Arts Festival

A dancer to look up to: RIP Portia Mashigo

POISED: Portia Lebohand Mashigo performing in Vincent Mantsoe’s piece Naka, in the 1990s. Photograph by John Hogg.

Shorter than most, and the youngest of all, Portia Lebohang Mashigo came into the South African dance fraternity when she was just 14. Armed with an inherent sense of wisdom and focus, she grew up in the industry to be a giant of a dance professional. She died suddenly on 31 December 2020, after being rushed to hospital with severe stomach cramps. She was 46.

One of four children, Mashigo grew up in a house in Naledi, Soweto. Property inheritance controversy saw her, her single mother and siblings move to a shack in Dobsonville. Born on 9 June 1974 in Mapetla, Mashigo matriculated at Naledi High School in 1992. Her schooling responsibilities were by that time intermingled with dance; she balanced both realities with care.

She started dancing informally in the 1980s to Michael Jackson’s music much because “it was the thing to do” at the time, if you were young, pre-teen and hip. But Mashigo wasn’t satisfied with moonwalking in the dusty streets of Soweto. Encouraged by her teacher, Tshidi Shuping, she auditioned at Sylvia Glasser’s company, Moving Into Dance, which was at the time still based at the Braamfontein Recreation Centre.

Glasser remembers the “shy young teenager, who blossomed into a beautiful dancer”, and who broke MID trends by being the youngest ever professional dancer on their books. She was one of the debut performers in Glasser’s benchmark dance work Tranceformations in 1991, alongside dancers of the ilk of Gregory Maqoma, Vincent Mantsoe, Moeketsi Koena, Pule Kgaratsi and others, who had joined the company in a new wave of young dance potential.

In 1994 Mashigo choreographed her solo work Let There Be Peace, to Lionel Richie’s 1992 song, Love oh, Love. Suddenly her name was on the lips of the industry, and she was earning attention as a dancer with heart and mind, and one who understood how the language of the body could coerce peace to take shape in our world.

The work earned her the Most Promising Female Award at the FNB Vita Dance Umbrella that year. It was just the beginning. In 1999, her choreography on students at Dance Umbrella won the Pick of the Stepping Stones. She created Mum’s Man – My Father, an FNB Vita commission, in 2000. It went on to play at the Durban Women’s Festival and in 2001 to the Celebrate South Africa festival in London. In 2002, her Blues for Mama inspired by Xoli Norman’s poem Ma’s got the Blues, premiered at the Women’s Arts Festival at the Market Theatre and the list of works continued.

Mashigo’s association with MID was a win-win on so many levels. She was a clear asset to the company from the get-go. And MID was a stepping stone for her to a brilliant unique career. Further to that, assisted by Maria Kint, MID’s first administrator, in 1995 Mashigo moved to an RDP house with her family. It changed all their perspectives for good.

With MID, Mashigo travelled the world, learning and teaching, dancing and leading. Described by Glasser as “a lot of person”, Mashigo was a pioneer who had the instinct, cheek and courage to shift attitudes of dance establishments, glorying in the magnificence of the dance-trained female African body and demonstrating that it could move as beautifully and successfully as its oft anorexic western counterpart – and dance stereotype.

As a freelancer, she worked with Robyn Orlin, Gladys Agulhas, Vuyani Dance Theatre, African Footprint and The Fantastic Flying Fish Dance Company, among others and in 2002, she started her own project-based company, Lebohang Dance Project (LDP). Its mission was to open dance platforms to people with diverse backgrounds and training, to be the voice for young women in society and give dance energy to real stories. An immediately likeable individual with a sense of perspective – and one of fun that made everything seem okay – Mashigo described LDP as a cipher for her own stories and the difficulties she had had in digressing from her cultural norms. “It gave me the confidence to dream bigger. The development and collaborative sharing of the dancers is a never-ending source of joy for me,” she said in an interview.

Described by dancer Jimmy Notuku as a “dance militant”, Mashigo had the openness to be able to touch and shape lives. She was a dance hero and a critical thinker, but never one to rest on her laurels. Acknowledged by former executive- and artistic director for MID, David Thatanelo April, as a gifted teacher and empathetic mentor, she was also respected as a costume designer. But further, she was a talented percussionist with physical strength echoing that of any male counterpart, and was equally comfortable behind an administrative desk, keeping the paperwork of MID on track, as she was before an audience.

In 2004, Mashigo was honoured with the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for dance, and while her physicality gave publicists all the cliches they could wish for concerning ‘small packages’, Mashigo was more. Averting platitudes, she had a wicked sense of humour and wisdom that was penetrating and resonated with her own dance awareness, her empathy for others and her respect for the integrity of dance company protocol.

In 2013, after a lifetime of association and a career of her own, she re-established contact with Glasser, this time as a sister, not a junior. Deeply aware of the need to preserve MID’s – and Glasser’s – legacy, Mashigo was vital in the preparation of the dance company’s 40th anniversary celebrations in 2018.

Says, Maqoma of “this tiny little girl”, who he encountered for the first time in 1991: “She was like a sister to me. A best friend.” He recalls an incident when several of his dancers from Vuyani Dance Theatre auditioned for a work Mashigo was making. She took the time to call Maqoma to make sure that this was all good, demonstrating her respect for how things work.

“A strong black boundary-breaking dancer”, is how another MID stalwart Angie Sekonya describes Mashigo and Orlin speaks of “watching her grow into a vital performer and artist … who carved her profession forward, with insight and care. She was a gem, a shining light in our community, a beacon for the younger generation of women,” she adds.

But for acclaimed, France-based son of MID, Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe, she was much more. She was his muse, his first port of call in the development of a new work. “Portia was an important part of my artistic journey, for which I will forever treasure her,” he told April. “We travelled long, interesting, life-changing journeys as part of MID. I will always carry her gentle spirit wherever she is.”

Mashigo leaves her teenaged son, Neo, her siblings Beauty, Keketso and Thabo, her beloved nieces and nephews, Lerato, Nhlanhla, Teboho, Thato and Gontse and her-grand niece Amohelang as well as her partner, Gabriel Zakhele Tamsanqa Nkosi. But she also leaves literally countless people, black and white, dancers and not dancers, to whom she brought her optimism and fire, her gentleness and formidability, in inspiring them to do – and be – more.

A version of this story was published on on 21 January 2021.

2 replies »

  1. Beautiful. Never saw it in New Frame so glad you published a version here. Thank you. I am still so sad at her passing because for me she symbolised hope and resilience in South African dance. i will always remember her as she is in the picture you have chosen here.

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