Dance Umbrella finds new home

After existing in South Africa for 30 years, the Dance Umbrella festival celebrated its last run in March last year because of funding woes.

The festival managed to continue trailblazing for eight years after losing FNB as its key sponsor in 2010. This was thanks to a short-term partnership with Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival, followed by sponsorship from the National Lottery from 2014 onwards.

Described as a platform for the development of contemporary and choreographic performance, the festival launched the careers of Robyn Orlin, Sello Pesa, Boyzie Cekwana, Nelisiwe Xaba, Mamela Nyamza and Gregory Maqoma, among others.

In 2014, Maqoma told the Mail & Guardian that the platform represented a lot of firsts for him: “It’s where I was first seen professionally, where I presented my first choreographic work. It provides a space to test our choreographic skills and to showcase what we do.”

“I heard the news of its closing down from social media,” said Nyamza, an award-winning performer, choreographer and the newly appointed deputy artistic director for the South African State Theatre (Sast).

“I was shell-shocked because I never saw it coming. Yes, I’d always heard for many years that the festival was struggling financially, but it still continued. At times, for the love of the art, I would participate for a lesser fee because [former artistic director Georgina] Thomson said there was no funding.”

When Nyamza caught wind of the news last year, she approached Thomson and offered to take over the festival without a structured plan.

At the same time, the State Theatre’s artistic director, Aubrey Sekhabi, was in talks with the theatres’s chief executive, Dr Sibongiseni Mkhize, about adopting the festival as their own.

“We agreed that, even with our small budgets, it is important to retain a platform for dance, given that we needed to develop it at Sast,” Sekhabi explained.

Although Nyamza searched for the festival’s new home in 2018, she met with Sekhabi about what she thought would become a residency. The encounter was serendipitous.

Now called Dance Umbrella Africa (DUA), the festival will be housed at the theatre in Pretoria under the curation of Nyamza. As such, DUA is now government property, entirely funded by the department of arts and culture. Nyamza says the first run of DUA added up to a million rand. The budget was able to stay at what Nyamza considers reasonable with the help of other institutions. The City of Tshwane will provide DUA with transport and Tshwane University of Technology has offered the help of interns for the duration of the festival. Organisations such as Goethe- Institut and Pro Helvetia have sponsored the travel of struggling artists.

The festival’s new last name came about from Sekhabi and Nyamza wanting pan-African choreographers and performers to identify the State Theatre as a home base. “We want artists from the continent to have a home … and artists from all parts of the world to come and share with us their stories through dance; but importantly, [to] understand our stories from the continent,” Sekhabi said.

Centred around moulding and repositioning performance art as a critical tool of engagement in contemporary Africa, the festival runs under the theme Figure-ing the State of Dance in Africa. Another of the DUA’s objectives is to urge the government to support the arts and artists.

“I personally would love to see our ministers, premiers and MECs come and watch the artists’ performances, just as they do when they avail themselves with burying the artists when they die,” Nyamza said.

DUA features over 50 works from Mali, Mozambique, Madagascar, the United States, Germany, Denmark and South Africa. In addition to dance companies such as Vuyani Dance Theatre and Moving Dance Mophatong, the choreographers Nyamza has invited to showcase include Lulu Mlangeni, Sonia Radebe, Phumlani Nyanga, Maqoma and Gaby Saranouffi. Nyamza has also brought her former Dance Umbrella contemporaries Xaba and Pesa on board for dramaturgical purposes.

Dance Umbrella Africa takes place from March 31 to April 7. Tickets cost R50-R100 a show and can be purchased on Webtickets. For more information visit statetheatre.co.za

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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