Community Theatre

Kaboom, in your face: Remembering ‘Fire Starter’

PRINCE of Pantsula: Ayanda Nondlwana. Photograph by Niamh Walsh-Vorster.

WHEN YOU HOLD a match to something flammable, you will get an explosion. But it need not be a destructive one: Pantsula dancer Ayanda Nondlwana aka “Fire Starter” or “Ace” was that kind of flammable, in the dance sphere. All the people who touched his life enabled him to grow and explode in ways that he could not have anticipated. And the momentum was magnificent. Tragically he was stabbed to death on 13 October 2019 in the Eastern Cape. He was 37.

He had so much fire in his belly that he was worth taking a chance on, from the get-go. Without formal training, he started working with Ubom! Eastern Cape Drama Company in a development programme and is fondly remembered by the company’s founder and former artistic director Janet Buckland as being “rough and ready, quite demanding and wild, but immensely talented.”

She speaks of his vocabulary in pantsula dance – a dance genre that evolved in South African townships in the 1950s – and his urge to teach the medium to local children, as well as conduct historical research. When Nondlwana started working with Ubom!, the learning curve for him was steep, given the strict discipline rubric associated with professional theatre, but he was nurtured on these parameters, and the regular classes he taught to Honours students at Rhodes University in pantsula allowed him to stretch his skills.

As the years passed, Nondlwana became more and more involved in Ubom! projects and grew into an indispensable member of the development company. He shifted gracefully from being the company’s hothead to becoming its wise-head who would be the go-to guy for many different projects. He was the initiator of so much and the one who knew how to bring people together, holding them by their art.

Born on 29 December 1981 in Soweto, Nondlwana was schooled in Gauteng. He moved in 1999 with his beloved grandparents, to Fingo Village, in the Eastern Cape, where they went to retire. Within a few years, and after a couple of hiccups – he was young and the world of drugs, alcohol and delinquency was there for the picking – he was proactively contributing to the life blood of Ubom!, using his consuming involvement in the community to teach skills, life lessons and inspire positive outlooks, without chemical assistance or thuggish digressions.

The home of the Fingo Arts Festival and the National Arts Festival, the Eastern Cape was a hotbed of dance potential for Nondlwana. He met with hip-hop guru, Xolile Madinda, also known as ‘X’, who started renowned hip-hop group Defboyz and the Fingo Revolutionary Movement and is today the founder of Black Power Station, an artists’ performance space. Through X, Nondlwana’s eyes were opened to everything of a performance- and dance-related nature in that beautiful and complicated part of the country. It was about making art as much as it was about honouring historical traditions, promoting social cohesion and transforming a community suffering from neglect and abandonment.

As director of the pantsula dance troupe The Via Kasi Movers, Nondlwana strove to reform this dance style into a reputable performance language. From doing workshops with school children to performing internationally with his crew, he crept into the hearts of every person privileged enough to meet him.

But say the name Aya Nondlwana in children’s theatre circles, and his iconic interpretation of The Gruffalo comes to mind. The production which featured at the National Arts Festival and travelled the country in 2017, was the world’s first version of the piece, based on the eponymous children’s book by Julia Donaldson, that was performed in isiXhosa.

From his early childhood days until the flowering of his professional career, Nondlwana always had a contagious positive energy that impelled self-betterment. He was a good listener and one who could laugh with ease, but above all he was fearless and never would hesitate when it came to important creative decisions. Ubom! colleague and collaborator, Noxolo Donyeli remembers that on the last day of his life, he was working on a new piece ‘House of Art’ which aimed to bring together the strengths of Via Kasi and Zinzo Iwam, Donyeli’s project. He never stopped loving what he was doing.

Nondlwana’s beloved grandmother ‘Magogo’, Eunice Nondlwana passed away from Covid in January of 2021 at the age of 90. He leaves his mother, Nomazizi, his younger brother Mzamo and his daughter Kholiswa, as well as literally thousands of people in the performance and dance fraternity, whose lives he touched.

Ansuné Cilliers, in 2021, was a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. She took part in VIT-101, a course which focused on arts writing, given by Robyn Sassen.

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