Book

The value Sylvia brings

BOOK REVIEW: TRANCEFORMATIONS AND TRANSFORMATIONS BY SYLVIA GLASSER

Tranceformations

IT WAS A work that would shake everything from the parameters of dance in South Africa to the way in which contemporary black dancers confronted their medium. Indeed, dance ethnographer, choreographer and academic Sylvia Glasser’s watershed piece Tranceformations that evolved from the inception of her dance company Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MIDM) in the 1970s and first saw light of day in 1991 niftily brought together all of her aesthetic and political values and priorities. Her long-awaited book, Tranceformations and Transformations uses the work as a prism to reflect on a beautiful career in a complicated industry. It is informed and informative, friendly and alive with humour, emotion and directness.

Written unabashedly, but not without skill, in the first person, but never slipping into ego adulation, this book is crafted to function as a trajectory of a work in development, actualisation, evolution and history. It serves as a textbook of lucid, accessible and broad relevant reflections. As a whole, it is an immensely important project that lends gravitas to the transcience of dance as it places this particular work in the context of Glasser’s career and the life of MIDM. On many levels, this is Glasser’s self-portrait, and yet couched so carefully and wisely in the dancework itself, it becomes much much more than one woman’s story. In this way, it concretises the unpinning notion of ubuntu, that enables a sharing of lives, of stories.

Designed in a square format with two columns of text, the work is easy on the hand and eye. Clean of the obscurity of academic speak, but not prohibitively simplified, the work reads very fluidly. Glasser is often at pains to explain her use of terminology in the politically fraught timeframe in which she began to develop her oeuvre. Rather that stultify this book, this aspect of careful definitions enriches it, reflecting indirectly on a culture where words slip in and out of fashion and taboo.

Coupled with magnificent photographic records of the different performances of the work – as well as a DVD of the piece in its original iteration — from a South African dance history perspective, the work reads like a galaxy of dance stars: from Vincent Mantsoe, Pule Kgaratsi and Gregory Maqoma, to Thabo Rapoo, Luyanda Sidiya and Sonia Radebe, two generations of MIDM dancers are given voice in this book – and Glasser’s work – in images and words, opinions and recorded experience.

This book is also important because it lends an awareness of the complicated realities of San culture, in a way that doesn’t tiptoe around definitions, but takes the problematic bull – or eland – by its horns. You come away from it with a clear understanding of the strata of opinion and research, realities and fantasies, and a glimpse into the untellable magic of the trance and its therianthropes.

But in another context, this very fine and carefully considered book is an indictment on the country’s publishing structures. It was brought to life through Staging Post, a division of the Johannesburg-based commercial publisher Jacana, and effectively is a publishing model called assisted self-publishing. The importance of this book cannot be underplayed. The mystery is why this country’s academic presses didn’t leap at the opportunity to make it their own.

This work is a significant asset on any book shelf. For the reader with a dance interest; the dancer with a San interest; the researcher (young or old) with a yen to know more about South African political structures; and indeed, for the reader with an inkling as to the value of Glasser’s contribution to an industry, it is vital.

  • Tranceformations and Transformations: Southern African Rock Art and Contemporary Dance by Sylvia ‘Magogo’ Glasser is published by Staging Post, Johannesburg (2019).
  • The publication is available for purchase through the Witwatersrand University-based dance and performance art resource, The Ar(t)chive, which contributed significantly to supporting the publication.

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