We Are Still Marching, by Sunnyboy Motau, will be showcased at the Dance Umbrella Africa at the State Theatre. Picture: HERMAN VERWEY
We Are Still Marching, by Sunnyboy Motau, will be showcased at the Dance Umbrella Africa at the State Theatre. Picture: HERMAN VERWEY

Dance Umbrella, SA’s biggest contemporary dance festival, died on the opening night of its 30th anniversary when director Georgina Thomson announced its end before a poignant double bill from its protégés, Gregory Maqoma and Vincent Mantsoe, at the University of Johannesburg Centre for the Arts in 2018.   

This death, due to a lack of funding, had been a long time coming. When First National Bank withdrew its sponsorship of 17 years in 2011, Dance Umbrella was left with no main funder. Life support came in the form of a three-year contract with the Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival in 2012 and a one-year term with the National Lottery as the main sponsor for 2015.

“This position has allowed me to have a voice as a dancer and to be a voice for many dancers
Mamela Nyamza, dancer, choreographer and activist

During these uncertain and trying times, Dance Umbrella started a Facebook conversation with those who would be affected by the festival’s demise. A strong sentiment from that debate was a suggestion for the festival to restructure and reposition itself for a new start. 

With the end confirmed in 2018, dancer, choreographer and activist Mamela Nyamza stepped up to revive and take over the festival. After countless battles that had taken their toll, Thomson had been speaking of handing over the reins to a new generation.

Enter the new Dance Umbrella Africa (DUA), with a home and funder in the SA State Theatre under the department of arts & culture.

The rescue may not only be for the dance festival. The State Theatre is not immune to the struggles of  dwindling audiences and it remains to be seen whether Dance Umbrella Africa and Nyamza’s new position as deputy artistic director of the theatre can bring new audiences.

Nyamza is not fazed by politics. Her strong will and ability to mute external opinions and follow her gut are stand-out traits that have seen her continually produce bold, disruptive and profound work, true to her causes as an artist-activist.

That she is an outsider from Cape Town is an advantage that gives her distance from the noise. Yet she is no stranger to Tshwane and the State Theatre.

After training at the Zama Dance School under the Royal Academy of Dance in Cape Town, she continued her training at the Pretoria Dance Technikon, where she obtained her national diploma in ballet. Upon graduation at the prestigious Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre in New York, she joined the State Theatre Dance Company with whom she did performances nationally and internationally.

After years of rejection and lamenting the lack of leadership roles for women, and particularly dancers, in the theatre industry, Nyamza has come full circle.

“This position has allowed me to have a voice as a dancer and to be a voice for many dancers. We don’t have many black women in these positions, it’s always been very patriarchal. There’s a sense of not belonging here at home for many artists, and I have lived that. I want to change this feeling. My objective is to serve the artists and to bring dancers back to this space,” says Nyamza.

She is very serious about separating her place of work from her work as an artist.

“My boss asked how to get me to perform and I said I’m not going to perform in the festival that I’m curating and I’m not going to perform at the State Theatre, because I work here. If people want to see me, it should be outside of the State Theatre,” she says.  

The theme she has chosen for DUA is Figure-ring the State of Dance in Africa. She has brought in her contemporaries, Nelisiwe Xaba and Sello Pesa, as dramaturges.

Highlights include Yours Truly, Gavel, by Sonia Radebe, Julia Burnham, Lulu Mlangeni and Teresa Mojela; Adrienne Sichel’s Body Politics book launch; My Journey, My Foot Work by Eddie Ndou and his pantsula troupe, resident at the State Theatre; Translation, which looks at masculinity, sexuality and fatherhood, by Bailey Snyman; Bengingazi, a fusion of ballet, isipantsula and flamenco by Adele Blank and Sithembiso Makhanya; and #Moi by Madagascar’s Gabi Saranouffi. New work includes Mnquma by Xolisile Bongwana and David April and Rise of the African Queer by Kieron Jina.

“I’m very happy with the programme,” Nyamza says. “It’s diverse. It’s representative of who we are and where we are, and keeps the line between life and art fluid. A lot of the artists I went for are not known, but they have been breaking boundaries in the underground.”

An important aspect to DUA is that the festival will travel. A few selected works will be showcased at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town from July 31 to August 3.

“Artists must not perform and put their works in a suitcase. Artists must perform at home more and be known here,” Nyamza says.

Dance Umbrella Africa runs at the State Theatre in Pretoria from March 31 to April 7.