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FNB DANCE UMBRELLA 2004 (article first published : 2004-03-22)

The brief was simple. Answer the question: What value the FNB Dance Umbrella? Is it even possible to question the importance of a national contemporary dance institution - particularly in light of the woeful demise of regional festivals over the past few years? Gone: Dance Indaba (Cape Town), Dance Shongololo (Durban), Dance Umdudo (Grahamstown).

The once full contemporary dance menu is more meager these days with only Dance Umbrella, Jomba! (Durban) and the nascent New Dance Festival, left to fly the contemporary dance flag. Recent government funding policy has caused relatively greater attrition to contemporary dance than, for example, to its classical dance counterpart. This is ironic really given that the contemporary genre has traditionally been the easier point of access to the dance industry for black South Africans, and our most important and exportable choreographers currently operate almost exclusively within the contemporary context. So the question is a valid one and there are a number of shades to the answer.

Over the past decade we have bled performance venues and companies by the pint. This is particularly pronounced within the contemporary dance sector. Today, one is more likely to find South African contemporary dancers and choreographers on European stages, than in their home environment. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The decades of navel-gazing that Apartheid inflicted upon our dance industry caused it grievous affliction – represented not least of all by unbalanced resource-apportionment and diminished performance and choreographic standards.

he effect of these abuses of the art(s) is only now beginning to dissipate as South African dancers are, once again, able to place themselves and their work within a global context. An expansion of horizons is often beneficial to young humans and jaunts to the north, and elsewhere, have provided valuable new perspectives for a number of our dance artists. The effect of the change is increasingly apparent, both in the ideas informing new work and in rising levels of technical proficiency. But the motherland misses these periodic émigrés and would like them to come back occasionally to show us what they have learned or, in some instances, what they have chosen to avoid learning. In this context, and by dint of its tenacity and longevity (16 years), the Dance Umbrella becomes a natural roost for the returning globe-trotters.

This year’s festival programme is testimony to the role the Dance Umbrella fills as an opportunity for locals to see South African dancers and choreographers whose diaries usually keep them out of the country. Last year’s Lawrence Olivier Award winner, Robin Orlin, will present‘the babysitting series (part 2) at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Boyzie Cekwana, also in site-specific vein, presents Infections of the Void: City Without Walls/Shopping Baroque in collaboration with artist Rodney Place, at Gallery Momo. Cekwana has also made Cut for himself and partner Desire Davids, which premiered at the Wits Theatre this week, while Vincent Mantsoe’s will perform NDAA, which premiered on last year’s London Dance Umbrella, is also at Wits on March 19 and 20.

Cekwana has a specific take on the place of the Dance Umbrella in the development of this country’s contemporary dance scene. He writes: “The Umbrella is perhaps one of the more important (if not the most important) platforms for the presentation and profiling of South African Contemporary Dance. Indeed, it has singularly fulfilled this role over the last 16 years. A number of our choreographers, myself included, were spawned on the Wits Theatre stage, where the festival was born and where this ‘tradition’ subsists”. Cekwana’s opinion raises another perspective – the importance of the Dance Umbrella as the crucible for successive generations of contemporary choreographers. It is unlikely that any named South African dancemaker has not presented on the festival and most will have cut their teeth on preparing and producing work on its stages which, for many, will also have been their first national billing.

Then there is the value derived from the Umbrella’s presentation of international artists. This year Gilles Jobin (Switzerland), the Kibbutz Dance Company (Israel) and Le Compagnie ler Temps (Senegal) bring their various perspectives to the platform.

So, the Dance Umbrella is important for the place it has created for the presentation of South African contemporary dance art. Which is a statement that, itself, raises another question: Whither South African contemporary dance art? At least two eminent arts journalists have, over the past week, written articles considering the question of the accessibility of choreographic work. A regular lament of the contemporary dance community is that their audiences are never as large as those for classical dance. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that classical dance is more readable. This thinking goes that even if Giselle is a thin white girl mincing about on the ends of her toes, her pathos is still recognizable as genuine human anguish and therefore available for understanding to a great number of people who look and act nothing like her.

An opposite viewpoint is that classical audiences are lazier because they are not prepared to think deeply about the work they view, whereas the contemporary dance aficionado looks beyond the movement to distill meaning. But what if the meaning is too obscure to be distilled? The opening of the festival immediately raised this question.

Sue Pam-Grant’s Screen Factor 8 tore into the civilized tranquility of Sandton Square last Saturday evening. The work derives from Pam-Grant’s work in the industrial theatre arena and was conceived, designed, directed and choreographed by her. These origins are clear in the punchy delivery, stark imagery and good use of multi-media technology. The work is described as creating a “mobile canvas of intersecting planes that … fragment and assemble images”. To do this the dancers of Moving Into Dance Mophatong co-ordinate the frenetic arrangement and re-arrangement of a number of mobile screens upon which are projected John Hodgkiss’s images of the same dancers caught in frozen action. In front of the stage Gerard Bester portrays a person caught on the edge of an experience that never quite materializes. Bester is white, the dancers are black. Given our political history there are clever observations that can be made about the energy of the moving black bodies and the relative disempowerment of the white one. This is especially so when Bester surrenders and leaves the stage, while his place is appropriated by the dancers.

There is probably a thesis in the question of the differences between the industrial theatre setting and the traditional theatrical one? The issue is not the focus of this article, but a few perceptions will perhaps generate some debate. The dramatic and physical abilities of the dancers in Screen Factor 8 are subordinated to the technology and simplicity of the imagery. The fact that the dancers simply push screens around is the semi-dark is almost an anti-dance statement – certainly not an unknown idea in the dance world, and one with its own internal validity that is likely to be lost on the unsuspecting person expecting to see a ‘danced’ performance. Only Bester’s appearance carries any accessible texture, although this becomes diluted in the wash of sensory stimulation. Drama, pathos, dynamic (light-and-shade) are all avoided. Consequently the audience is left wondering what, beyond the sensory delight, it was all about. Should they have taken something that will inform their lives in some way, or is the piece simply akin to the advertising image? Immediate, colourful, hard-hitting but ultimately devoid of deeper meaning.

Dance Umbrella kicks into high gear next week. Performances to look out for: Giles Jobin (Tuesday and Wednesday – Dance Factory), Faustin Linyekula (Thursday and Friday – Wits Theatre), Robyn Orlin (Friday and Saturday – Johannesburg Art Gallery), New Moves and Fresh Moves (mixed bills at the Dance Factory and Wits Theatre on Saturday and Sunday, 6 and 7 March).




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