The movement maverick: ​Mamela Nyamza

Activist, dancer and choreographer

Mamela Nyamza’s work refuses to follow any tune but her own.

Born in Gugulethu in 1976, Nyamza says the environment of her birthplace gave her no option but to be a dancer. Although she excelled in ballet, which she has done since the age of eight, she was ridiculed by her friends and rejected by the ballet world.

After studying at the Tshwane University of Technology, where she obtained a national diploma in ballet in 2004, Nyamza studied in New York at the Alvin Ailey School of Dance.

In the biographical video following her selection as the 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist, Nyamza says being taught ballet by a black woman was a liberating experience. “She just knew my body better,” she says. “I was never told to tuck my bum. I was just told to lift up and feel light. There people dance from 10am to 10 in the evening, which actually transformed me into a strong dancer.”

Work and meaning

Nyamza’s mother was raped and murdered in 1999, a tragedy that also profoundly shaped her approach to dance, both in form and ideology. She describes Hatch, which she began in 2007 and later morphed into Hatched, as a way of connecting to her mother.

She sometimes performs the piece with her son Amukele. Nyamza’s work — all of it wrought into her singular, visceral aesthetic — is, at its heart, an activist intervention. Works such as De-Apart-Hate, I Stand Corrected, The Meal and The Last Attitude have looked at various aspects of discrimination — racial, hate crimes such as corrective rape, and racial and gender discrimination in ballet.

Future plans

Nyamza is the first choreographer to be the featured artist at the National Arts Festival. As part of the award, she will perform her landmark work Hatched, as well as new works, including those done in collaboration with a dance company in Mpumalanga.

“I have been crafting for years and now it seems like I am starting to reap the benefits,” she said over the phone from Connecticut, where she was on a performance and workshop tour at Fairfield University.

“I must deliver a work that not only speaks to me and the world but one that speaks to the issues that our country is facing because between art and life there is no difference.

“Just the other day we were marching on gatekeepers like the Fleur de Cap awards, which are elitist and only keen on recognising white excellence.”

After Fairfield, Nyamza headed to a festival in Belgium where she performed De-Apart-Hate. Although she says her award is proof that opportunities for South African choreographers are growing, the bulk of the work is still overseas.

“We have become the ambassadors of our country, its prophets. You will be amazed at the number of people who have read about my work but have never met me. People are writing theses about it. In South Africa, we used to be seen as mere accompaniment for musicians but now it is the musicians accompanying us.” 

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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