Moffies, movement and mutilation
As dancers warm up for the next Dance Umbrella, arts editor Matthew Krouse asks choreographers what the body in space says about South Africa today.
This year’s recipient of the Standard Bank young artist award for dance, Bailey Snyman (35), runs the company Matchbox Theatre Collective with his work partner Nicola Haskins (31). Their new work, which premiered at the National Arts Festival in June, is an adaptation of Moffie, a 2007 novel by André Carl van der Merwe. It deals with his experience of being gay in the military in the “old” South Africa. But Snyman and company have attempted to universalise the subject, bringing in gay contexts from other countries.
Why do people dance? I can’t answer for everybody, but I know for myself that I was more interested in acting and theatre performance until I got to Rhodes University. Then I encountered the First Physical Theatre Company and the notion of being able to use the body to tell stories intrigued me.
A lot of the issues that Nicky and I like to deal with in theatre work lend themselves to the physical experience of a moment, or a situation, as opposed to a vocalised telling of it. Even people who can’t dance have some sense of movement, of touch. And I think, instead of telling people all the time, the act of doing and observing the movement, for me, is important.
I missed military conscription by two years. I grew up in Kimberley and one of the big army bases is there. All my sisters dated army guys and my grandfather always used to tell them to “stay away from the army guys”, so it was very much a part of my world.
Kimberley is a place with many monuments and memorials and history has always intrigued me. My university master’s thesis was based on history. It was about the use of biographical narratives as a source for making South African dance theatre. And so even the novel Moffie, on which we based our dance piece, is autobiographical.
In the work, Nicky plays the mother [of the gay conscript]. Nicky and I have been working together since 1999. Our company turned six at the National Arts Festival this year. We’ve collaborated on every work. We live next door to each other. I was up last night helping Nicky to edit the soundtrack for the work she is making for University of Pretoria students.
I only started dance training and dancing when I was 21 years old. When I was in my third year of university my teacher, Gary Gordon, said to me: “You may become really good at this.” But dancers start dancing when they are five or six.
My mother said to me later that, had she known I was going to be a dancer, she would have sent me to dance class. I was like: “In Kimberley? Are you mad?” In that environment the word “moffie” was thrown around a lot. My mother’s boyfriend used to call me a moffie — so I don’t think it would have worked for me.
So when I started doing research [into gays in the military], I felt I had to consider all the contemporary implications, the Americans with their “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and what was going on in the rest of the world.
I found it interesting working with such a young cast. None of them knew the lyrics to the old South African national anthem, whereas I had done cadets at school — we had to do that. These cast members were only born in the 1990s, so looking at the American context became a way of finding the relevance and bringing that narrative to a younger audience.
André had sat for five years with his journals, writing the stuff. For two years in the army he had smuggled it out of South West Africa [now Namibia] because they weren’t allowed to write anything down; they weren’t allowed to record anything. So he was keeping these mini-journals, sending them home all the time and he had two suitcases of them, and we make reference to it in the play.
André is happy with the interpretation. He loved the fact that I had contemporised it. He had said to me: “Please just make it sexy and contemporary. I don’t want to walk in there and see you guys all in army kit, back in the Eighties.”
This 29-year-old professional ballet dancer with the Tshwane Dance Theatre is beginning to experiment with new choreographic ideas. Her 11-minute conceptual work, Beauty Tips, interrogates the harsh regime of a world that demands a constant show of youthfulness and physical perfection. “We live up to a distorted ideal of beauty,” she writes in her artist’s statement, “and it leads to a fragmented concept of the body.”
The venue in the Joburg Theatre called the Space.com is small, but it’s perfect for what I’m doing because it is a black box. You can see the projections of images because there is no light coming in from other places. It’s not really a dance piece, so I don’t really need a vast stage and a high roof.
It’s hard to define contemporary dance. For me dance is moving; it is contextual to a degree. It is about the body and the expression of the body. The piece uses choreography, but it is more of an installation. It feels like a movie in a way, because we rely on the projections — movies played on the bodies of the dancers. There are six dancers: three girls, three guys.
Originally I did the piece for Tshwane Dance Theatre. The creator of the multimedia is Rob Mills. When I met Rob I was about 16 and I was training with a ballet company and he came in to do a creativity workshop with us. He used to be an engineer and he became a photographer and he is good with computers.
The first thing we project is a torso of a man. We project a torso on to his torso so it creates an almost three-dimensional hologram. When an arm moves and the projection moves you get this weird, trippy look.
Sometimes the movements are recorded and played back to the audience — playing it back on the dancers’ bodies. They have to stand on exact positions. The movements are quite small, so if they move an arm and it is not identical to how they have done it before then you lose it. There is nothing for the light to touch.
I think it is kind of boring for the dancers because they are trapped — confined to one spot with very small movements.
I am migrating from ballet because it is fucking hard to maintain that level of discipline. I left [traditional] performance because I got tired of being [cast as] a villager. Most ballets are based in the past. The stories are quite linear and I like new shit, weird shit.
I got really annoyed with the regime of the body beautiful. On reality TV and on Facebook and Twitter there are people constantly promoting themselves. I’m not saying I am exempt from any of this, but it gets to a point where you have to ask: “What’s really important here?” There’s so much else going on, you know, so much depressing shit, sociopolitical issues, poverty, disease.
I don’t like to concentrate on those issues. I’m not one for angst on stage. I know it is necessary, but personally I have always used humour as a coping mechanism.
But people say the piece is upsetting in a way; it’s kind of gruesome. What I did was get on to YouTube and I found all these different clips of people and I’ve glued them together. For example, there’s a bulimic girl and there’s another guy who’s obsessed with plastic surgery and he talks about an operation that went wrong. His lip started spewing liquid. It’s kind of gross and some people say that’s quite disturbing. It’s not a new subject.
I am doing a big corporate job — the corporate of the year. The girls rock up there in their bikinis and hot pants. I’m orange right now because they made me go orange. They said I was too pale. The choreographer has told the girls to lose weight. In our contract it says you have to wear make-up to rehearsal. They set the bar high.
But I am not trying to change the world with a dance piece and I’m not trying to change people’s perceptions. I’m merely telling you what I think. Sometimes you have to spit something out, just get it out.
South African born-Shanell Winlock (37) spent a decade in the United Kingdom dancing with the famous Akram Khan Company. As a result, she gained an almost mythical status in local dance circles as someone who had trained locally and succeeded abroad. Before leaving South Africa, she had worked with local choreographers such as Gregory Vuyani Maqoma, Sylvia Glasser and PJ Sabbagha. In 1998 she was awarded a scholarship to join the Brussels-based company Parts (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios). Her second foray into choreography is titled Be Still and is done for one of South Africa’s most adventurous yet enigmatic dance companies: the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative.
I think I am at the point now where I am exhausted from touring, living out of a suitcase. I said I just want to ground myself. I suppose I wouldn’t have minded if it was five years ago.
You get to the point where you think: “Don’t give me another airport, don’t give me another hotel room, don’t let me get stuck at another station.” The performing part of it is great, but then with everything else the novelty wears off after a while. The performance becomes 1% of the package. So I think I’m getting to the point where I don’t really want to perform anymore. I want to explore other avenues.
Be Still is my first full-length work with a big group. Once we got into the studio I had all these bodies to play with and I could throw one idea at the one group and do something else with another group. My method is more about workshop. When I was [in London] with the Akram Khan Company that is how we operated.
Stillness, or being still, is the basis of the piece we are doing for the Dance Umbrella. Stillness cannot be achieved. You can see it visually, but that still body onstage is still moving. It is moving in its thoughts, in its bloodstream, it is moving in its breath. It is moving.
Political subject matter in dance doesn’t interest me, because it is so personal to your experience in life. It almost feels to me that you are trying to inflict your thoughts of political correctness on somebody else.
Work about nationhood does not repulse me, but I try to keep my distance. I think that my story is not your story. And I suppose, being coloured, it feels like you just don’t have a voice because we have been on the borderline; everything is either black or white.
Yet I could see myself making work about community — about the language that is specific to being coloured.
Wandering through situations over the past year since returning from London, I find that I am grappling for subject matter. I think there is a lot out there, but it is just a question of “what do I want to say?” That is what I’m grappling with; it’s not the fact that there isn’t anything out there.
I feel like I’m still new here and there is still so much I need to explore in myself.
Being in Europe with so many companies, it just felt like every week there was something different and something new to see. But here I intend to adapt to the pace because I don’t want to go away from Johannesburg for a while.
I left at the end of 2001. I was working with three companies to make ends meet at the end of the month — with PJ Sabbagha, with Gregory Maqoma and freelancing as a corporate dancer. It was exhausting because I was working from 8am until 10pm just to make sure I had enough money at the end of the month to pay my bills.
I couldn’t any more, and then I got the lucky break from Akram Khan and I thought “I’m packing up and I’m going”. Who could resist an invitation from an international company?
Thulani Qwabe & Vusi Mdoyi
The pantsula dance company Via Katlehong, from the East Rand township of the same name, is regarded as South Africa’s top proponent of the gritty form of street jive. Via Katlehong, under the directorship of Thulani Qwabe (28) and Vusi Mdoyi (32), have managed to elevate pantsula jive to a fine art. For this they have been rewarded with an international reputation that has allowed them to travel the world, enthralling audiences with this uniquely South African dance form. Back home, from the proceeds of their touring, they have built a complete studio at home from which they run two ventures: a main company and a junior company. They also teach at schools and mentor other pantsula groups in the region. Their latest dance piece, Umqombothi Kabar, is a collaboration with the Lindigo musical troupe from Reunion Island.
Vusi: Pantsula is street contemporary, but it fuses many things from the past. You can see the traditional Zulu dance, you can see the Tswana dance in it. It is contemporised but in a street form.
Thulani: Women came in later because it was male-dominated. Before, people used to think a pantsula dancer was a pantsula. They associated it with crime. But it is a lifestyle and we wear All Stars [takkies] because it is not only a dance. And we are the second generation of pantsula dancers in Via Katlehong.
Vusi: The first generation were street dancers who started in 1992 and then we came up as the second generation in 1996. The first generation gave up. There were not enough jobs, so people went to industrial places. They are not dancing.
Thulani: They went back to the real world. Dance is a certain type of galaxy. If you are an artist you have your own way of thinking and that’s why a lot of artists create different pieces and different states.
Vusi: But we see some of those people in Katlehong. The township has changed and there is a lot of construction that has happened over the years, but the culture of the township is still the same. There are lots of artists and groups practising this pantsula thing. But in Via Katlehong we challenge the contemporary way of thinking and try to be more creative — to not just use it as it used to be, as a line dance.
We do the line dance and the circle but at the same time we also grow. We have been working with many artists and attending workshops, and at the same time we would love this pantsula dance to be treated professionally so that it is seen as a contemporary dance.
Thulani: The township inspired our moves. The movement of a train inspired a move called spharaphara; it is like a train shuffle. The crisscross is called spitori. It is pantsula language, just like ballet has its own language. The pointing is called Jozi. Between pantsulas they can see what they are doing.
Vusi: We don’t perform enough here at home. We are busier in Europe and we have been to France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and to 10 West African countries. We have had standing ovations.
Thulani: They really respect our form of art, but we feel it’s a pity that here at home we haven’t reached that place where we receive the same respect we get from people abroad. That’s why we are focusing on trying to make our shows here at home, because we want to be as recognised as we are over there.
Vusi: The company has 18 professional artists and we have 35 youngsters who we are teaching. We are based at the Katlehong Arts Centre, a multipurpose centre. It’s for everyone; even the comrades are using it.
Thulani: Apart from the thing about recognition, it is important to pay back [to the people] where we come from. We cannot underestimate what we are doing. Even though the people of South Africa know pantsula and they know gumboots, we do it in a very different way. For those people who have forgotten this form of dance, this township way of living, we revive the township in them, the spirit.
And I think we are different because we are able to dance our pantsula with any music. We have explored it with Archie Shepp, the jazz artist from America.
Vusi: You can put us in corporate gigs and we will adapt and we will know what to do. You can put us in the theatre and we will know what it is we must do. We are using our pantsula in a very unique way.
Thulani: Now we are working with Creoles from Reunion. It is a group of eight musicians who sing Maloya music. What attracted us to them, and what attracted them to us, is the similarities that we have. I believe that we have the same cultural background. We have the same culture but we interpret it in a different way. It’s only the language. Even their ancestral rituals are the same as ours.
Even with political issues — Maloya music was forbidden. They were not supposed to sing the music, because they were saying what affected them in their social life.
Vusi: There was a time that they came to visit us in Katlehong and we took them to one of these ceremonies that we practise and they really enjoyed umqombothi [a traditional beer]. It was an African wedding, not a white wedding, and there were some things that were performed there.
Thulani: In this piece we are showing our identities. We look at the identity of an island and the identity of the city we live in.
Dance Umbrella2 takes place from September 2 to 9 at the Market Theatre, Space.com in the Jo’burg Theatre Complex, Museum Africa and at the Dance Factory in Newtown. Also on the programme: Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe, Phia Menard’s production of Afternoon of a Foehn Version 1 and Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake. Tel: 011 492 0709. Website: artslink.co.za/arts