Contemporary dance continues to inspire and delight its audiences
Dance Umbrella is an annual event where South Africans can see themselves. It was created 30 years ago as a democratic platform that connects dancers, choreographers and companies across racial, cultural and artistic divides.
The festival launched the careers of many South African choreographers and has a track record for development and a fantastic reputation internationally. But despite all its clout, it suffers from a lack of interest and investment from funders.
Since the withdrawal of FNB as the main funder in 2011 — it had supported Dance Umbrella for 19 years — it was supported by the Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival for three years, before the National Lotteries Commission became the main sponsor in 2014.
"Funders don’t understand and create relationships with projects. They don’t come see the work and don’t care.
"The Department of Arts and Culture’s Mzansi Golden Economy, from which we received funding for the past three years, has not come on board for the festival’s 30th anniversary," says Dance Umbrella artistic director Georgina Thomson.
She was recently honoured by the French government for her promotion of artistic and cultural exchanges between SA and France.
This is her last Dance Umbrella. "As I exit I’m most proud of the fact that we have managed to keep going despite being an independent organisation with no affiliation or support from theatres or universities. It’s quite an achievement as other festivals are linked to support systems we have never had."
This year she has crafted an inspired programme that reflects the history and legacy of Dance Umbrella’s pioneering platform, with several of its alumni returning to its stage.
The festival opens with Gregory Maqoma’s Mayhem and Vincent Mantsoe’s Gula Matari presented as a double bill.
Both dancer-choreographers came to national attention following performances at Dance Umbrella when they were students of the Moving Into Dance Mophatong Company.
Gula, inspired by birds, is Mantsoe’s seminal for which he won the IGI Vita Dance Umbrella Pick of the Fringe Choreography Award in 1992, among many other accolades. It fuses his spirituality and culture with Aboriginal Australian and Asian choreographic influences.
Maqoma’s Mayhem, which presents damaged altered states in chaos, is a response to burning social issues that still plague the country today.
Moya Michael, a South African dancer-choreographer based in Belgium, will premiere new work titled Coloured Swans 1: Khoiswan prepared in collaboration with Durban artist Tracey Rose. It reflects their histories in a world that limits viewing to black and white while discarding shades of grey.
This year for the first time, the Hillbrow Theatre will be used as one of the venues for Dance Umbrella with its work included in the festival’s main programme. Hillbrowfication is a production by the Hillbrow Theatre Project Outreach Foundation and Berlin choreographer Constanza Macras with her company Dorkypark. The cast includes 21 children and young people and three professional dancers. They imagine the Hillbrow of the future.
Watching them rehearse is an illustration of the incredible power and dedication of the Hillbrow Theatre Project in action. Its teaching programmes, headed by Gerard Bester and Linda Michael Mkhwanazi, allow the youth to hone their natural talents and dreams. According to a 16-year-old performer, the future is "a clean, safe Hillbrow with adequate housing".
Albert Ibokwe Khoza, who is fearless in tackling social and political issues, trained at the Hillbrow Theatre Project before studying performance at Wits University. He collaborates with Robyn Orlin and Thabo Pule in the production And So You See … Our Honourable Blue Sky And Ever-Enduring Sun … Can Only Be Consumed Slice By Slice.
"The work is a tribute to humanity looking at everything that is happening in the country and in the world in general, using the seven deadly sins as a point of reference," Khoza says.
Bester is big on collaboration. He is an incredible performer whose unique exploration of expression and emotion through movement allows him to break down walls when engaging with audiences.
A Wits alumnus, Bester performed at the inaugural Dance Umbrella in 1989 and has occasionally featured on its programme ever since.
This time he collaborates with Cape Town performer, choreographer and teacher Alan Parker on a work called Sometimes I have To Lean In.
They explore the physical action of leaning and the idea of becoming closer to another human being in one space.
Bester was intrigued by how Parker explores memory in his performance. The idea of archiving has been a fascination of Parker’s for the past five years. In 2016 he began his PhD in Live Art, Interdisciplinary and Public Art at the University of Cape Town with a research focus on choreographic archives in SA.
"A lot of my work has been about thinking about dance that happened in the past and its significance to the individual now," he says.
"I have very strong memories of watching dance in the past. When you watch a work that changes you in some way, you leave the theatre seeing things differently.
"My theory is that all of those experiences affect the way that I make work now.
"I may not have been taught by someone like Mamela Nyamza, but because I’ve watched so much of her work, there’s a piece of her that I carry forward and I become an archive of her work in a way.
"It’s about acknowledging that I’m part of a longer network or lineage."
Other Dance Umbrella highlights include works from 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance, Musa Hlatswayo, Sylvaine Strike with Owen Lonzar, Themba Mbuli and more.
• Dance Umbrella 2018 will be staged at various theatres and venues in Johannesburg from March 6-18.