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HOLY DANCE, HOLY DURBAN (article first published : 2004-03-17)

Two recent events on the Durban dance calendar – Imbumba 2004 on February 24 and 25 in the Playhouse and (Re)Union at the BAT Centre on March 6 – have provided an opportunity to ask ourselves how far dance in Durban and KwaZulu-Natal has come since the advent of democracy ten years ago?

Events such as these often occasion troubling questions and give few, if any, answers. At the two events it was for each spectator, whether the entertainment junkie who is out for a shot of giggles or the activist who expects theatre to be a rehearsal for the next revolution, to make head, body or tail of the variety of issues and challenges that were respectively served for lunch and along with dinner.

“Are we condemned to dance fusion ten years on?” I wonder as I sit through two afternoons of Imbumba 2004 watching cultures struggling to meet? Where they do meet, I see multiple refusals to dialogue fully and constant returns to separation.

As members of KZN Dance Theatre, the Minette de Klerk Dance Academy, the Mary Ann Salvage School of Ballet and Kantha-Maine “romp through the meadows”, fuse Bharatha Natyam and Irish tap dance or interpret boiling points and consequent evaporations, I am blown away by the youthful exuberance with which the dancers perform. Seeing so much talent raises hope that we are in a healthy place and have a lot of great dancers to look forward to seeing in the future.

Yet when each afternoon ends with members of Cato Manor Vibe!, the Durban Children’s Home, God’s Golden Acre, Lecia Hale, LeftFeet First, Nateshwar Dance Academy, Shwibeka Dance Ensemble, Uyaba Dance Company and Phenduka Dance Theatre invoking June 16, 1976, to remember the role of the youth, ‘black’ youth dare I say, in changing the political landscape of this country, I am thrown into despair all over again.

Questions of transcending the separations of the past come flooding back, reminding me that in the work of the first group of companies mentioned above I discerned gestures of integration that amounted to nothing more than previously ‘white’ schools having taken in a few ‘Indians’, ‘Coloureds’ and ‘Africans’ who have journeyed across. When the ‘black’ youth then perform a work all by themselves the question confronts us again: how far have we come? Also: is it all so political after all? Does it have to be?

Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre’s Mumbai Calling, fresh from the World Social Forum in India, and Flatfoot Dance Company’s Busy Being Blue dispel my anxiety as they throw us into centre of the storm. Siwela Sonke have come a long way since their artistic director, Jay Pather, got attacked in some conservative quarters a few years ago for fusing traditional Indian dance with traditional African as well as ballet and contemporary styles. Today his company and Flatfoot can cross cultural boundaries and transcend deterministic cultural ideologies to make deliberately political work that is intercultural.

New dance languages that can no longer be easily catagorised (and dismissed) in the confluence of KwaZulu-Natal’s main conservative cultures – Zulu, Indian and English – have been invented. These languages are all of these cultures and more, but none of them and still more at the same time. Herein lies the hope for a future in which we can watch some of the young dancers seen at Imbumba 2004 dancing recontextualised South African languages.

Choreographer Gerard Samuel recognises the opportunities offered by the last ten years when he says working with differently able-bodied dancers and working in previously white schools is something that has only been possible in the last few years because of the changes our society has undergone. Pather sees ten years as “a chance to deal with ourselves as a country as well as a chance for compassion”. So it is all political after all and even the cheap entertainment junkie has to make sense of it by laughing sometimes inappropriately during a performance.

(Re)Union took innovation to dizzy heights as a new nooks and crannies in which to blend dance with other art forms were explored with explosive success: sundowners for the early birds followed by downing dinner while viewing models strutting their stuff on the catwalk to the clicking and flashing of cameras plus a fair measure of clamouring and whistling. Only ululating was missing, which gives the secret away and throws us into class and racial politics all over again.

With dinner safely tucked away it is on to the stuffy theatre with insufficient emergency exits to handle the assembled crowd in the event of an emergency exit. (I was always the safety freak in such instances!) Along the way a video installation that nobody pays much attention to and those of us that do cannot make much of it.

Durban professional contemporary dance companies on the same stage once again: simply “holy”. Further testimony to the maturity attained by the art form in the last few years in particular cannot be asked for beyond work that ranges from exploring the seeming banality of urban living in Phenduka Dance Theatre’s Any Kind to facing up to the making profane of sacred places and beings in Busy Being Blue by Flatfoot Dance Company. Everything in between in close-up is provided by Run for Cover and Prisoners by the Fantastic Flying Fish Dance Company and Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre respectively.

Taking us into the deep recesses of personal politics in its darkest moments and floating with us above the world to make us look once again at its messiness and at our roles in the mess, the works are intense but provide enough comic relief amongst them to lead one member of the audience to say, “It’s different. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I liked it.” In the end, as I walk away from the experience, I say with Flatfoot, “Holy dance, holy Durban, holy the politics, holy the new paradigms, holy, holy, holy.” We certainly have an exciting second decade of democracy ahead of us in which to deal with the outstanding issues from the past as well as new ones. – Mbongiseni Buthelezi




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