After rushing to catch the tail end of breakfast I endeavor to catch up the never-ending task of email. Then we are out the door for today’s artist talk with Vincent and Neli. We will see Neli’s show tonight. Its kind of nice to have some of the talks occur before we see the work and some afterward. This allows us to see some of the work without any background info and take our best guess as to the intent. But there is not doubt in my mind that hearing firsthand from the artists about their inspiration, intent and developmental process is hugely informative. The conversations always wander into the political territory that constraints the process of making but also often demands inspired innovations. It is painful and so familiar to listen to the artists express their frustration about the limited support, lack of understanding and appreciation for what they do, and the absurd strings attached to most of the money they do receive. It is in some ways reminiscent of what we went through in the 80’s. The funders don’t understand or appreciate the work and require artists to define and categorize their work in outdated, inaccurate and arbitrarily confining boxes.
So … there are about 20 African artists in the room of all ages from Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania, and South Africa – all are attending workshops or performing as part of Dance Umbrella. The conversation covers a lot of ground but keeps coming back inevitably to politics as I said. The attention to race is an omnipresent factor mostly on the part of European audience members. And yet we keep hearing this issue brought up by artists who are also grappling, in a totally different way, with the issue of what it means to be Africa in the newly established democratic South Africa. Regarding Vincent’s work, that features a mixed race cast, the persistent question is why is Vincent using white dancers? How/why does that change the viewers understanding of the work and how they respond?
Vincent expresses his utter frustration and annoyance with this preoccupation with race. His goal is to achieve a “sharing” among the collaborators/dancers that transcends race and is about connecting to the common spiritual ground that motivates his work. As an artist who grew up I Soweto among a family of sangomas, now lives now in France and works around the globe, Vincent speaks of South Africa as his true and spiritual home and where he finds inspiration. His work, “San” began when he found a book about the San people in an airport and become mesmerized by their culture, their journey and finally how their nomadic tradition was destroyed. He describes this work as the first where he consciously took on a political theme.
Neli rages a bit, and rightly so, about how the Europeans have all the money and thus control over who gets supported and how. She describes the difficulty of finding support to make work at home in Africa and of finding paying audiences to appreciate it. Neli talks about there being no way to “play” at home as there is little access to studio space or support for development. She, like others, are dependent on support from Europe to continue their work. She expresses frustration that this cycle keeps being perpetuated. Some South Africa artists acknowledge that Dance Umbrella is the only annual showcase for contemporary dance in the country especially for younger artists. For those emerging artists who have not yet gained international attention, DU is likely the only opportunity to perform their work all year.
This is serious! Because First National Bank –the primary sponsor of Dance Umbrella for most of its 22 years, has announced that it will terminate support after this season. The future of the festival is in doubt. DU is working hard to find other funders to allow them to continue their vital role in fostering the still nascent dance scene here, but clearly everyone is worried. Now that DU has gained the interest of a widely diverse and committed the support is more critical and deserved than ever. It is only a slight consolation to note the existence of Dance Factory, the new Goethe on Main center, Moving Into Dance and other organizations who are also fulfilling a vital role supporting the local dance community.
Meanwhile, we American stand by with earnest concern and deep interest yet feeling completely unable to offer the kind of support that is so desperately needed and so often comes from Europe. For the U.S., the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the world (but for how much longer?), to care so little for the arts at home and abroad is an embarrassment to say the least. We who have made dance our life, recognize and respect the remarkable contemporary work being created in Africa and elsewhere but have little means to significantly contribute. This was the main impetus behind the creation of The African Contemporary Arts Consortium (of which BDF is a founding member. For more info see: https://www.batesdancefestival.org/african.php) – to bring together passionate, experienced U.S producers to deepen our knowledge and find equitable means to engage with and support artists working across the continent. Our hope is to make a convincing argument on behalf of this work and leverage some small amount of support.
I digress—back to our conversation with the artists. While Vincent sees his work as very deeply rooted in his personal/cultural traditions, Neli considers her work to be more globally focused. After all she note, race is still a universal issue around the world. Vincent says that through his work and teaching he attempts to break down barriers and connect people to spirituality. Yet, he often finds that westerners do not understand this as the basis of his work.
An interesting side note—both Neli and Vincent began dancing as teenagers by mimicking Michael Jackson videos. This story can be heard around the world and is a testament to the power of the global media and to Jackson’s enormous influence on dance. Across Africa young people very often do not have access to training or professional performances/artists/techers. Watching youtube is often their only source of information about dance.
Moving on to our evening activities—we went first to Goethe on Main, a brand new arts complex developed by the Goethe Institute. This is a remarkably hip and gorgeously renovated facility located downtown. Multimedia artist, William Kentridge has his studio here. The complex includes a flexible performances space, snazzy café and restaurant, a bookstore, and studios for other contemporary artists/designers. After a quick tour we attended a performance by Musa Hlatshwayo.
Musa is a theater artist, choreographer and teacher trained at the University in Durban. His piece, “Moses” deals with social fragmentation that he articulates through the idea of a dream state. “Moses” features the debut of four of his terrific students from Durban, all of whom are majoring in other subjects like technology and biomedical science. Musa begins the piece with a powerful spoken word and movement solo. His flavor, intensity and intelligence reminded me of Bamuthi and I want to introduce them. The piece continued with a duet by the young men followed by solos with the women and a long group section of intense dancing in and around an increasingly complex landscape of barriers created with cautions tape that Musa continually strings across and through the space. By the end the space is entirely carved up with the dancers deftly slipping in and out of many confined areas. The hour-long work featured a loud, cacophonous sound score, beautiful projections of individual dancers, army boots worn, hung in the space and worn around the neck finally, flashlights, shiny, leathery costumes and a repetitive series of slightly violent, angst ridden movement phrases. At the talk the next day we learned that the company had no advance information about the small performance space and had to make significant adaptations to their setup which compromised the integration of the projections.
As we attempt to leave for the Market Theatre we find our brand new little car has a dead battery. Not a minute passes before our driver has recruited someone to push us and jump start the engine. They are resourceful as hell! We arrive in time for Nelisiwe Xaba’s remarkable piece, “Black! …White?” An elaborate production featuring three performers, multiple movable set pieces including a toy lamb, projected animation of running bugs, beautiful fabric panels with wearable built-in costumes pieces, many costume changes and brilliant, idiosyncratic characterizations and mime. This is an exceptionally imaginative creation that amuses and delights. One cannot help but laugh out loud at the opening section — a quirky, neurotic female character fastidiously arranging and rearranging every detail of the set only to be undone by two devilish destroyers. The most inventive and amazing scene occur midway when Neli and her male counterpoint, both dressed in black and white lycra bodysuits, act out a pantomime while laying on the floor. The third performer, masked in black, defines their environment via masking tape. The whole scene is projected onto the hanging panels to exquisite effect. This scene is somewhat akin to Japanese Bunraku puppetry with the eye draws to the projections not to the live action on the floor.