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Joburg, March 5

By March 9, 2010December 17th, 20142010 Director's Notes, 2010 Travels in Johannesburg

I must admit this is one of the most enjoyable trips to see work I can remember. The weather is mostly perfect with a thunderstorm here and there. Our four-star guesthouse is totally charming and comfortable with many lovely little touches like the soothing sound of fountains, one by the front door and one spilling into the pool near the dining room. Interesting birds come and go. The food is good everywhere we go and so is the wine! Our schedule is relaxed and reasonable allowing time to keep up on email, consider the work we are seeing, write this blog, and get a sense of where we are.

This morning I finally take a two-hour walk all around our neighborhood of Melville with my camera. It feels great to stretch my legs as I have done way too much sitting these last few days. In Joburg everyone drives everywhere as there is no good public transport and it’s a big city. Melville is a charming neighborhood. Mature trees and plantings make such a difference in how a place feels. There are flowering shrubs everywhere and beautiful trees, palms and cactus. Huge lavender shrubs decorate many yards – I wish they would grow like this in Maine!  Homes are hidden behind high walls with some sort of sharply edged deterrent atop.  Security signs abound.  Several times I am startled by charging, barking dogs. Fortunately they are behind metal gates that enclose every driveway.

Melville is on a hill that looks across a low area to the city proper.  One can see the skyline with the Top of Africa spindle that one can go up. There is little traffic but I must keep remembering which way to look when crossing as they drive on the left here. I pass several churches, two schools, and come upon a marvelous antique shop that is set up mostly out of doors. The yard is a delightful series of displays arranged with an artist’s sensibility. Humor and folly abound. This little stop makes my day and I go on my way in a state of delight.

Tonight is the big gala held at the University of Johannesburg Theatre. First National Bank, the Festival’s biggest sponsor, really puts on the dog. There is a huge tent set up in the parking lot decorated to the nines with a full bar and several food stations. Leather couches (very popular here), tables and chairs have been brought in and arranged to encourage schmoozing.  Champagne is flowing freely before and after the show. Sadly most of the seating is soaking wet as there was another terrific thunderstorm this afternoon—following my walk fortunately.

The concert features highlights from past festivals and is clearly programmed to be accessible and entertaining and to please the sponsors. It opens with a well-crafted early group work by Gregory Maqoma entitled, “Black Men…White Balls” — a provocative title for a piece in which four men (and one girl) innocently dance with white soccer balls.

Also on the program is Vincent Mantsoe’s solo from 1993, “Gula Matari,” an enchanting piece in which Vincent becomes a bird, song and all. There is truly no one else like him – he is a force of nature! This piece won several awards and launched Vincent’s career as an international sensation.

The concert ends with a spicy group work, “Unraveling Carmen,” choreographed and featuring by Dada Masilo set, of course, to Bizet’s “Carmen.”  Dada is a sensation, when she is on stage no one else matters. At 24 she seems destined for a great career. I am excited to find a strong woman artist amongst all these men and have invited her to Bates as a residency artist in 2011. Hopefully she won’t get too busy to come.

Uncharacteristically, I hang around for the party afterward and finally get to talk with Gregory. We commiserate about the stresses of running a festival and trying to keep everyone happy. We also reminisce about his recent U.S. tour of “Beautiful Me” which opened at Bates where it was first developed.  Greg gives me the lowdown on some of the politics and players in the Joburg arts scene. He also fills me in on his latest projects and introduces me to his Belgium colleagues for whom he curates the biannual AfroVibes Festival taking place next year in three English cities.

To my great surprise my colleague, Jodee Nimerichter from ADF has arrived and we visit over a glass of wine. No one told either of us that the other was attending but we are delighted to have a chance to talk shop. Jodee is also staying at our guesthouse so she joins our little gang.