Stretched wishbones and backbones

GulaMatari
A man who could sprout wings at any time: Vincent Mantsoe in his work Gula Matari. Photograph courtesy Dance Umbrella.

THE OPENING NIGHT of Dance Umbrella 2018 was one filled with gasps. Gasps at the formal announcement by its artistic director Georgina Thomson that this, the 30th iteration of the contemporary dance festival was to be its last. And gasps in response to the quality of work curated for the festival’s first day. It was dance to make your hair blow back and stand on end; historical dance that made you remember why this genre peaked so rapidly in this city, from the late 1980s. Dance Umbrella served as the platform to make things without meaning in the rest of the world, grow wings, become heroes and redefine values.

But wrapped carefully in these headlining events of the evening was something else. A glossing over. Will the dance fraternity be able to resurrect a project as focused and fierce as this little festival which has in all its 30 years of existence not once been allowed the luxury of not having to fight for its life, to hustle for its daily bread? It’s a reflection on the fickleness of the broader industry that sees initiatives wax and wane, come and go and nary a real helping hand offered in this often grotesque battle for survival. All too often, people and institutions whose doors have been knocked on again and again, who leave a project to die an ignominious death, turn into the proverbial bystanders, who mourn. They could have helped. They didn’t.

All of these values made the works, Gregory Maqoma’s Mayhem and Vincent Mantsoe’s Gula Matari, particularly prescient choices for the festival’s opening night.

If you perchance to visit the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, you will see a miscellany of angels painted in frescoes on the churches walls and ceiling by 13th century Italian artist, Giotto di Bondone. These are not just any common or garden angels. They are emotionally distraught, emotionally focused and sophisticated angels. Some weep, some screech, some are quiet, most are not. Something similar happens in Mayhem, where the characters are broken in different ways. Either physically or emotionally. They dance with a brokenness and cavort with a red ribbon led by a man who has one leg, and while the first part of the work’s sound track feels as though a massive balloon is bouncing on your ear’s tympana, the work swirls and pumps with a sense of energy and fervour. And all too soon, it is gone.

In the 1950s, something completely outrageous and remarkable saw light of day. Throwing formal music principles to the wind, it looked out the window and saw birds. This was contemporary French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, an essay written with the piano and birdsong. Vincent Mantsoe’s Gula Matari rocks your equilibrium in a similar way, as it redefines movement and balances you in the audience between the cusp of bird and man. It’s a completely outrageous work, which includes performances by four other dancers. Truth be told, Mantsoe’s presence eats up your attention to such an extent that the rest of the cast feel as though its superfluous and the dimming light at the work’s end, your enemy.

Dance Umbrella, for thirty years was the jewel in the crown of Johannesburg culture. Sometimes a tarnished jewel, filled with works that confronted and unstitched audiences; sometimes an unequivocal sparkler, reflecting on the real and beautiful skills that were driven to new and professional heights. This year’s festival is going to rattle away, on the wings of time. You need to be there for dance as well as historical reasons.

  • Mayhem is choreographed by Gregory Maqoma. It features design by Didintle Fashion Institute (costumes), Wesley Mabizela (music) and Mandla Mtshali and Oliver Hauser (lighting and production). It is performed by Thulisa Binda, Sinazo Bokolo, Nathan Botha, Julia Burnham, Katlego Lekhula, Lungile Mahlangu, Phumlani Mndebele, Thabang Mojapelo, Musa Motha,  Otto Nhlapo and Roseline Wilkens.
  • Gula Matari is choreographed by Vincent Mantsoe. It features design by Portia Mashigo (costumes), Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors (music), Oliver Hauser (lighting and technical) and is performed by Vincent Mantsoe, Gregory Maqoma, Lulu Mlangeni, Otto Nhlapho, and Shanell Winlock.
  • Mayhem and Gula Matari constituted the opening performance of this year’s Dance Umbrella. The works perform again on Wednesday March 7 at the UJ Theatre, in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Dance should make you weep, says Sylvia

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DO IT LIKE THIS: Sylvia Glasser works with Fana Tshabalala in studio, 2010. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

With her floor-length purple dress riffling in the wind as she shimmied across President Street on the arm of choreographer/dancer Muzi Shili and others associated with Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MiD) , arguably South Africa’s most important contemporary dance company, Sylvia “MaGogo” Glasser, the institution’s founder, bade MiD – and the country – goodbye.  What a send off! What a way to leave that which you started 38 years ago, in good health, good humour and a position of authority.

For Glasser, it’s a bittersweet move, but one in which she can acknowledge touching so many dancers’ lives. Last month, Glasser spoke to My View about the rules she broke during the 38 years of MiD’s existence, and the ones she made. Also, the dance fraternity hosted a farewell for her, featuring comments from heavyweights in contemporary dance, including Shili, David Thanatelo April, Christos Daskalakos, Bev Elgie, Portia Mashigo and Kefiloe Morand.

Daskalalos, an architecture student in 1978 was enticed by an MiD poster for an improvisation workshop on Wits University campus: “I went. It was the start of a whole new life, for me. Sylvia had us doing things to tables and chairs that was never meant to be done to tables and chairs.

“Improvisation was how a lot of the works were choreographed by Sylvia and the dancers – Sylvia had the idea, the structure, the clear vision, and we would go into the studio and improvise and improvise. It was so creative. It is how a lot of the work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery was made,” he described performances in Johannesburg’s municipal gallery in 1980 and 1988.

Photographs of dancers in the JAG’s majestic space recalls performance art under choreographers like Robyn Orlin – a student of Glasser’s in her youth – decades later. Indeed, so much of the dance language developed and honed by Glasser was before its time, certainly in South Africa, where the notions of collaboration, performance art and impromptu gesture were important and new.

In 1981, MiD, just three years old, hosted South Africa’s first mixed-race work, at Wits’s Great Hall.

“At MiD, colour was never an issue,” Daskalakos said Glasser was not afraid to engage ugly South African metaphors, remembering this was high apartheid and everything she did with black and white dancers together was illegal.

In 1983, her work Not For Squares, ostensibly a light piece was performed to a gavotte by JS Bach. It also featured tyres. “Remember what tyres were used for in this country at the time?” Glasser mused, referring to “necklacing” in which people were burnt to death in a tyre.

Not only the tyre metaphor but also the use of Baroque music to support contemporary dance broke rules, which aligned Glasser’s dance philosophy with that of another dance legend, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) who cocked a snook at balletic traditions in reinventing dance grammar. Effectively, Glasser created a dance grammar specific to South Africa – something which many of her dancers, who affectionately call her “MaGogo” (grandmother), have taken to the next level.

Not one to rest on laurels, Glasser was quick to disparage what she deemed too much praise. “I had a good education. I had a house. I was privileged. It was an obvious path for me to take.”

Elgie remembers the fledgling company, before 1987, used not only Glasser’s garage at her Victory Park home, to rehearse, but also the school hall at King David Victory Park and two scout halls. “In the one [scout hall], you went home and dug splinters out of your feet after each session. And the other was so cold we looked like oompa loompas, we had to wear so many clothes to keep warm.

“The piece that I collaborated in that still means the most to me is African Cassandra. I remember waking up in the morning after Wits lecturer and anti-apartheid activist David Webster [with whom Glasser had an important friendship] was assassinated [by apartheid security forces] and feeling what an awful thing had happened but feeling very proud of Sylvia for wanting to do this. It was a marvellous collaboration, which with pride we performed at the lecture in honour of David.”

Glasser was a mature student in 1989, having returned to Wits to read social anthropology, where  Webster was her professor. She recalled: “on the Friday, David had said he was organising one of the Wits cleaners to come to Braamfontein Recreation Centre to teach us Zulu dancing. That Monday, I saw in the news David had been killed. So this thing of Cassandra was David singing to the future, trying to change people.

“I also felt like a Cassandra in the dance community at the time.” She spoke of how her work was “scorned” locally, which affected her critical presence and fundraising profile. It’s ironic, that one of the highest profile award-winning companies, which saw Glasser knighted by the Dutch in 2014 struggled – and still struggles – for broader community support, in kind, in coverage and in funding.

Pragmatically, Glasser didn’t sidestep the importance of funding a nongovernmental organisation; an issue which became (and still is) a vital challenge for MiD. She needed to raise funds from 1984, in addition to the many competencies that steering MiD demanded of her.

Glasser vehemently disparaged the idea that “you need to do fluffy work for the public to patronise you. There is much talk, not only at MiD, but in dance generally, of a need for self-sufficiency. It’s become a buzz word. I’ve worked in many countries. I have learnt that any dance company that makes its audience cry, that has an ethos where people are more important than policies, does not cover its expenses through performance alone. Any organisation that brings in people, as MiD did, has a commodity to offer which overrides pressure for self-sustainability. Sure, you can commercialise a dance company. But it will lose its soul.

“Today I’m told I don’t understand business. How can you survive with no capital investment and [between 2001 and 2004] employ over 30 people? I didn’t do it by myself.”

But MiD has stood for a lot more than the trend of self-sustainability. It made careers. It made dreams feasible. Mashigo came into dance as a teenager. “I was in standard eight and there was a group of friends I had who were doing dance at a youth centre. One day I went with them, to watch. I had never seen a dancer’s body before. I had never before seen how physical fitness can train a black woman’s body. I started dancing. It was fun. It was easy. We were the ‘it’ girls.”

A year later, she auditioned with MiD. “I got in. And I got scared. For the first time, I realised how tiny I was – and I was competing now not only against township girls; I also had to speak English. The teachers were white. But the love of understanding exercises opened a new understanding of my body for me.”

Said April: “In Kimberley, where I grew up, there weren’t opportunities for dance training. In 1992, I heard an advert on Radio 5 for the community dance teachers training course auditions [run by MiD]. At that time, there was a programme on TV called Fame [based on the 1980 film]; everyone wanted to be like those dancers. I decided to be a ‘Leroy’ [played by the late Gene Anthony Ray] at MiD.”

Glasser concluded, smilingly: “I do have an ego,” she pooh-poohed peers’ claims that she was one of few professionals they worked with who didn’t come ego-first into a studio.

“I loved performing. Teaching is performing. It was the world to me.”

  • MiD is run by chief executive Nadia Virasamy, and artistic director Mark Hawkins.

Gregory Vuyani Maqoma: flame-bearer of empathy, pragmatics and SA dance

Gregory Maqoma giving a Master Class at the Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, in 2013. Photograph courtesy Velocity Dance Center.
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.”