Gregory Maqoma giving a Master Class at the Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, in 2013. Photograph courtesy Velocity Dance Center.
Everywhere you look, at the moment Gregory Vuyani Maqoma is present: He’s on the current cover of Gordon Institute of Business Science’s Acumen Magazine. He’s one of the judges in the Arts and Culture Trust Award for 2014. He’s just been in New York accepting the prestigious Bessie Award for his company, Vuyani Dance Theatre. He was recently at the Standard Bank Young Artists Award event in Johannesburg, celebrating one of his protégés, Luyanda Sidiya, this year’s winner for Dance. With all of this, Maqoma truly has earned his accolades. On the cusp of this year’s Dance Umbrella, he spoke to My View, about life, the universe, the Moon and migrant workers.
In 1990, Maqoma but 16. He met a white woman who dramatically changed his life. For good. Iconic dancer/ teacher /choreographer/dance anthropologist Sylvia Glasser at that stage was running her groundbreaking dance company Moving Into Dance Mophathong informally. It was a time in the country before it was considered acceptable or permissible for white and black dancers to share a stage. But share a stage they did, and Maqoma quickly became a MIDM flame-bearer.
“Vuyani Dance Theatre started in 1999,” he picks up the story almost a decade later. “I was in Belgium, on a scholarship at the renowned contemporary dance school PARTS; it was an opportunity for me to look at South Africa from outside. It made me ask myself questions about my role as a dancer/choreographer and where I want to go in life. I had the chance to ponder how I wanted to be part of the changing political landscape in the country and how I was going to contribute to the development and sustainability of dance in South Africa.
“It was then that I created my first independent work, Rhythm 1-2-3, the founding piece for VDT. In that work, I was looking at Johannesburg: its roots, its unpredictability, its energy. It set the tone for what I wanted to do: to create work that responds to my own circumstances; work that was also questioning socio-economic imbalances in this country. It was also a work that got me quickly around the world,” he laughs. “We started getting bookings and before we’d even realised it, things were happening: there was no turning back.
“It was scary. I was 24. I started writing proposals. My first attempt at a proposal failed, but my second, to the Dutch embassy was successful. It was a small, tiny grant, but it was enough for what we wanted to do. Rhythm 1-2-3 was a simple work with just three dancers. The set was made with boxes from Pick ‘n Pay. The work, using visuals and text, was foundational for all my subsequent work.”
But it opened doors in other directions too. He started working with choreographers Moeketsi Koena, Sello Pesa, David Matamela April, Vicki Karras and Mandla Mchunu. ”We were all playing at the Dance Factory in Newtown Johannesburg, making work. It was not about egos. It was about sharing information. It was about working with what we had. We had to make and energise the dance fraternity. That was the founding ethos of VDT.”
Beyond its ethos, the now teenaged company, with a very strong outreach programme has started taking on apprentices this year: “These are dancers who have just left institutions,” Maqoma explains. “It’s an opportunity for them to work as professionals and with professionals. They get to perform in our works. Some have already had the chance to travel overseas with us. It’s hands on experience: the training you get at VDT shows immediate results.
“These apprentices are paid stipends from the company’s savings. At the same time, each apprentice is obliged to visit schools all over Gauteng: we see the results during our annual Vuyani Week at the end of the year. The Week is purely about development. It’s about young choreographers making new work.” It’s also about growing young dance audience.
VDT under the steerage of Maqoma drove contemporary dance which is renowned for its obscurity, into a popular framework with Full Moon, an extravaganza of a work staged at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein, in March this year.
“The work was premised on the idea of creating a social enterprise,” Maqoma explains. “As a company, we needed to be thinking beyond the Lotto funding, to diversify our income streams. We needed to look at a model that was going to be an income-generating one. And works that would be able to go to big spaces like the Joburg Theatre, the Sydney Opera House – into spaces that produce work on that big a scale.
“For me Full Moon was very much about saying as a contemporary black dance company, there is absolutely nothing stopping us from accessing spaces like Joburg Theatre. There is nothing stopping us from dreaming as big as the Alvin Ailey American Dance theatre company. We’ve tried to do this for years,” he grins, recalling how VDT was rebuffed on its tenth anniversary, from staging a work of this scale, with the claim that the theatre was fully booked months in advance. “This time the theatre seemed to realise something.
“I told the theatre’s decision makers, we’re talking 20 years of democracy here, and we’ve never had a black contemporary dance company on this stage. And we’re not only talking 20 years: we’re talking more than 50: there has never been a contemporary black dance company in this theatre: it was opened in 1961!
“So, here we are, I said. We are taking a chance on ourselves, but we want the theatre to take a chance on us too. I also explained that it is easier for our company to get onto the books of the Paris Opera than the Joburg Theatre. I said how do we balance the scale? If the work can appeal to that kind of audience in Paris, what makes it unattractive to Joburg audiences?
“It is about transformation, I argued, saying how this work should be at the epicentre of what democracy should mean,” he commenting on how a good relationship has been established between the Joburg Theatre and VDT. He is positive that Full Moon will have legs in other seasons “it created such a hype on social media. Now we’re in conversation with Artscape in Cape Town. There are possibilities for China; for London: it’s growing its own feet.”
‘Lonely Together’ is the work Maqoma created and performed in collaboration with Spanish dancer Roberto Olivan whom he had met at PARTS in the early 2000s, for this year’s Dance Umbrella in September. “At the dance school, we connected socially. Then we graduated and went our separate ways. Both of us developed dance in our own countries. We kept in touch. We kept meeting at festivals. And then recently we decided it would be interesting, after all these years, and because of the time we have spent giving so much to others, to refocus ourselves on ourselves and to see what comes out. And to focus on the issues that affect us personally. We realised one of those issues is that with the role that we have been playing, we have been extremely lonely in our own leadership: it’s a topic which continued to come back in our conversations, alongside growing and ageing.” The piece performed in Barcelona and Malta.
Maqoma is quick to dispel illusions of easiness or grandeur about his life and career: “Dancing is always a scary challenge for me. That is when you are really naked.” He’s travelled all over the world. “The glamour is an illusion,” he grins. “It’s a job.
“And running VDT is a job in itself. It is important for me to create a balance for myself. I am not an administrator, so I have to put together a pool of people who will be efficient in terms of administration, which will give me the liberty to do other things. More and more I am taking on the role of artistic driver: Luyanda Sidiya has just been appointed VDT’s artistic director. We have to find a balance of creating a business model: I am good with talking to people, but maybe not so good in writing proposals. My strength is in engaging one on one with people.
“When you say to people I have a product, a something to sell to you, business people will listen. When we’re approaching it as a business, not a charity, our chances are greater.”
This thinking acumen didn’t sprout out of nowhere. “In 1993/4, I was very confused about what I wanted to do with my life. When I wasn’t accepted to study Medicine at Wits University, I took a business course offered by Wits. It was something they offered as a bridging course. Part of my apprentice programme was to be with a company. I worked with Alliance Insurance company for a period of two years. It had many prospects, a comfortable pay, but I knew very well that this was not me. So I do know that world a little,” he grins.
He comes, however of a world in which contemporary culture was irrevocably fused with traditional expression. “As a young boy, I was always the entertainer in the family. My cousins always believed I would be a singer. I loved Tina Turner. I loved Michael Jackson. Pop culture was really in my head. I was always dancing and singing.
“But I grew up quite close to a hostel in Soweto and I think the exposure to traditional forms in the township helped me to have empathy – something I only understood later – I was so very deeply moved and touched by migrant labourers who danced over the weekends. It dawned on me, years later that it was their own way of surviving the displacement of their circumstances.
“And it helped me to be able to create a formal aesthetic which became a bit of a cocktail: I was taking what I was seeing from the Pop culture in which I was growing up, as well as the traditional forms. I was fusing the two. At that stage, I was working with Vincent Mantsoe and we were not even aware that we were creating a medium, an aesthetic and a form that would be the driving force for my work.
“That’s never changed. I always start from the basics in creating new work.”