'Hello, Joburg! Is anyone home?'Tammy Ballantyne
Tammy Ballantyne: It’s Monday October 8 and probably the continent’s largest and best dance festival is over.
Danse l’Afrique Danse arrived and left without its host city even seeming to be aware.
What a shocker! Even our Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile, was absent on opening night at the Soweto Theatre while his French peers and colleagues turned out in full force having flown overnight from Paris.
This was the ninth edition of Danse l’Afrique Danse, a major biennial that supports work made across the continent of Africa. In 2012 it formed part of the French Season in SA and was structured partly as a retrospective (featuring established choreographers who either won places at the now-defunct competition section of the event or produced work for past festivals) and giving young artists an opportunity to showcase their work and interact with artists from 15 countries.
Herein lies many of the problems with mounting a festival of this size: over 44 productions were scheduled over 10 days, spread across the Soweto Theatre, Wits Theatre, the Dance Factory and the Market Theatre.
With Joburg’s non-existent transport system and crazy traffic, those of us who did attend performances, found ourselves stuck in traffic jams and traversing dark stretches of road late at night. The visiting French journalists, artists and other foreign guests were schlepped around in a couple of busses with hardly a moment to take a breath in-between the commuting.
The programming was generally shambolic, allowing too little time for technical turn-around, with sometimes up to six or seven performances a night, some starting at the ridiculous time of 3 or 4pm. Even for those who may have registered the festival was happening (the marketing was poor and late) and are interested in contemporary dance, it is completely unrealistic to expect general audience members to get into town or to Soweto at those early starting times.
To aggravate matters, the performances all ran horribly late, meaning that if you had arranged to get to a venue on time, you were stuck for over an hour, with no explanations and rising blood pressure. It’s simply not good enough. The festival felt like a private party – it was the same faces there night after night; without the busload of foreign guests, there would have been no audience at all.
The programme itself lacked information: as journalists, we need to know the biographies of choreographers and companies; whether the works they were presenting were new or had premiered elsewhere prior to this festival; when the artists had appeared at the biennial before and if they had won or been placed in the competitions. It’s very difficult to build a complete picture without all the facts.
Despite all the hiccups, the schedule being changed mid-way and a certain degree of exhaustion, the festival threw up many issues and challenges that African choreographers are dealing with: the quality of the work varied but a general comment would be that many choreographers, especially the women, are working in isolation, with very little input from outside or someone to help them edit, refine and tweak the work. Most of the pieces were over-long and lacked focus, with repetitive choreographic motifs and flat, dead endings.
The important and valuable points are how choreographers are dealing with the mostly traumatic and violent issues in their societies through dance; contemporary African dance is not about making pretty pictures; it dissects, exposes and offers up for debate and reflection, the political and socio- economic environments that are fraught with war, abuse and violence and the determination to hold onto memory and identity.
In DRC choreographer Faustin Linyekula’s words at the colloquium at Wits on Dancing the Ar(t)chive at the beginning of the festival: “How do we find the energy to continue what we are doing? How do I take responsibility for my presence, my space and my body in this context? There is a burning house but I’m not running away, I’m not going to be a victim. I will clear a space for myself amongst the rubble – this is my home…I’m young but I’m ancient; there are things that connect me back to centuries…our genes hold the history…our heritage is violence and destruction – violence against the body.”
I was struck by the poetic within the tragic; by the integrity and dedication of these artists. And of course, us South Africans were seriously challenged on the French language front – not only did we have to interpret and decode a dance work but also get translation of titles and text spoken within the works. It’s always good to be taken out of one’s comfort zone.
Fatou Cissé from Senegal returns our gaze in her hypnotic and powerful solo, Regarde-Moi Encore. She challenges us to shift our gaze while titivating us with her body language and dress-up routine. Delavallet Bidiefono from Congo asked the question “Where are we going?” in Où Vers? In a fusion of styles, mostly derived from street dance, the company’s energy was invigorating and performance presence superb.
Congolese Fanny Roselyne Mabonzdzo Ngamba performed a duo in her work Hier D’Aujourd’Hui (Yesterday of Today), attempting to deal with environmental pollution. The piece ached for a director; it was rambling and unstructured but so honest and presented with incredible self-belief.
The work of two more women choreographers, Gladys Tchuimo (Cameroon) and Julie Iarisoa (Madagascar), also demonstrated the vast gap between women on the continent and women in SA; there is a huge void in terms of structure, choreographic vocabulary and themes and a unifying purpose within the works.
Boyzie Cekwana (SA) collaborated with Panaibra Gabriel Canda (Mozambique) in The Inkomati (Dis)cord, a collaboration that took quite a few years owing to the circumstances African choreographers find themselves in – often relying on their own resources to make the work, Cekwana and Canda came together when they could to interrogate a shared moment in history in 1984 when Mozambique and SA signed the Inkomati Accord, a non-aggression pact intended to protect the borders between the two countries.
Masked dancers, including the agile and admirable Maria Tembe in a wheelchair, play out a complex scenario about memory and forgetting; about the language of loss and mis-interpreted messages; about false borders and being lost in translation.
Andréya Ouamba’s Sueur Des Ombres (Sisters of Shadows) for Congolese and Senegalese dancers, lacked the power it should have had due to an embarrassing technical disaster at the Market Theatre: poor sound and lighting meant the full force of this haunting and relentless work was compromised. Here the women fight back; bodies fling and scatter across the stage to a discordant sound track; once again the theme of violence taking centre stage.
Gregory Maqoma and Florent Mahoukou from the Congo delivered a piece that, despite its short gestation period of ten days, conveyed the African sense of urgency and immediacy that infiltrates our daily lives; Wake Up is rhythmically and visually stimulating; the music by Vuyani Dance Theatre’s Wesley Mabizela is fantastic and drives the dancers to call on us to wake up in diverse languages such as Lingala, tshiVenda and seSotho.
There are many more works to discuss, some SA productions that have been seen this year already, and I did not attend the final weekend of performances. I am left with the feeling that much more could have been achieved with this festival – there was very little time and space to actually engage with the artists (and foreign journalists and guests) on a social level and really understand our continent and the direction contemporary dance is taking.
Danse l'Afrique Danse took place from September 28 to October 7 in Joburg.