skills reign because they are not challenged as they thrust themselves forward into a world which is not theirs. And what’s left, by and large, is people too afraid or uncritical to voice real opinion. Who suffers? Everyone – from the readers, to the audiences, to the artists.

The next generation of arts practitioners is budding. Perhaps amongst it will emerge one or two unstoppable voices of conviction: people – call them dictators if you like – with the perspicacity, the vision and the skill, the teaching gift and the largeness to lift our art world from the mire the idea of democracy has given voice to.

And yes, obviously, it’s politically inappropriate to praise a dictator. Democracy is a popular buzzword. But in a contemporary art framework, this is a fake democracy, which fuels mediocrity: when everyone has a say, in fact, no one does.

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