Light as a feather: Dancers Asanda Ruda, Lesego Dihemo Sussera Olyn and Thenjiwe Soxokoshe perform in The Women Who Fell From The Moon at the festival. Picture: HERMAN VERWEY
Light as a feather: Dancers Asanda Ruda, Lesego Dihemo Sussera Olyn and Thenjiwe Soxokoshe perform in The Women Who Fell From The Moon at the festival. Picture: HERMAN VERWEY

The Jomba! Contemporary Dance Experience, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, occupies a unique position as a festival rooted in an academic and learning environment.

Situated at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts, it is grouped with flagship cultural events like Time of the Writer, the Durban International Film Festival and Poetry Africa.

Artistic director Lliane Loots is an artist practising as a choreographer with her Flatfoot Dance Company and is an academic at the university.

"We wanted to create a transformative platform that allowed for the growth of dance and understanding of dance," she says.

As a nonverbal art form, contemporary dance suffers from a lack of understanding from local funders, and the result is that dance institutions and festivals are on life support. Jomba has operated on the edge of closure for many years.

The demise of Dance Umbrella is a great loss to dancers, but the resilience of contemporary dance organisations like Joburg’s Moving Into Dance Mophatong, which turns 40 this year, is a cause for celebration.

Jomba enjoys an ethos of strong cultural ownership from local and international dance communities. The festival supports dancers and choreographers based in KwaZulu-Natal with grants and platforms. Its huge fringe programme comprises new and professional choreographers.


The youth fringe — a showground for dancers under the age of 16 — attracts large numbers of dance enthusiasts.

"Any art in a context like ours — that’s come through a history of conflict, where issues around democracy are always contested — art spaces become very important and need development," Loots says.

"In an environment where artists cannot afford to hire theatres and working professional spaces, this festival offers platforms that allow them to share their work with the world. That’s the legacy we hope to continue promoting."

Jomba’s choreographic legacy shines in the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for dance Musa Hlatshwayo, who received his first grant at the festival, and successful Durban dancer-choreographers including Jarryd Watson, Sifiso Khumalo and Ntombi Gasa.

Jomba encourages the development of a pan-African cultural network. It has created ties with dance companies from the US, Europe and, more recently, India.

It encourages activism on burning sociopolitical issues. Contemporary dance holds the pulse of stories that are told and not heard; personal and national histories are tackled with lucidity and soulfulness.

"We’re seeing a strong gender politics theme to the festival this year. There’s a strong component of female choreographers who are making work that is very challenging both physically and conceptually around issues of gender violence," says Loots.

"There are discussions on what constitutes real dance, and choreographers are starting to move their work to being site specific, taking dance out of theatre spaces and putting them on the streets or art galleries, thereby challenging the form of their audiences."

Festival highlights include a new work by Moving Into Dance Mophatong, with Man Longing choreographed by Sunnyboy Mandla Motau and The Women Who Fell From the Moon by Khutjo Green.

The acclaimed Indian contemporary dancer-choreographer Anita Ratnam will present her seminal work, A Million Sitas, a dramatic, satirical retelling of the ancient Indian epic poem Ramayana through the voices of women.

A highlight is the launch of veteran award-winning dance writer Adrienne Sichel’s book, Body Politics: Fingerprinting South African Contemporary Dance. The book is a mix of Sichel’s journalistic writing and experience and a vast collection of research material on the evolution of contemporary dance in SA. It’s an important preservation of a unique artistic heritage and makes for a necessary teaching guide in performance studies.

"Body Politics is a reminder that our culturally infused sociopolitical DNA is embedded in and embodied by our extraordinary dance history – warts, triumphs and all," Sichel says.

"I happened to be born on a citrus farm in 1949, a year after the Nationalist Party came into power, and lived through apartheid as a privileged white English-speaking South African.

"However, my family’s history and growing up in the platteland exposed me to a diversity of cultures, art forms, religions, rituals, political practices and prejudices.

"This background helped shape me as a South African and curious theatre journalist, during and [after] apartheid, and assisted me immensely in trying to understand, record and decode the ground-breaking, often defiant, emergent artistry and aesthetics, as well as the impossibly complex contexts in which activist artists and writers function."

The book will be launched in Johannesburg in September.

The 20th Jomba Contemporary Dance Festival takes place in several venues in Durban from August 28 to September 9.