Mamela Nyamza's alchemy of anger into grace at National Arts Festival
Cape Town dancer, teacher, choreographer, artist and activist Mamela Nyamza is the featured artist at the 2018 Grahamstown National Arts Festival, which means her craft will be celebrated and showcased.
Previous featured artists include the musician and composer Neo Muyanga (2017) and Baxter Theatre director and playwright Lara Foot (2016).
This is the first time the accolade has been given to a dancer and Nyamza doesn’t take this lightly, particularly in an environment she feels does not support dance, after the recent closure of Dance Umbrella, a national platform for contemporary dance through which Nyamza and others came up.
"This accolade is a great honour. It shows that my work is being seen. Dancers in SA often feel like we’re not being looked at. I’m excited," she says.
She is also nervous as she is about to premiere new material, and revisit old work with her matured body and an evolving dance vocabulary.
It is a time to reflect on the past, present and future with material that has made her a formidable artist-activist refined at condensing personal and socio-political issues into bold artistic expressions.
Nyamza was the 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance, and found her voice then in her personal history and rose above the rejection of her natural body structure at classical ballet institutions. She is a lesbian raising a son. Her mother was raped and killed in 1999.
She started ballet at the age of eight at the Zama Dance School in Gugulethu, Cape Town, with teacher Arlene Westergaard.
She graduated with a National Diploma in Ballet from Tshwane University of Technology in 1994.
Always cast as an understudy, she never made it as a professional ballerina. This propelled her into the politics of the body with works that radically deconstruct dance norms and turn classical ballet on its head.
Her works include Hatch, which later became Hatched: The Meal, and The Last Attitude, (with Nelisiwe Xaba). She occasionally performs the autobiographical work with her son, and connects with her late mother on stage.
With further education at the Alvin Ailey International School for Dance in New York and extensive global exposure, Nyamza’s voice matured enough to close the gap between the personal and political with works such as I Stand Corrected (with UK artist Mojisola Adebayo) and De-Apart-Hate and Rock-To-The-Core, which call for cultural and political reform and justice.
Her movement style has grown into a strong conceptual signature, which can be an intellectual exercise for audiences.
Her works included in the National Arts Festival’s main programme are Hatched, Black Privilege and Phuma-Langa.
In Hatched, Nyamza explores identity and belonging, as well as the changes in her life after the birth of her son. The work has been performed in the Netherlands, Mexico, France, Germany, the US, UK, Singapore, Mali and around SA. To mark 10 years since its conception Nyamza’s son, Amkele Mandla, who initially performed in this production a decade ago when he was eight, will join his mother again on stage.
"It’s a transformed piece because we have both transformed. He’s a tall teenager who questions things now, compared to the portable little boy who did as his mom told," says Nyamza.
"Those are the challenges we’ll be tackling with the production, but I like that they’re real challenges that we’re going through right now as mother and teenager.
"I have just performed Hatched as a solo in the US and it made more sense because I’m older and I’m so much of a woman now.
"And because everything is so real in the show, people will see a mature woman and artist who is following her own mind and soul on stage."
Black Privilege is Nyamza’s new work commissioned by the National Arts Festival and Germany’s Pact Zollverein Theatre, where it will have its international premiere in August.
Informed by the notion and experience of rejection by mainstream institutions, it draws from Nyamza’s disappointment at being turned down for a teaching position at the University of Cape Town and the protest she led against Cape Town’s Fleur de Cap theatre awards for being exclusive and elitist. The work also celebrates unsung, rejected and misjudged heroines of SA.
"Black Privilege looks at how you can be celebrated, but still be crawling on the floor. How you can have a PhD, but still be unemployed. It was partly inspired by unthanked heroes like Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and it is essentially asking questions," says Nyamza.
Phuma-Langa was commissioned by the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative when Nyamza was in residency at the Ebhodweni Arts Centre in Mpumalanga in 2017. It’s a beautiful and gut-wrenching exploration of how apartheid undermined and violated African cultures, using Ndebele history and culture as a vehicle.
The title is a word-play on how non lingua people call the province "Maphuma-langa" and it is a call for the revival of language, art and culture.
Nyamza is in a good place. She is enjoying her 40-year-old body and is mulling throwing in the towel as a dancer. Looking ahead, she hopes to resuscitate Dance Umbrella and take it on as a legacy project. "I want to revive it for the younger generations because many dance platforms are dying," Nyamza says.