Sing a song of ghosts in a museum of torment

Workers CHANT-photo Evans Mathibe

LOOK into the light: Feeding bowls double as light in the sequences danced by SA dance group Phuphuma Love Minus. Photograph by Evans Mathibe.

SOMETHING QUITE TERRIFYING happens when you find yourself among people you don’t know, being aggressively instructed in a language you don’t understand: You just obey. You do what other people are doing. You become frightened to step out of line. Frightened that the guards’ attention will become focused on you and you may be singled out from the pack. And what will become of you? Will you be humiliated? Will you be killed? Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Workers’ Chant plays with power in a way that which might leave you traumatised and emotionally in disarray.

It takes the audience through the passages and interstices of the Workers’ Museum, an eerie odd little place at the best of times, which is part of the Newtown heritage trail and remains a chilling relic of apartheid’s values. Given the anti-immigrant marches that Johannesburg saw this week, it is a scarily prescient work that is as much about mourning and brokenness as it is about singling out people deemed of lesser value than the rest of society.

A little too long by maybe ten minutes, the work hammers home the realities of migrant living conditions in a crudely racist regime, as it glances head on at everything from the children of migrant labourers who cannot be read to at night, to the way in which everything from piss, shit and vomit, to food and sleep are – or were – regulated in this compound. Under threat of punishment.

There’s a loose narrative conflating the two women (Siphumeze Khundayi and Liyabuya Gongo) and weaving a history of aggression with one of tears and loss. Not always completely legible in terms of its structure, the work is achingly haunting, as it brings the song and dance work of miners associated with Phuphuma Love Minus in a way that evokes the ghosts of the men who were hard done by in this dire little compound complex and others similar to it.

It’s a work of insecurity but certainty – you know it’s an artwork and the ramifications of the instructions hurled at you cannot really touch you, but you’re still touched, anyway. It’s also a work of chilling beauty and forcefulness, which resonates with the values cast by Xoli Norman and Sue Pam Grant in the 2009 piece Guard on Shift staged at Dance Factory or Jay Pather’s Qaphela Caesar at the building formerly the site of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 2012.

Workers’ Chant is riddled with contradictions that give it toughness: it’s a celebration of lives in a context of horror and pain, a reflection of the iconic  photographs by Ernest Cole of deprivation and uniformity and a piece capable of creating shriekingly powerful images and contexts, as it is capable of creating a situation which rapidly becomes nightmarish with the screams of a woman in a closely confined space.

You’re not warned of the physical challenges this work brings, as you trundle through the dark and stony surfaces of this museum, but it is the eerie togetherness and spooky site-specificity, wrapped as it is with the traditional songs of the miners that will echo in your head with the whispers of cruel injustices and the dignity with which the men thus inflicted carried it all, sometimes right to their ignominious deaths.

  • Workers’ Chant is choreographed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu in collaboration with Siphumeze Khundayi and Liyabuya Gongo. It features design by Nhlanhla Mahlangu (costumes) and Mandla Mtshali (lighting and video) and is performed by Liyabuya Gongo, Siphumeze Khundayi and Phuphuma Love Minus, at the Workers’ Museum in Newtown, on February 23 and 24 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.
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Thomson: This year’s Dance Umbrella packs a hefty punch

Georgina Thomson. Photo courtesy artslink.co.za

Georgina Thomson. Photo courtesy artslink.co.za

It’s a small programme – certainly the smallest we’ve seen in over a decade, but this year’s Dance Umbrella which starts on Sunday night, packs a hefty punch, not only in terms of big names and important productions, but in terms of seeing the Dance Umbrella turn a corner. It’s 26 years since this contemporary dance festival in Johannesburg was coined.

Said Georgina Thomson (pictured), artistic director of the festival for 19 years: “I remember when it started: The whole country was so excited at the idea of a dance platform.” She was living in Durban at the time. In 1991, she moved to Johannesburg, to work at Wits, at the Performing Arts Administration with Mannie Manim and became indirectly involved with Dance Umbrella.

“Philip Stein who ran Vita – a corporate that earned its reputation for arts sponsorship, particularly in the fields of visual art, contemporary dance and craft – set me up, around that time in my own public relations company. Three years later, I was approached by the then manager of the Vita Awards Programme, Nicola Danby to join Dance Umbrella. And that was that.”

Thomson, a former dancer, has tirelessly fought the battle of funding versus critical merit in the difficult and oft obscure discipline of dance, which has presented all kinds of challenges to her from the shock art of Steven Cohen – which often pulled the mickey out of her as he challenged dance protocol with abandon and sometimes actual faeces onstage – to the Stepping Stones aspect of the festival, home to less professional dancers and groups and sometimes rank amateurs.

“The last five years haven’t been the best,” she admits. “In Vita’s time, in Philip Stein we had that wonderful bonus visionary. Every three years he negotiated a new contract with funders. Vita closed because FNB started withdrawing.” Stein died in 2010 after suffering a degenerative disease which had taken him out of the picture for several years. Dance Umbrella remained the only project supported by the FNB from Vita’s bouquet, but was dwindling.

“FNB withdrew funding altogether in 2008 or 2009. The first two or three years we were fine, and then the shift was apparent. I initially thought we wouldn’t have a problem: Dance Umbrella is a big event. We have international programmers. It’s national: we have people entering from all over the country. We commission work and its collaborations internationally. I was quite confident that we would find a new funder, but I was wrong.

“When FNB pulled out, there was no negotiation or communication. We were given a year’s notice by retired SA rugby union player, Francois Pienaar, who was handling the account. He humoured us, but we were not allowed to see or speak to anyone above him. We tried to get a leg in somewhere and just say, give us two years notice, but there was no way.” Thomson explains how the mounting of a festival as big as Dance Umbrella – in the past it has stretched over 10 days, jam-packed with productions – entails at least a three year lead, in terms of planning, funding and so on.

“The National Lottery has been our saviour,” she speaks of next year’s Dance Umbrella. “They really fund you properly. They partner you. Our funding for next year is already in the bank. We know that Dance Umbrella 2015 will happen, in February/March, as usual. Thank God.”

For most of its 26 years, Dance Umbrella was staged in the first quarter of the year. Last year and this, for funding reasons, it has piggy-backed on the Arts Alive festival, hosted by the city of Johannesburg, in early September.

Thomson agrees that this year’s Dance Umbrella is the smallest ever. “But it’s tight.” With seven works over the seven days of the festival’s duration, it is a festival in which you can easily see everything. The works are cherry picked and really promise something wonderful.

It features a lot of collaborations, with performers SA audiences know and love, including Vuyani Dance founder Greg Maqoma, who debuted under Sylvia Glasser’s tuition at Moving Into Dance and dances opposite Roberto Olivan in a piece called Lonely Together, to Cargo: Precious, the highly acknowledged dance focus on the story of Saartjie Baartman, choreographed by PJ Sabbagha and directed by Sylvaine Strike, which debuted at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last month.

There’s also a Brussels-based company from Zimbabwe, performing a piece called Baobab Shadows, choreographed by Harold George, and a piece from Portia Mashigo who has been working with people from Mpumalanga, entitled More In Than Out of Time. Another of Sylvia Glasser’s protégés, Luyanda Sidiya, the artistic director of Maqoma’s company presents ‘7 Pillars’ and Moya Michael, a Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance collaborates with Belarus dancer Igor Shyshko in a work called ‘Darling’ focusing on the horror of growing up under apartheid in South Africa, or in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in Russia.

The Dance Umbrella’s headline work is Les Nuits (The Nights). It’s choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj, who runs world-renowned Paris-based dance company and is focused on The Arabian Nights. “I saw them perform in Reunion, and I have to say I have never seen anything like it. And I have been around for a long time. They blew me away. The work is balletic, but it is new. It is pure dance at its best. At its very, very, very top best. Whatever else you might see on any stage, you will never in your life see something like this. Ever,” she promises.

“Next year, we are doing a little bit of reconstructing in that we are stopping the Stepping Stones aspect of Dance Umbrella,” she continues. “It’s a decision which has been a long time coming. When it started 20 years ago, it was called the Fringe. And it was a fringe in which Moving Into Dance and the Tech and various other companies used to bring in younger dancers, but slowly it evolved into becoming more of a community focused thing, which is not a problem in itself: the problem arose in the reality that over the last five years or so, the same work keeps coming  back.”

She explains that after various approaches, she realised “these people are working and dancing in their communities. They are having great fun and they love Stepping Stones for this reason, but they do not want to take their work to the next critical level.

“We’ve replaced it with a new project called Street Dance, which comprises pantsula, hip hop and probably other forms. We’re working with Matthew Manamela, who used to dance with Adele Blank’s Free Flight Dance Company. He’s going to go to five different regions in Gauteng, together with David April and/or Sifiso Kweyama, to audition.”

The whole model of this aspect of the Dance Umbrella will change. “People must enter. Twelve groups will be selected. They will then be workshopped and developed into the presentation that they will be doing at the Dance Umbrella.

“We are also partnering with Sibikwa with a project called Negotiating Space which will be at the new big gallery space in Maboneng, Museum of African Design (MOAD). The project is loosely based on what they did a couple of years ago, with installation works in city spaces. People keen to participate will have to look at the gallery and construct their proposals accordingly.

“And then there’s a young choreographers platform, which will focus on getting students from any training programme to enter. And then the main programme is commissioned and/or international.

“The only work I can definitely tell readers about at this time is one by Constanza Macras, from Berlin who has been residencing here.  She’s going to be premier the work she’s been workshopping here.” Dance fans will remember her astonishing 2008 work, Hell on Earth, which involved street children and a glorious miscellany of approaches. She also mentioned that Jay Pather, director of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts in Cape Town, will be presenting a big installation “all over Johannesburg.” No foreigner to site specificity, he is remembered for his 2005 work at Hillbrow’s Constitution Hill, The Beautyful Ones Must Be Born and his 2012 Qaphela Caesar, which forced the Cape Town City Hall and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange into a completely unexpected focus.

Next year’s Dance Umbrella will be staged at the two Soweto Theatres, the Dance Factory and the Market Theatre in Newtown, as well as the MOAD Gallery. The Wits Theatre will be busy renovating at that time.

For further information on this year’s Dance Umbrella, visit www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011-492-0709.