Opening spaces for new dancers

Even though dancer-choreo-grapher Mamela Nyamza is this year’s featured artist at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, she still feels as though she’s struggling to get work in her home country — although right now she is in high spirits.

Nyamza will perform Black Privilege, which was commissioned for the festival, and following that, Hatched, a work she debuted a decade ago. Two other works she choreographed will also be staged during the 11-day festival.

When the lights go out, she goes from diva to strugglista. It is this dilemma that surfaces in a conversation about Black Privilege, during rehearsals in her home city, Cape Town. Nyamza struggles with the notions of being black and privileged because, on the one hand, she feels blessed but on the other it seems as if doors remain shut.

“There are so many of us who have privilege. We are educated and we are graduates. We have acknowledgment. But still we are struggling. We don’t have platforms. We are still struggling to open gates,” says Nyamza. “We are still trying to be leaders. We are being led. I’m asking: Is there such a thing as Black Privilege? If there is, then why are we still struggling? We don’t have platforms and spaces.”

On the flip side, she adds: “I am using my privilege, my body, and I am challenging things on stage. To talk and say what I want to say is privilege. Back in the day people were voiceless.

“At least today you have a name and you are somebody. You might not have all the other privileges so you use the ones that you have.”

Being a known figure in the dance fraternity also gives her a measure of opportunity and people do turn up when she performs. In Grahamstown, where she performed as one of the Standard Bank artist award-winners in 2011, she sells out shows.

So whether it is simply a lack of funds to create more opportunities for artists or gatekeeping, which Nyamza protested against at last year’s Fleur du Cap theatre awards in Cape Town, this privilege seems short-lived. These are not easy questions and the answers are not easy either.

Nyamza’s body has remained her constant tool for activism. “I can do what I want to do the way I want to do it,” says Nyamza. “This is the privilege I have. I’m voicing out things that younger artists can’t voice because they are scared of being unemployed. I’m not employed by anyone so I can say whatever I want. And sometimes I say a lot and then I’m blocked. But I still get to perform.”

Protest — the act of speaking out and claiming space as an activist — has been central to the way Nyamza works and the work she produces.

“I think the activism happens through my work. As I got older, it happens outside of the work more.”

And then suddenly Nyamza casually delivers some unexpected news: she wants to dance less and perform more while carving out work for other dancers. Her body is feeling the accumulation of aches and pains now.

“I’m 42 and this body can’t jump around on stage anymore. I am throwing in the towel as a dancer but not as a performer. I am still going to perform.

“I’m doing Hatched for the last time at home. It’s a demanding piece. I’m looking for a dancer who can take over the performance of Hatched.”

This piece, which explores issues of identity entrenched by the dual responsibilities of being a mother and a performer, features Nyamza shifting from ballet en pointe to contemporary dance.

“I want to create and direct work,” she continues. “I have started that already. If I go on stage now I would probably just stand. I need to step back and give other people opportunities to perform.” To this end, Nyamza created Phuma-langa, which features the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative dancers in Mpumalanga. It will also be performed at the festival.

She dreams of resurrecting the recently defunct Dance Umbrella festival in Johannesburg to ensure that younger dancers have a platform for their work. For now, she is packing her props and clothes and driving to Grahamstown with Black Privilege and an awareness that she is sometimes still objectified.

“Sometimes I still feel like I am still seen as exotic. But I am not Saartjie Baartman. I am not your slave. I just want to stare back at the audience when that happens.”

Black Privilege is the featured work at the 44th National Arts Festival, which began yesterday and ends on July 8. For the festival programme, visit

National Arts Festival rejuvenates chilly Rhini

Every year during the winter school holidays, Rhini (Grahamstown) in the Eastern Cape hosts the National Arts Festival, which brings together the fine arts, dance, music, performance art and theatre from across the continent at a number of venues in the small town. This year the festival takes place from June 28 to July 8. The highlights include the following:

Mamela Nyamza: The National Arts Festival 2018 Featured Artist is a choreographer, dancer and theatre producer with a canon of work known to accommodate and challenge audiences. Her works at this year’s festival include Hatched, Black Privilege and Phuma-Langa. The themes explored in the three pieces include motherhood, gate-keeping and indigenous naming practices.

Chuma Sopotela: Indlulamithi (the ones who are taller than trees), by the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art, draws attention to the street children who are generally ignored by the festivalgoers. In a statement she referred to them as those “who stand in the biting cold to get a bit of our attention for a one-rand coin”. Indlulamithi, performed by Sopotela and the children of Grahamstown, is about living on the streets of the town and reflects the economic disparities in South African society.

Voices and Silences: The curator of this year’s film programme, Dylan Valley, was moved by the abundance of high-quality South African films and the limited number of places to view them.

The films address the country’s many divisive issues and include Winnie, Vaya, Five Fingers for Marseilles, web series The Foxy Five, the web documentary
Mixed Space and Promised Land Fallacy.

Creativate: An inaugural digital arts festival called Creativate has been included in the National Arts Festival. This platform brings creativity, innovation and technology together to showcase how the digital age can help our imaginations come to life. Examples include a Swiss production of Hamlet that features an experimental documentary play and music theatre. Among other installations and performances are virtual-reality installations, a poetry hackathon and a games room.

In addition, festivalgoers can look forward to performances from the likes of musician Thandi Ntuli, comedy shows, art exhibitions, children’s theatre and street markets with a wide variety of products. — Zaza Hlalethwa

For more information about all venues, booking and events at the festival, visit

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Yazeed Kamaldien
Yazeed Kamaldien is a journalist, photographer and independent documentary filmmaker.

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