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SIWELA SONKE’S ANNUAL SHOWCASE (article first published : 2005-02-9)

Over the weekend, I was able to see First look, then step, then dance madly, Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre’s annual showcase of the work of young dancers from its reachout programmes from various parts of KwaZulu-Natal.

Choreographed by Ntombi Gasa, Neliswa Rushualang and Eric Shabalala, the afternoon’s programme at Siwela’s Studios in Albany Grove featured about 38 youngsters with an average age of 17, the youngest member being all of nine years old. The pieces ranged from hip hop to township jazz and the afternoon proved that contemporary dance is alive, well and certainly dancing madly at Siwela!

Making up the first half of the programme were Hip Hop Explosion from Neliswa Rushualang's Bright Sparks group from Umlazi and KwaMashu; Boys to Men which is a dance work by Ntombi Gasa's Igugu Labasha from KwaMachai on the KZN South Coast; First step then dance madly from Eric Shabalala's new group of Shwibeka Dancers from Clermont and KwaMashu, and Call from the Bright Sparks.

In a break which offered the dancers time to catch their breath and change costumes, the teachers/choreographers spoke about the problems of training young dancers in township situations.

Ntombi Gasa described the difficulty of convincing the KwaMachai community of the value of their project. “Doing anything that is new is generally impossible,” she says. “We need to teach an understanding of what it means to be an artist.” She paid tribute to the youngsters for giving their energies to the classes even after a hard day at school and their capacity to make the project work through their creativity in finding new ways and means to continue classes. “We have to learn to adjust to extreme weather conditions,” Ntombi said, “sometimes taking shelter in another hut when the rain leaks through!”

Working with Shwibeka in KwaMashu, Eric Shabalala recognised that there was a tremendous vibe in the township. “Much of it is good in terms of energy of music and dance but the area is also prone to gangsterism. So we have to be careful where we work, what times we work and how we transport children to and from classes.” He also referred to a major problem in that many parents didn’t understand the qualities of contemporary dance and there was much prejudice that dance is a gay activity.

Nellie Rushualang, who works with Bright Sparks at Umlazi, acknowledges the problems experienced by the other two choreographers but is upbeat in the programme’s capacity to change youngsters’ bodies and minds. “What’s important is that they learn to understand what respect is and in this way, we bring them all together to work together.”

Directed by Siwela Sonke’s artistic director Jay Pather, the second part of the programme comprised works which demonstrated the coming together of the diverse groups, being a collaborative effort in choreography by Ntombi Gasa, Neliswa Rushualang and Eric Shabalala.

This included a highly entertaining Isicathimiya piece – move over Ladysmith Black Mambazo!, followed by 50’s township jazz style in Sophiatown, June 16 and The Celebration. Closing the programme were the moving New Country and Children's Charter of South Africa which I saw last year with a much smaller group which was about to take the production to Holland.

Generally, what impressed me about these young performers was a strong sense of focus. It was also great to see so many male dancers in a contemporary dance group, some of them sufficiently skilled now to take their place on the professional stage.

Amid the energy and exuberance, certain performers stood out and these were Andile Mtolo; Senzo Chamane; Sibusiso Gantsa; Fo Gasa; Siyabonga Khumalo; Zakhele Dubazane; Sthembile Malimela and Kehle Mqwaba. For their excellent sense of control, I noticed Nhlaka Cele, Mxolisi Nkomonde, Sandile Mkhize and Thulani Ngcobo. Proving he’s as good a singer as a dancer, Siyabonga Mhlongo has all-round star quality. Watch him!

Going back to my car which was parked in Albany Grove, I was heartened to see posters lining the walls of the Playhouse complex proclaiming: “Staging a Comeback” and “Intermission – Will return soon” referring to the renovation in progress. If this is an indication of a new and pro-active policy by the Playhouse of communicating to its public, we’re on a good road for the future! – Caroline Smart




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