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PETER JOHN SABBAGHA (article first published : 2005-01-26)

Peter John Sabbagha, choreographer, teacher and dancer is the winner of the 2005 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance.

PJ, as his friends and peers know him, registered to study social work at Rhodes University but swapped to a drama course within the first few months. It took him more than a year before he confessed as much to his parents, fearing their reaction and dismay. He admits to having always had an abiding interest in the stage, and even confesses to an enduring passion for Gilbert and Sullivan.

PJ completed his Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in 1993 and tutored at Rhodes until 1995 when he took up a lectureship at Wits University.

In his Honours year, when he was going through a lot of personal angst and turmoil, the arts became the medium through which he found he could work through personal issues. The first dance piece he created was Catacombs, in response to his call-up papers for the army under the old regime.

In 1995 Sabbagha founded The Forgotten Angle Theatre Company and continues to act as this organisation's Artistic Director. In the last five years, his work has taken a socially conscious focus addressing the presence of HIV/Aids within South African society.

"In my work I began to respond to questions. That is much of what the creative process is: responding to questions that have come out of something. This, in turn, evokes a series of other questions - but it's not necessarily about finding answers," he explains.

Like many other creative leaders in South Africa, it is the process of collaboration that appeals to PJ. Like himself, many of the people he works with have come from disciplines other than dance. "Somehow, they seem more human,” he says. “There's a real sense of partnership and a shared, naïve idealism. Most of us work from the inside out, moving from the selfish to a sense of selflessness. Then again, there's a sense of trust, particularly since so much of the creative process begins with play. We dive into ourselves to learn more, and then the focus becomes the shape of the piece".

Sabbagha has been nominated for numerous national awards, receiving the FNB Vita Award for The Most Outstanding Presentation of an Original South African Work for his acclaimed HIV/Aids physical theatre piece The Double Room. This piece together with There's no room in this bed were presented on the main programme of the National Arts Festival in 2002 and 2004 respectively. In addition Sabbagha was nominated for the 2002 Daimler Chrysler Award for Dance and Choreography. He presently serves as a board member and director for The Dance Factory and is involved in teaching and creating work with their youth programme.

Through his focus on HIV/Aids, Sabbagha has come into contact with many activists, educators, caregivers and healing practitioners. These interactions and working partnerships prompted him to develop the training programme, Anti-Retroviral Theatre (ART).

In 2003, he used his combined focus on HIV/Aids and the arts to start a new initiative, Artists Doing Aids (ADA), which falls under the auspices of Sabbagha's dance company. This group of like-minded and socially responsible artists is committed to addressing and responding to the presence of this pervasive disease. Their first project was the introduction of a ten-day awareness festival, ‘When Life Happens' that showcased South African Aids related arts, film and media.

Sabbagha thinks that the Young Artist Awards are just the type of stimulus artists need - "receiving the award is very encouraging. Mind, you," he adds, with a lazy smile, "it was a target I set myself. I did write a list of milestones and goals I wished to achieve..."




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