Dance should make you weep, says Sylvia

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DO IT LIKE THIS: Sylvia Glasser works with Fana Tshabalala in studio, 2010. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

With her floor-length purple dress riffling in the wind as she shimmied across President Street on the arm of choreographer/dancer Muzi Shili and others associated with Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MiD) , arguably South Africa’s most important contemporary dance company, Sylvia “MaGogo” Glasser, the institution’s founder, bade MiD – and the country – goodbye.  What a send off! What a way to leave that which you started 38 years ago, in good health, good humour and a position of authority.

For Glasser, it’s a bittersweet move, but one in which she can acknowledge touching so many dancers’ lives. Last month, Glasser spoke to My View about the rules she broke during the 38 years of MiD’s existence, and the ones she made. Also, the dance fraternity hosted a farewell for her, featuring comments from heavyweights in contemporary dance, including Shili, David Thanatelo April, Christos Daskalakos, Bev Elgie, Portia Mashigo and Kefiloe Morand.

Daskalalos, an architecture student in 1978 was enticed by an MiD poster for an improvisation workshop on Wits University campus: “I went. It was the start of a whole new life, for me. Sylvia had us doing things to tables and chairs that was never meant to be done to tables and chairs.

“Improvisation was how a lot of the works were choreographed by Sylvia and the dancers – Sylvia had the idea, the structure, the clear vision, and we would go into the studio and improvise and improvise. It was so creative. It is how a lot of the work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery was made,” he described performances in Johannesburg’s municipal gallery in 1980 and 1988.

Photographs of dancers in the JAG’s majestic space recalls performance art under choreographers like Robyn Orlin – a student of Glasser’s in her youth – decades later. Indeed, so much of the dance language developed and honed by Glasser was before its time, certainly in South Africa, where the notions of collaboration, performance art and impromptu gesture were important and new.

In 1981, MiD, just three years old, hosted South Africa’s first mixed-race work, at Wits’s Great Hall.

“At MiD, colour was never an issue,” Daskalakos said Glasser was not afraid to engage ugly South African metaphors, remembering this was high apartheid and everything she did with black and white dancers together was illegal.

In 1983, her work Not For Squares, ostensibly a light piece was performed to a gavotte by JS Bach. It also featured tyres. “Remember what tyres were used for in this country at the time?” Glasser mused, referring to “necklacing” in which people were burnt to death in a tyre.

Not only the tyre metaphor but also the use of Baroque music to support contemporary dance broke rules, which aligned Glasser’s dance philosophy with that of another dance legend, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) who cocked a snook at balletic traditions in reinventing dance grammar. Effectively, Glasser created a dance grammar specific to South Africa – something which many of her dancers, who affectionately call her “MaGogo” (grandmother), have taken to the next level.

Not one to rest on laurels, Glasser was quick to disparage what she deemed too much praise. “I had a good education. I had a house. I was privileged. It was an obvious path for me to take.”

Elgie remembers the fledgling company, before 1987, used not only Glasser’s garage at her Victory Park home, to rehearse, but also the school hall at King David Victory Park and two scout halls. “In the one [scout hall], you went home and dug splinters out of your feet after each session. And the other was so cold we looked like oompa loompas, we had to wear so many clothes to keep warm.

“The piece that I collaborated in that still means the most to me is African Cassandra. I remember waking up in the morning after Wits lecturer and anti-apartheid activist David Webster [with whom Glasser had an important friendship] was assassinated [by apartheid security forces] and feeling what an awful thing had happened but feeling very proud of Sylvia for wanting to do this. It was a marvellous collaboration, which with pride we performed at the lecture in honour of David.”

Glasser was a mature student in 1989, having returned to Wits to read social anthropology, where  Webster was her professor. She recalled: “on the Friday, David had said he was organising one of the Wits cleaners to come to Braamfontein Recreation Centre to teach us Zulu dancing. That Monday, I saw in the news David had been killed. So this thing of Cassandra was David singing to the future, trying to change people.

“I also felt like a Cassandra in the dance community at the time.” She spoke of how her work was “scorned” locally, which affected her critical presence and fundraising profile. It’s ironic, that one of the highest profile award-winning companies, which saw Glasser knighted by the Dutch in 2014 struggled – and still struggles – for broader community support, in kind, in coverage and in funding.

Pragmatically, Glasser didn’t sidestep the importance of funding a nongovernmental organisation; an issue which became (and still is) a vital challenge for MiD. She needed to raise funds from 1984, in addition to the many competencies that steering MiD demanded of her.

Glasser vehemently disparaged the idea that “you need to do fluffy work for the public to patronise you. There is much talk, not only at MiD, but in dance generally, of a need for self-sufficiency. It’s become a buzz word. I’ve worked in many countries. I have learnt that any dance company that makes its audience cry, that has an ethos where people are more important than policies, does not cover its expenses through performance alone. Any organisation that brings in people, as MiD did, has a commodity to offer which overrides pressure for self-sustainability. Sure, you can commercialise a dance company. But it will lose its soul.

“Today I’m told I don’t understand business. How can you survive with no capital investment and [between 2001 and 2004] employ over 30 people? I didn’t do it by myself.”

But MiD has stood for a lot more than the trend of self-sustainability. It made careers. It made dreams feasible. Mashigo came into dance as a teenager. “I was in standard eight and there was a group of friends I had who were doing dance at a youth centre. One day I went with them, to watch. I had never seen a dancer’s body before. I had never before seen how physical fitness can train a black woman’s body. I started dancing. It was fun. It was easy. We were the ‘it’ girls.”

A year later, she auditioned with MiD. “I got in. And I got scared. For the first time, I realised how tiny I was – and I was competing now not only against township girls; I also had to speak English. The teachers were white. But the love of understanding exercises opened a new understanding of my body for me.”

Said April: “In Kimberley, where I grew up, there weren’t opportunities for dance training. In 1992, I heard an advert on Radio 5 for the community dance teachers training course auditions [run by MiD]. At that time, there was a programme on TV called Fame [based on the 1980 film]; everyone wanted to be like those dancers. I decided to be a ‘Leroy’ [played by the late Gene Anthony Ray] at MiD.”

Glasser concluded, smilingly: “I do have an ego,” she pooh-poohed peers’ claims that she was one of few professionals they worked with who didn’t come ego-first into a studio.

“I loved performing. Teaching is performing. It was the world to me.”

  • MiD is run by chief executive Nadia Virasamy, and artistic director Mark Hawkins.
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One thought on “Dance should make you weep, says Sylvia

  1. Pingback: Honour conferred, honour deserved | My View

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