Dance to make you proudly South African

REACHING for forever: Eugene Mashiane, Muzi Shili, Oscar Buthelezi and Tegobo Gilbert Letele in Fight, Flight, Feathers, F***ers, choreographed by Rachel Erdos and Sunnyboy Motau. Photograph by Mujahid Safodien. Courtesy of Gettyimages.

HEADLINED BY INTERNATIONALLY celebrated works, the new solo pieces on Wits 969’s mixed dance bill were overshadowed, but it was fantastic to see Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MIDM) on the Wits festival’s agenda and platform. The programme comprised Oscar Buthelezi’s celebrated Road, a two-hander with Muzi Shili, which recently won the coveted Kurt Jooss award for choreography in Germany; Fight, Flight Feathers, F***ers, a piece choreographed by Israel-based Rachel Erdos with Sunnyboy Motau; and two solo works – by Eugene Mashiane and Motau respectively.

Armed with an outrageously fine pair of red harem pants, and a wooden box, Mashiane presented Everlast which opened the evening with muscular pizzazz. It’s a work about death, handled with an elegant line and beautiful movement.

But as a self-standing piece, it lacks the kind of narrative gravitas and depth of focus audiences were privileged to see, and keenly anticipating, in Road. Here, clothed in brown shorts, Buthelezi and Shili evoke the wide brutality of harsh landscapes and the blistering sense of loneliness that a new path in life must entail. The choreography is difficult yet intimate: there’s an engaging understanding of how a dancer – or a man – must rely on his brother, his friend – to carry the weight of his loneliness. It’s a work which easily became the darling of the Kurt Jooss awards, and the photographers who documented it, and it’s not difficult to understand why.

The piece is clean of unnecessary frills in its set, costumes and presentation. The choreography is polished and offers you hairpin bends in its own sequences and sense of inevitability that leaves you sitting on the edge of your chair, knuckles white. When it’s done, you in the audience are breathless and wish to call for more, but your voice too is parched from the thrill of the spectacle.

Third in the programme was a solo work by Motau called My Black is Black, which had its centre and sense of integrity scuppered by the post-standing-ovation delight of the audience after Road. This bruised its ability to lend the piece its own place in the spotlight and the focus it warranted. It’s a tale of a man and his jacket, but similar to Mashiane’s piece, the work feels lacking in the kind of narrative development you might have seen in Motau’s other choreographed works.One of which is the extraordinary work Fight, Flight, Feathers, F***ers, a contemplation of masculinity, which Motau choreographed with Erdos. [See my review here and an interview with Erdos and Motau here].

The work, some time after Dance Umbrella 2014 when it debuted, still boasts the same inimitable poetry and astonishing coordination, as well as a narrative flow that confronts the dynamics of in-ness and bullying. It’s a magnificent piece which again moves you to the very edge of the chair on which you sit, as you let your eyes flow between dancers’ bodies and watch how they create a texture with their limbs, a beast with four heads, a playful fight dynamic and how they dance, proverbially with a devil of fire. It’s breathtaking.

Putting dance on this kind of festival platform is particularly valuable not only for Wits 969’s ethos, but for the dance itself. While works like Road and Fight, Flight…  embody dance principles which derive from the basic premises of Sylvia Glasser’s Moving Into Dance which she started in the 1970s, they also push them a couple of steps further, articulating a new physical language, and embracing an understanding of what constitutes classic MIDM work in the teens of the 21st century.

  • “Feathers” presented by Moving into Dance Mophatong was directed by Mark Hawkins. It was a part of the Wits 969 festival at the Wits University Theatre complex which ended on July 24, and featured design by Wilhelm Disbergen (lighting). It comprised the following pieces:
    • Everlast choreographed and performed by Eugene Mashiane with music compilation by Olafur Arnolds;
    • Road choreographed by Oscar Buthelezi and performed by Buthelezi and Muzi Shili with music compilation by Teboho Gilbert Letele;
    • My Black is Black choreographed, performed and musically compiled by Sunnyboy Mandla Motau; and
    • Fight, Flight, Feathers, F***ers choreographed by Rachel Erdos and Sunnyboy Motau, featuring costumes by Kyle Rossouw and music by Tebogo Gilbert Letele and performed by Oscar Buthelezi, Tebogo Gilbert Letele, Eugene Mashiane and Muzi Shili.


The evolution of a polished beast of a dance

Sunnyboy Motau. Photograph by Thabo Sebatlelo.
Sunnyboy Motau. Photograph by Thabo Sebatlelo.

Arguably one of Dance Umbrella’s more exciting collaborations is that between Moving Into Dance Mophatong’s Sunnyboy Motau (28) and independent Tel Aviv-based choreographer Rachel Erdos (36). They grin as they refer to their piece fight, flight, feathers, f***ers as a “beast”. They spoke to My View a week after they had started developing the work which enjoys its world premier in a mixed bill on March 3 and 4 at the Dance Factory.

Erdos was in South Africa in 2010, for Crossings, a choreographic initiative coaxed into life under the aegis of the French Institute and hosted in Johannesburg. “This work is the first ‘baby’ in South Africa built on the connections Crossings established,” said Erdos. “Sunnyboy – associated  with MIDM since 2008 – and I have been in dialogue for five years.

On paper, this year’s Dance Umbrella seems to thematically embrace masculinity: several works are choreographed by women on male dancers: but Motau and Erdos shake their heads: “This was not commissioned with a theme. After we met in 2010, we started exchanging ideas.

Rachel Erdos. Photograph courtesy
Rachel Erdos. Photograph courtesy

“We gravitated naturally towards issues relating to masculinity. In Europe and Israel, there are much less male dancers than there are female. Here it is the opposite. When Sunnyboy said ‘you can work with the company: there are five guys and two girls’ … it wasn’t an even number. So it became: ‘let’s explore the issues of identity relating to men only.’”

Born in the north of England, Erdos moved to Israel 13 years ago, armed with a degree in dance from Rohampton Institute and a masters in choreography from London’s Laban Centre. “I was brought to Israel by a whole range of forces, including upbringing” – with a Hungarian father and an English mother, she was aware of being the only Jewish child at her high school and was curious about living and working in Israel – “but the reasons I went and the reasons I stayed are completely different.

“The Israeli contemporary dance scene is pumping: Some of the best dancers in the world are coming out of there. And I have found loads of opportunities. I think Tel Aviv is an amazing city to live and choreograph in. It has a great vibe.”

She has a repertory of dancers and her diary is rich with opportunities to create work. “I am in the middle of making a piece at the moment for Kolben Dance, a Jerusalem-based company, under Amir Kolben who has been running his company for 25 years. It will be shown in different festivals through the summer. But I had to take a hiatus from the project when I knew I was coming to South Africa!”

Motau always knew he wanted to lead a creative life. “Growing up in Alexandra township, I was involved with a community group doing acting, poetry and traditional dance. But when I was exposed to the genre of Afro-fusion whilst in grade 12, something clicked. I fell in love with it.”

His dreams to study film were thwarted financially “so I joined a musical company, where we did everything from Afro-fusion to gumboot. It toured to Hong Kong in that year.” Also during that year, 2007, he was exposed for the first time to MIDM dancers, Muzi Shili and Thabo Rapoo. His life changed forever. “I developed a great thirst to study further and realised I needed to find a company that would enable me to grow. Three years down the line, I was there with Musi and Thabo. It was unbelievable,” he grins.

“Unlike Sunnyboy I never wanted to be a dancer,” says Erdos. “From the age of 12, I wanted to be a choreographer. Whilst I was in junior high school, a dance company came to our school and did a workshop, involving creating movement from interpretations of a picture.  It was the first time in my life anyone had asked me to express an emotion through dance and this was a real life changer.

“But it’s not so easy to say at the age of 15 you want to be a choreographer. It’s hard enough saying you want to be a dancer, especially where how you are going to earn money is a major concern, so it took a long time until I had the confidence to say that’s what I wanted to do.

“Eventually I settled for dance therapy. It seemed a respectable way of combining dance with a conventional job. I used that to convince my parents to support me through a degree in dance. In the middle, I realised I was trying to convince myself something other than what my heart wanted and I decided I need to try what I really want to do…”

“We’re hoping for it to be soft and violent, aggressive and emotional,” says Erdos about the new work being developed.

“Bringing in input from each of the dancers has made it richer. And we have to go there, enabling the dancers to take ownership of the work,” says Motau.

“I’m not a 5… 6… 7… 8…  choreographer,” Erdos smiles. “Neither of us are.  I am fascinated with the dancers’ personalities on stage. And I want to do something that represents them, but something they could not have done without us.

“I love working with these guys. On the first day, we asked them questions about how males are perceived in society, exploring the difference between animals and man. Each day, we get to do more and see what comes out. For me that’s one of the best parts of the job: getting to work with people who you don’t know. You have to have real trust. As do they. You hope that that work will take us to a place none of us would attempt by ourselves.

Is there life for the piece after Dance Umbrella? “We really hope so,” they concur. “That is the plan. We want it to tour and develop. It goes into both our companies’ repertoires. We can’t wait to see it, ourselves!”

  • Visit for details of Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg, February 26-March 15.