WHAT ARE THE basic parameters that inform a festival of contemporary dance? Should there be a gatekeeper who assesses wannabe shows on the gig and plays god, in his or her ability to give a hopeful group of applicants the ‘yay’ or ‘nay’? And who is that gatekeeper? These were questions hot on the heels of Sibikwa’s recent Dance Xplosion festival in Benoni, but it opens up debate surrounding the forthcoming re-birth of Dance Umbrella Africa, at the South African State Theatre in Pretoria.
Sibikwa’s festival – now nine years old – prides itself on the lack of a gatekeeper. You pay your fees and you get your place on the programme. What you do with those proverbial fifteen minutes under the spotlight and the eyes of an audience who may know you well, is basically up to you. There is, of course, a carrot at the end of the festival, by way of two things: prize money and adjudication.
Now, depending on where on the trajectory of South African dance you sit, the value of the latter might be debatable. In truth, having seasoned dance professionals of the ilk of Oscar Buthelezi and Sonia Radebe (this year’s Dance Xplosion judges), is invaluable, on paper. But if you live in Vosloorus and have perfected your moves with your guys, in your opinion, have no intention of emerging onto conventional dance platforms and are happy with the adventure of bringing the work to a newish audience, well and good.
The question then, must be asked about the audience. Dance Xplosion is for a Sibikwa audience, which comprises dance wannabes from all over Johannesburg, including the East Rand. Co-founded 30 years ago, by Smal Ndaba and Phyllis Klotz, Sibikwa is an Arts Centre in Benoni that serves a clear community, which is a microcosm of South Africa. Dance Xplosion is largely for pantsula fans and the friends and families of the performers. It doesn’t exclude forays into the belly of physical theatre or performance art. But does this make it a less worthy festival than, say, Dance Umbrella? It depends on where you sit.
Historically, Dance Umbrella has been curated, offering elements of it such as ‘Stepping Stones’ to the dance troupes with less professional acumen. You couldn’t get onto the main festival programme without the critical nod of its artistic director. This year’s Dance Umbrella Africa seen Mamela Nyamza, deputy artistic director of the SAST take over the mantle of the festival from Georgina Thomson, who after 30 years, last year, deemed the festival closed. Nyamza, attaching ‘Africa’ to the festival’s name, offers an ambitious programme which includes the likes of Oupa Sibeko, Gaby Saranouffi, Rudi van der Merwe and Adele Blank, to name but a few.
The monstrous edifice to culture, built in 1981 by the South African apartheid government, once boasted five fully functional state of the art venues. And this was in the days before rehearsal rooms were feasibly being reinvented as venues – as we see in theatre complexes such as the Monument in Makhanda at the National Arts Festival. The DUA festival’s Facebook page bears the slogan “Four stages, hundreds of dancers” and the festival’s press release promises some 54 works from across the dance genres and across the world, reaching from Mali and Mozambique to Germany and Switzerland.
On one level, opening the floodgates to potentially thousands of dance fans from all over the province is an exciting prospect. On another, it’s an initiative which could change the dreary and oft abandoned face of the State Theatre, under the curatorship of Nyamza. But will it?
Pretoria still feels like an extremely long drive to many Jo’burgers, even the die-hard dance fans of the last three decades. Is Nyamza and her publicity team able to underplay the drive and present this curated festival with all the challenges that watching dance presents to a new, young, primarily Pretorian audience? Let’s hope so. The future of contemporary dance in this city depends on it.
- Dance Umbrella Africa is at the South African State Theatre from March 31 until April 7.
- Sibikwa hosts Phola Vibez under the rubric of the Ekhurhuleni Jazz Ensemble, also on March 31. Musicians are advised to bring their horns.