Dance Umbrella turns 25 with dignityTammy Ballantyne
Tammy Ballantyne: Forget about the state of the nation; those of us gathered at the Wits Theatre last night were there to assess the pulse of the nation.
We were there to feel the lifeblood of artistic creation; to feel energy pumping through our veins as we reflected on the Dance Umbrella festival that began as a tiny germ of an idea 25 years ago and has marched through the years with pride as a showcase for new, original contemporary dance.
It is ironic then, that with so much to celebrate, with so many wonderful dance-makers and companies in existence, that the dance community faces a bleak future with a funding crisis much worse than pre-1994. Agencies such as the National Arts Council (NAC) and the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF) have moved the goal posts without consultation and summarily cut the precious three-year company funding that the arts sector fought so hard for several years ago.
The government speaks about ‘sustainability’ without recognising the special requirements of the arts and culture sector. Project funding and one-year funding simply cannot assist an organisation to stay afloat; words such as “development” are bandied about without a real acknowledgment that several organisations such as Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MIDM), Vuyani DanceTheatre (VDT), Jazzart Dance Theatre in Cape Town, Flatfoot Dance Company in KZN, the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative and many more, have been DOING development since their inception.
These companies have been training young people from all parts of SA as an integral part of their overall strategies and philosophies. How will taking 50% of the NLDTF’s budget to rural areas help organisations that have no infrastructure, no support and no administrative skills? The thinking is completely short-sighted.
Where were representatives of the Department of Arts and Culture, the NAC and other bodies? Why weren’t they there last night to hear Dance Forum’s Georgina Thomson speak of how this festival has not only catapulted extraordinary dancers and choreographers into successful careers but has also sustained an annual platform for artistic creation and provided material and human resources through multitudes of developmental projects?
She paid tribute to the visionaries, Adrienne Sichel and Marilyn Poole, who approached Philip Stein of the Vita Awards with the idea of this festival. Without these three luminaries and their constant support and dedication to dance, we would not have been celebrating last night.
Where were they to hear Maria Kint from the Cultural Development Trust speak of the amazing DanceXChange project happening in six centres around the country, in impoverished communities, in communities where young people are finding meaning and purpose through dance? She spoke of “human development”, one of the Millennium Development Goals for 2015. The project supported by Africalia and Rand Merchant Bank, focusses on teaching aspiring artists to understand the business of dance by skilling them with arts management modules as well as the choreographic ones.
And who could not be moved by Alfred Hinkel, former artistic director of Jazzart Dance Theatre and now working back in Oukiep, Northern Cape, also as part of DanceXChange, painting a picture of how the young people in Oukiep are finding new outlets through dance. Some of these communities are the forgotten ones; crime is high, unemployment is the norm, the youth have no sense of ‘I can’.
Hinkel talked of the scientific benefits of dance; that through regular cardio-vascular exercise, endorphins are released and people feel more positive about themselves. Dance class teaches cognitive and retentive skills. He said: “We have uncovered so much talent but it needs to be guided properly; we are working towards an acknowledgement of self and hope to create a blue-print for similar projects to be rolled out across the country. And all the time, we are aiming for excellence and quality.”
The performances perfectly illustrated all that was spoken about.
Sonia Radebe, graduate and company member of MIDM, created a new work, Treasure to a Being, which transported us into an apocalyptic state of being; costumes are Mad Max-ish, textured and layered with strange raised bumps and protrusions; the music is harsh, throbbing and intrusive. Muzi Shili is manipulated like a puppet and the dancers move feral-like across the stage. At one point, Teboho Letele, writhes and rolls while the others thrash lengths of coloured twine.
It is aggressive, speaks of being trapped and enslaved and perhaps the need to break out of limiting societal norms. Radebe’s work is another departure from the afro-fusion style that we associate with MIDM and marks a brave new direction for a promising female choreographer.
Out of the Tunnel by Soweto Dance Project’s Carly Dibakwane needs some shaping and direction to bring out the true theme. The use of small lights on the dancers’ bodies is inventive and invokes humour as we see four shadowy people looking for the exit. The work then breaks into full-blown dance sequences with the four men doing complex lifts and carries to classical then jazz music. It is wonderful to see that Dibakwane is still training and teaching – he was featured on the very first Dance Umbrella in 1989; a cause to celebrate his legacy and history.
Thola (Discoveries) is the outcome of a residency facilitated by Thabo Kobeli as part of the Africalia DanceXChange programme of 2012. Kobeli worked with dancers from KZN and Limpopo in a very short time period. The piece, a work in progress, was impressive considering the participants have never been exposed to contemporary dance before. Their focus and inner narratives were clear and there was a sense of drama and relationships that can be explored further.
The evening ended with possibly one of the most beautiful, wondrous pieces created by Gregory Maqoma for his company VDT. Beautiful Us, part of Maqoma’s Beauty Trilogy, makes palpable what good training and exceptional leadership can do with talent. Many of his dancers began their dancing lives in cultural groups in their communities and discovered formal dance training through many of the companies mentioned above.
They are talented but with it comes the discipline and effort that goes into honing those wonderful human beings into what we see on the stage. The capacity of their bodies to tackle incredible vocabulary is mind-blowing; the ensemble work is dynamic and fluid; Maqoma’s crafting is a gift to his dancers and audience.
I have watched the likes of Roseline Keppler, Gladwell Rakoma and Xolisile Bongwana arrive as trainees and flourish and blossom into the dancers on that stage last night. In the company of Lulu Mlangeni, Teresia Mojela, Shawn Mothupi and others, VDT made tangible the essence of what we were gathered there for: to ensure that, despite the financial hurdles, the dance community will continue to inspire, innovate and nurture.
The mini birthday Dance Umbrella event continues tonight at 19:30 and 21:00 and tomorrow at 18:00 and 19:30 at the Wits Theatre. The main Dance Umbrella features as part of the Arts Alive International Festival from September 1-15.
Web site: http://www.artslink.co.za/arts
Dates: Thursday, 6th March 2014 - Sunday, 16th March 2014
Wits Theatre Complex, Braamfontein Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa