Dance Umbrella: Festival streets ahead with new dances

"Ngizwe" is a piece by Sonia Radebe of Johannesburg’s most established contemporary dance company, Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MIDM), and Jennifer Dallas from Canada. (Remofilwe Sebobe)

"Ngizwe" is a piece by Sonia Radebe of Johannesburg’s most established contemporary dance company, Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MIDM), and Jennifer Dallas from Canada. (Remofilwe Sebobe)

What does it take to compile, curate and nurture a contemporary dance festival in Johannesburg for 27 years? Probably more luck and courage than anything pragmatic.

Georgina Thomson, artistic director of the Dance Umbrella Festival, has demonstrated all of the above. And this year’s festival, which started on February 26 and runs until March 15, is arguably the finest it has been for several years.

The festival has been through the mill in terms of temperamental funding and it has weathered some identity crises. But Dance Umbrella has been rethought. The nature of contemporary dance must reflect the ethos of its time. It’s a medium that can be unbelievably beautiful, as it can be deathly boring.

A festival of contemporary dance is notorious for being a “lucky-packet’”experience, particularly when there are new works emerging into the spotlight – you find yourself watching a mix of sweets and sours.

In Dance Umbrella’s reconstruction, the Stepping Stones aspect – a platform for new voices – has been scrapped.

Said Thomson: “It was a fringe in which various companies used to bring in young dancers; slowly it evolved into more of a community-focused thing, which is not a problem in itself. The problem arose over the past five years or so, when the same work kept coming back.”

She realised that “these people are having fun. They love Stepping Stones but they don’t want to take their work to the next critical level, which is what Stepping Stones aimed at. So we’ve replaced it with Street Dance, a project comprising pantsula and hip-hop. Matthews Manamela, David April and Sifiso Kweyama have travelled all over the province auditioning groups.”

Looking through the programme, there are distinct themes. These didn’t form part of the initial commissioning agenda. Women choreographers predominate and there’s a confrontation with masculinity in a world that has loved and maltreated its women. These pieces promise to add to the discipline’s litany, and to the audience’s experience.

With only 17 works on its two-week programme, it’s a festival small enough to be manageable and big enough to offer rich diversity. But there are non-negotiable must-sees:

  • Ngiziwe, a new work by Sonia Radebe of Johannesburg’s most established contemporary dance company, Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MIDM), and Jennifer Dallas from Canada, is about men. A seasoned MIDM performer with the company for 14 years, Radebe is finding her feet as an independent choreographer.
  • Nelisiwe Xaba, who cut her teeth with enfant terrible Robyn Orlin, presents Fremde Tänze, an anthology of exotic dance insights into Xaba’s experiences of Germany’s Black Forest.
  • The authenticity of being comes under the loupe in Chthonia by veteran choreographer and dancer Tossie van Tonder, who has been on the dance stage for more than 30 years. She speaks of the wilfully denied South African underbelly: throbbing, widespread and infectious.
  • Zimbabwe’s leading dance company, Tumbuka, showcases a work by Nora Chipaumire, Portrait of Myself as My Father. About fatherhood, it is a foray into the idea of homeland. Chipaumire was born in Mutare, Zimbabwe. She left as a young law graduate to seek her fortune and she became an internationally adored choreographer in New York.
  • Some years ago, Argentinean-born choreographer Constanza Macras brought a work to a Dance Umbrella Festival that pushed audiences’s envelope of expectations so dramatically out of shape, many never recovered from the fantastic energy the work exuded. It was called Hell on Earth and it was arguably a Dance Umbrella benchmark. Macras returns this year, with a new piece, On Fire: The Invention of Tradition, which is bound to be deliciously hot.
  • What the hell happened to this place? is a question posed by choreographer Thabiso Pule in a work that deals with the decay of our ecosystem. It’s about pollution and disruption, biodiversity and our crumbling planet.
  • Gavin Krastin lay naked on a steel gurney in a churchlike building during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last year. His body was festooned with food his audience was invited to eat. Guaranteed to bring surprise, Krastin presents On Seeing Red, a work that dovetails with the green issues Pule raises about the impending global chaos.
  • A choreographer in her mid-30s from the immensely fertile context of contemporary dance in Israel, Rachel Erdos came to South Africa five years ago in the choreographic project Crossings. It was there that she met MIDM dancer Sonnyboy Motau. Ever since, the two have been developing a piece about male identity. Entitled fight, flight, feathers, f***ers, it’s a gorgeous beast of a thing, featuring four MIDM dancers and some of the most complicated, gentle, violent dance moves you could imagine.

Aimed at tossing you hither and yon, the Dance Umbrella Festival is a highlight in Johannesburg’s diary. Its importance for the genre’s future is unequivocal.


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