Honour conferred, honour deserved

French award Georgina Th, Greg M, Ismael M (11)

PINK bubbly: (from left), Dancer/choreographer Greg Maqoma, French Ambassador to South Africa His Excellency Christophe Farnaud and arts administrator and dance curator Georgina Thomson. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

ON TUESDAY, MAY 2, 2017, in acknowledgement of their career-long contributions to the dance fraternity in South Africa, artistic director of Dance Umbrella Georgina Thomson and artistic director and founder of Vuyani Dance Theatre, Gregory Maqoma, were awarded the Officier des Arts et des Lettres and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres respectively by the Ambassador of France to South Africa, His Excellence Mr Christophe Farnaud, at a moving and intimate reception at the French Embassy in Pretoria.

“My relationship with IFAS has been amazing,” Thomson, who was born in the Netherlands and grew up in Lesotho and the Orange Free State, began speaking of how generously the French have opened doors for South African dance over the years. Significantly, she focused on how her former colleagues, including Mandie van der Spuy, Mannie Manim, Philip Stein and Nicola Danby had spurred her on to “fly” and to do what she didn’t think possible, as a dancer, as an arts administrator, as a curator of a festival of contemporary dance which took on an international sheen in her hands. “I worked with people who were generous, open, giving and supportive,” she concluded.

Ambassador Farnaud praised the work she has done over the works with levity and directness, referring to everything from the collaboration with brought Les Nuits, choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj to South Africa in 2014, “Dear Georgina,” he added. “Your distinctive career journey is heightened by your courage, your range of expertise and your travels around the world. You have worked with artists of all identities and backgrounds … you have used your artistic career to break boundaries and become the voice of those who were silenced.” Deeming Thomson an “exceptional example of determination and commitment”, he spoke of the bridges she has created – mostly against all funding odds – between local dancers and international opportunities.

Describing Gregory Maqoma’s contribution to dance as brave and brilliant as he spoke of the Soweto hostels context into which Maqoma was raised, Ambassador Farnaud commented on how Maqoma developed a sense of empathy in the plight of his fellow Soweto residents. Maqoma started dancing in the late 1980s, and under Sylvia Glasser developed into a professional dancer of Moving Into Dance Mophatong in 1991. He rose through the ranks of her company, eventually setting up a company of his own. Ambassador Farnaud commented on how deeply Maqoma’s work is respected and has developed, offering a trajectory of his career.

“You continue to play an important role in the development of dance in South Africa,” he added. “But more than a dancer/choreographer, you are also proven to be a smart entrepreneur. Indeed, Vuyani Dance Company is a strong example of a successful business model in the arts, which is not an easy feat nowadays.” Defining Maqoma as both “outstanding and unstoppable,” he added “You have become an inspiration to young artists not only in South Africa, but across the continent as well. You have changed the lives of young artists by giving them the wherewithal to spread their wings.”

Supported by his mother and aunt, Maqoma paid tribute to his late father. “Art is life,” he said, describing his passion for performing as a child as he gently describing the platitudinous questions posted to him by a CNN journalist. “Growing up in the context where I did, I learned more about the world, the complexities and the challenges,” he added, speaking of the melting pot that is contemporary Soweto. The odds he faced were terrifying and huge, for himself as well as his family. Legacy and the role of each individual in the industry underlined his talk, as well as the conscious decision of what one leaves behind.

Maqoma and Thomson joins the ranks of Johnny Clegg (1991), Robyn Orlin (2009) and William Kentridge (2013) in accepting this great award and immense honour, which was established in 1957 in recognition of significant contributions to the enrichment of the arts and literature in France and abroad.

  • What are the implications of these awards for South Africa, going forward, given the outcome of the French elections? Read this opinion piece.
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At Sibikwa, there is always more

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THE sky’s the limit when you’re jiving in pink takkies. Children from Luyolo Primary School in Emdeni, Soweto. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

SOMETHING HAS TO be said for the frenetic, sweaty joy of being in a theatre full of children, who are cheering their peers on, in the name of dance and drama, music and art-making. It lends an unequivocal sense of possibility to the ether. And this is not just Pollyanna values or shallow advocacy in theatre: Sibikwa’s annual Artists in Schools Programme ended today; being in the midst of the celebrants is not only humbling, it’s a real privilege.

The programme, in place for the last six years, and in association with the National Department of Arts and Culture, involves the deployment of 38 artists – who have been trained in the arts and in facilitation – in 38 schools across the Gauteng province. None of these schools have a permanent creative arts teacher, and the role of the Arts in Schools is to rustle up the innovation muscles in the children. It’s about intervention. It’s about skills transfer and it’s about positive impacts. So say the PR documents.

But when you watch the children sing and dance, when they explain what a musical canon is, when you watch the best of each artist’s school experience, strut its stuff in Sibikwa’s theatre premises in Benoni, you also realise it’s about a supreme sense of self. It’s about bodily confidence and it’s about fun. But there’s so much more.

Children from Vezukhono Secondary School, in Benoni, for instance, all dressed in black T-shirts and tights, articulate a work that is about loss and anguish, about sadness and disappointment, and when you look at these beautiful children, expressing the nub and texture of a community in disarray, you cannot but consider the pragmatics that they face in townships where their daily lives are fraught with enormous challenges.

Conversely, children from Kgalema Secondary School have taken apart and reworked the image of a painting by Irma Stern. The effect is disparate but fresh, the engagement with the material, real.

Will any of these children who’ve had a seed of art planted in their heads and hearts over the past six and a half weeks, develop into artists? It’s difficult – and unfair – to make predictions. But what Sibikwa, under the steerage of its co-founders Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba, is forging in this kind of context is something else. It’s that nebulous gift you give to a child when you tell them there’s more. More to life. More to their possible futures. More to who they are. More than what their impoverished circumstances tell them. Sibikwa, since 1988, has been one of those stalwart initiatives which has gone head to head with dire realities of abuse and poverty, illness and abandonment, and has created theatre that rides over the basic notion of advocacy theatre and into the true heart of what the arts are about.

 

How to turn a requiem inside out

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A miscellany of praise singers: Requiem for the Living touches on myriads of cultures and perspectives. Photograph courtesy of artslink.co.za

“PLATO SAID TEACH your children music because that way they will learn all the patterns of existence,” says composer Rexleigh Bunyard, who not only sees music in different colours, but she dreams it too. “I don’t think there’s anything supernatural about this. I think this about your psyche rearranging patterns. We come into the world with archetypal patterns and we put them on the outside,” she tells My View about Requiem for the Living which enjoys its world debut in Gauteng this weekend.

“It’s like teasing out wool,” she explains how she uses germinal chords that have been irresistible to her, as a starting point. “I pull them apart, horizontally, vertically, and suddenly the whole composition opens up and it almost writes itself.”

Another part of this work, one movement of which was performed in Johannesburg in 2008, is “a very slowed down kwela, derived from the tortoises in Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals. Those tortoises are dancing the can-can. It’s such a precious image, that tortoises would attempt to do something as incredibly feminine and extravagant as the can-can. So I decided to create the dance of the universe, of Shiva, with kwela, connecting us to the earth of Africa, but slowed down to such a degree that you don’t hear it necessarily as a kwela, although it has some of the rhythm.

“But it is the basis and it is the connection to a feeling that a lot of our history and our ancestors are somehow embedded in the African landscape … The journey in the requiem is a turning away from death to the life, but in order to be able to do this, you reach to the very depths. It’s a rebirthing.”

Bunyard, who was educated in Cape Town, Paris and Pretoria, has taught music part time at Roedean School for almost 20 years. She explains the work’s focus on the child, on regaining the child spirit, rediscovering the original wholeness of the self. It draws attention to the plight of children who suffer abuse, neglect and illness. It also supports the bereaved: children who have lost their parents, parents who search for their missing children, visit their graves, sit in their hospital rooms, and others who have no children, but long for one.

“Music was always there,” she recalls, thinking of her own childhood. “I remember watching from the crack in the door as a very small child. I was supposed to be in bed and my parents would have parties and they would play Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby music.

“I used to try out my sister’s piano pieces when she was at school. My dad picked up that I was musical. He would whistle to me – he had a beautiful whistle, like Roger Whittaker,” she says, speaking also of her father’s violin making skills.

“My first music lessons were spent with me playing with the teacher’s cat. And then they brought Hermann Becker to teach me. He was a little old Eastern Cape music teacher, who called himself ‘Professor’. He would play my pieces once for me – I would memorise them and practice them from there. I have an audiographic ear.”

Her musical path, however, was not a smooth one; after not playing for many years, she was teased back into musical relevance with an impromptu improvisation session with Francois Le Roux, the Ha! Man at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton, in 2008. “I thought I was just going there to listen to a ‘cellist. And Francois called people to be up on the stage. He was fantastic. He said, would somebody like to play with him. And I said, I’ll go. My family was shocked. I hadn’t performed since 1987, when I was a concert pianist. He played a note and something amazing happened.”

Never having nursed a dream to be a professional improviser, Bunyard adds “since I was about 11, I always wanted to compose. Teachers deterred this dream, saying that it wasn’t one for girls, as was conducting,” she grins mischievously. “So, I took conducting lessons … a conductor works from the outside in. A composer starts from nothing. We start from the inside and work outwards. It’s a different mechanism and a totally different kind of composition.

“I’m curious to see what somebody else does with this requiem,” she adds, praising Rick Muselaers, an expert choral conductor from the Netherlands, who will conduct it. “He may expose an earlier Rexleigh who wrote the work between 2002 and 2006 during a particularly dark time.”

“It’s very eclectic,” she explains how she has reworked the order of the traditional requiem. “It’s a mixture of Christian theology and my own perspectives. And praise singers in different languages: French, English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa, Sesotho, Hindi, Mandarin, Cantanese, Portuguese and Hebrew. I was inspired to bring in the notion of praise singing by Zolani Mkiva, who performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. It was unbelievable. It’s a celebration of life.”

“It’s very layered,” she grins, acknowledging the multiple ideas the work touches. “I’ve told the conductor he can bring out the layers he wants to hear. The basic structure will still be there… it’s a bit like life. You can bring some things into focus, but not everything at once. It’s would be too intense. The work is a bit like a drawing by a small child who got hold of the whole box of crayons and has now used them ALL UP,” she says, fiercely. “I had a marvellous time with it!”

  • Requiem for the Living, has its world premiere on August 27 at 8pm at Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium, and at Unisa’s ZK Matthews Hall, Pretoria on August 28 at 3pm. Conducted by Rick Muselaers, its soloists are Ryan Hoffmann, Claudia Pike, Olusegun Soyemi and James Venables and its choirs are Gauteng Opera and the Horizons Project. Visit reqliving.org and see an excerpt of the work from 2008: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYhreMTWAZU&feature=youtu.be

Ten arts writers selected for the inaugural Nirox arts writing workshop

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IN TUNE WITH THE LANDSCAPE: A work by Angus Taylor at the 2014 Nirox Winter Sculpture exhibition. Photograph courtesy Angus Taylor.

What does it take to be an arts writer? Ten enthusiastic and new arts writers are about to find out. Each has been carefully selected to participate in the inaugural Nirox Foundation Arts Writing Workshop which takes place at Nirox Sculpture park, near the Cradle of Humankind, north of Johannesburg over this weekend and the next.

Nirox Foundation director Benji Liebmann has been instrumental in bringing together senior students from the University of Johannesburg and the University of Pretoria in an arts writing initiative that will see them develop their craft under the guidance of independent art critic, Robyn Sassen, over two consecutive weekends in April.

A Place In Time, curated by American academic Helen Pheby in collaboration with Art Project director Mary-Jane Darroll is this year’s Nirox Winter sculpture exhibition. It opens to the public this year on May 7. But in the weeks before the opening, Nirox sculpture park will be alive with the sound of arts writers sharpening their words.

Sassen is delighted to announce the names of the ten writers selected to participate in this, the inaugural Nirox arts writing workshop: Monica Blignaut (Pretoria), Janine Engelbrecht (Pretoria), Nolene Gerber (Pretoria), Muziwandile Gigaba (Johannesburg), Leandré le Roux (Pretoria), Shenaz Mahomed (Pretoria), Lelani Nicolaisen (Pretoria), Cheree Swanepoel (Pretoria), Elani Willemse (Pretoria) and Colleen Winter (Johannesburg).

Selected on their academic credentials, their experience and their ability to describe their own writing priorities, the writers will each be commissioned to interview and write about a selected contemporary South African artist. Their writing will be polished and shaped over the next fortnight and Nirox Foundation will be publishing between six and eight of their pieces in a new publication relating to the forthcoming exhibition.

Visit http://www.niroxarts.com