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.

 

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Framed afresh: King Shaka

Ilembe

OUR captain, our king: Sangomas played by Charity Hlophe and Tholani Miya set the scene as chorus to iLembe. Photograph courtesy http://www.culture-review.co.za

In 2004, the late historian David Rattray single-handedly performed the tale of the Battle of Isandlwana, the first military encounter in 1879 between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. The heady mix of energy and fact, sound effects and drama, politics, supposition and legend, drenched as it was in a splendid and discursive array of blood and heroism, was simply unforgettable, cast as it was in the humble Benoni-based hall of Sibikwa. iLembe, which was staged albeit briefly in Grahamstown and Johannesburg – also under the auspices of Sibikwa – echoes this supreme level of storytelling with guts and vigour.

Taking apart the historical figure of Shaka, king of the Zulu nation, the work offers a clearly woven tale which is a combination of song, gesture, spoken English and isiZulu (with surtitles) as it exposes the traditionally accepted history’s controversial underbelly, posing contradictory questions about the character of Shaka. This is achieved through the words of four characters in the history: Henry Francis Fynn (Jeremy Richard) a British immigrant trader-turned-medical adviser to King Shaka, complete with his brimless straw hat; Shaka’s interpreter Jackot Msimbithi (Andries Babalo Mbali); Shaka’s attendant Mbopha (Sabelo Mnisi); and Shaka’s sister, Nomcoba (Busisiwe Nyundu). Replete with a duo of sangomas onstage (Tholani Miya and Charity Hlophe) who chillingly and beautifully play the role of a kind of a Greek chorus, the work is compelling and driven.

And while they raise controversial issues that die-hard Shaka fans might find enraging, they offer the kind of three-dimensionality to the man that the makers of HBO series Oz do in their portrayal of men so capable of horror, but so endowed with humanity that your morals get confused and swayed. Is this man good? Is he bad? Is he, like most of us, an indefinite mix of both good and bad? King Shaka is not represented as a character in the play, but his presence is palpable and engaged with splendidly. You know you are in the presence of royalty as you enter the theatre.

Further to that, there are nuances and decisions in gesture and direction, dealing in particular with a sloped prop on stage that will truly take your breath away. Myriads of people, a whole army, the reach of an enormous land are evoked with wisdom and clarity.

The curious thing that happens in the interplay of language on this stage is that you develop a thirst to know the nuances of isiZulu, if you don’t already. The surtitles are succinct and pared down, but the isiZulu words that they correspond to are considerably longer. If you don’t understand isiZulu, you lose all the metaphors and flowers, and textures and idioms of the language.

Similar to works like the magnificent Tau, by Thabiso T. Rammala, iLembe brings the taboos and contradictions of traditional African narrative to a stage which could proudly be global, in its polished direction, performance and choreography. It smashes the parochial ideas that African traditional theatre on so-called western stages dragged with it for decades: here is proud African traditionalism and it is fierce, convincing and magnificent.

  • iLembe is written and directed by Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba. It features design by Oscar Buthelezi (choreography), Themba Mkhize (music), Stan Knight (set and lighting) and Sarah Roberts (costumes) and is performed by Andries Babalo Mbali, Charity Hlophe, Tholani Miya, Sabelo Mnisi, Busisiwe Nyundu and Jeremy Richard. It performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and more recently in a short season at the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani, Soweto. sibikwa.co.za

Man enough

Tau. July 2016.

EXPECTORATION and manhood: Tau’s journey of self-discovery. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

“DUMELANG”, HE SAYS, standing just inside the doorway, to the right. So does he, on the left of the doorway. But they both says it in such a gentle undertone that you only really register that they’re greeting you once you’ve passed them. This delicate opening gesture to the play not only sets the tone to a beautiful whirlwind of cultural complexity embodied in the clash of traditional practice with a desire for contemporary balance, but it also touches your core and stimulates a reaction in you. Do you greet the men with equal respect? Do you ignore them? Do you nod and grin sheepishly, afraid they might burst into long sentences in Sesotho which you do not understand? Do you loudly declare “Good evening!”, back at them?

It’s immaterial, really, but this simple understanding of how we as a mixed society grapple with the tools of language, ritual and habit, frames this extraordinarily beautiful and sophisticated piece of storytelling with a succinct but devastatingly powerful hand. Tau (played by Abednigo Moruti Dlamini) is the name of a young man who skirts stereotypical definition with a silent potency. But he’s a young man in a deeply traditional rural community in the Free State and the ritual of circumcision and isolation is one he must confront with his peers in order to attain adulthood.

There unfolds a rich and deeply textured work about male bonding and homosexuality, taboos and curses, gender equality and red shoes, to say nothing of the utterly breathtaking night landscape of animals, crafted with sounds made by the cast. It’s a work which will sweep you from your comfort zones, whether you speak Sesotho or not, and force you to scrabble in the secrecy that holds the manhood of a society together. And there’s an element of intrusion into the culture, but also one of extreme mystery and wonder and contemporary pragmatism which is completely seductive.

Several years ago, there was a lot of local theatre that drew from within traditional African culture. It was passionate work, earnest in its sense of urgency to have a place on the professional stage, but often the paraphernalia of rural ritual was thwarted on stage as it was overwhelmingly amateur. When you watch a work such as Tausimilar to Sibikwa’s production of iLembe  – you rapidly realise that there has been a generational shift in South African theatre and this supremely talented team of performers and creatives is able to meld together the age-old values with modern discourse and utterly beautiful construction. The time has come for these stories to have potent life and value under the gaze and conversation of new dreamers, thinkers and theatremakers, and they are doing it with wisdom and beauty that lends Africa’s old tales a universality which is fresh as it is compelling.

Tau is an exquisite work that is clear to follow but satisfyingly nuanced in its reflection on the values it scrutinises. But its blend of a cappella with precise and intense fight choreography ramps it up even further. It will shift your centre. Forever.

  • Tau is written by Thabiso T. Rammala and directed by Thabiso T. Rammala and MoMo Matsunyane. It features creative input by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi (dramaturge), Hlomohang Mothetho (lighting) assisted by Ntokozo Ndlovu, Thando Lobese (set and costumes) assisted by Lebogang Mokgosi and Philani Nelson Masedi, and Nhlanhla Mahlangu (choreography). It is performed by Allen Cebekhulu, Abednigo Moruti Dlamini, Nono Dombo, James Mankgaba, Khothatso Mogwera, Paul Noko and Mosa Sephiri, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, until August 21. 011 832 1641 or markettheatre.co.za.

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.