BOOK REVIEW: Mapping the power and evolution of dance in SA
After decades as a dance writer, Adrienne Sichel has earned the right to write this book archiving a history at risk of being lost
Body Politics: Fingerprinting South African Contemporary Dance
The description of dance as a “wordless expression in a world where words are currency”, by poet Lebo Mashile in her unpublished poem I Dance To Know Who I Am, speaks to the local hesitation and lack of engagement with SA contemporary dance.
The poem encapsulates the transformative experience that dance offers. Mashile created the poem for the production Threads, a collaboration with choreographer and anthropologist Sylvia Glasser and her Moving Into Dance Mophatong Company.
The poem opens veteran dance writer and arts journalist Adrienne Sichel’s new book Body Politics: Fingerprinting South African Contemporary Dance. It is a sociopolitical cultural history that focuses on the roots and evolution of SA contemporary dance from the mid-1970s to 2016.
While the role of protest theatre is well known, contemporary dance also played an important part in championing a free and multicultural society during and after apartheid. Sichel’s book illuminates this history, revealing how prior to democracy, the proponents of contemporary dance were at the forefront of cultural activism.
The policymaking arts and culture task group, which eventually culminated in what is today the department of arts and culture, as well as the founding of the National Arts Council in 1997, “was the handiwork of many politically-focused dancers, educationists, choreographers, researchers and administrators”, she writes.
One of the standout traits of SA contemporary dance is that it is driven by the activist artist.
“That’s what gives it its originality and made it attractive to the world. You have people commenting on their society and the human condition. It has overtaken theatre in a way because dancers keep working and make it happen despite the challenges,” says Sichel.
“Paradoxically contemporary dance is an individualistic art form, but in so many ways SA contemporary dance is a collaborative mission to express our cultural and artistic identity. A lot of SA contemporary dance and African contemporary dance is sensorial and experiential. Those dimensions create a much more holistic vibrant art form,” she says.
Body Politics gives context to SA contemporary dance. It captures the collusion of cultures and histories as people explored their roots and the identities of the country and the people they wanted to be pre-1994. It highlights these rich essences and fingerprints their origins with chapters looking at the birth of Afrofusion, subversive storytellers, the birth of theatre dance and what constitutes contemporary African dance.
It features festivals, companies and artists, including early pioneers and contemporary players such as Glasser, Carly Dibakwane, Robyn Orlin, Alfred Hinkel, Jay Pather, Jeannette Ginslov, Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantswe, Gregory Maqoma, Mamela Nyamza, Nelisiwe Xaba, PJ Sabbagha and many more.
It includes a collection of Sichel’s published and unpublished journalistic writing. This makes it an important documentation and preservation of a unique artistic heritage and a necessary learning tool.
In mapping the evolution of this remarkable art form and its vocabulary, Sichel moves through terrains of contentious issues of appropriation and ownership, leaving questions to ponder, questions similar to the ones she asked herself when contemplating writing this book, such as, who has the right to collate and tell this history? Who owns this history?
As a dedicated witness to and advocate for SA contemporary dance for 40 years in an environment that often rejects local contemporary dance, she has earned the right to tell this history. Her background of growing up in Rustenburg exposed her to a variety of cultures, religions, rituals, political practices and prejudices, which fuelled her curiosity as an arts journalist.
She co-founded the SA Dance Umbrella as a free democratic platform for all SA dancers and dance forms. She has also created an accessible language to articulate meanings behind movements and the fresh aesthetics of SA contemporary dance, which is no easy feat.
At the Johannesburg launch of the book in September, Sichel said, “What is scary about Body Politics is that it’s very concrete, it is tangible and it can’t be changed. I will be judged, just as I have been judging and evaluating people over the decades.”
She is also acutely aware of the gaps the book leaves and this is perhaps a challenge for them to be filled.
The existence of Body Politics also makes glaring the dearth of books that archive or capture cultural history in the country. This is an urgent concern for Sichel. “So many people did not want to publish this book. We don’t respect our history in this country. There are many narratives and cultural histories that are not being published and also need to be written,” she says.
Sichel’s hope for dance is that “it keeps informing, transforming and educating”.