The Garage Dance Ensemble. Picture: Ruth Smith Photography
The Garage Dance Ensemble. Picture: Ruth Smith Photography

I’ve had a standing invitation for years to visit Okiep in Namaqualand during flower season (the area is quite something in spring). But earlier this year, when I committed to getting behind the wheel and heading determinedly to the Northern Cape, it was to see the polishing of a dance work by Garage Dance Ensemble. Its production Mooi Genoeg om Engels te Praat is set to the poetry of Ronelda Sonnet Kamfer-Trantraal.

The road to Okiep from Cape Town is long and desolate. Some drive it in six hours. I need closer to eight, being unaccustomed to road tripping. But my journey to the dusty former copper mining town close to the Namibian border was fairly straightforward compared to the career path of my hosts, Alfred Hinkel and John Linden, who, more than three decades after they had formed the first multiracial dance company in Namibia, returned to Okiep to establish Garage in 2011.

Hinkel and Linden hail respectively from Nababeep, which is also in Namaqualand, and Okiep. The latter is the oldest mining town in SA, with a population of about 6,500. It became practically a ghost town when the copper mines stopped operating in 1918. The community is poor and employment opportunities are limited. The sense of hopelessness is almost tangible. Domestic violence and substance abuse are the reality for many who are ill-equipped to find a way out of an environment of abject poverty.

The Garage Dance Ensemble. Picture: Ruth Smith Photography
The Garage Dance Ensemble. Picture: Ruth Smith Photography

To give some context: Hinkel was the first recipient of the Lifetime AchievementAwardfor Dance presented by the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) in 2015, and both men received the Western Cape government’s Cultural Affairs Lifetime Achievement — Dance Award in 2019. That in itself is an indication of the longevity of their careers and the contribution they have made to the performing arts in this country, 24 years of which was spent at the helm of Jazzart Dance Theatre in Cape Town.

The fruits of their labour are evident in the sterling work being produced by those they have trained. The Indoni Dance, Arts & Leadership Academy of Sbonakaliso Ndaba participated in the 30th Shanghai Tourism Festival in September this year, representing Africa for the first time at this event, and award-winning choreographer Grant van Ster of Figure of 8 Dance Collective is now working on David Kramer’s new musical, Danger in the Dark. Sifiso Kweyama is heading Jazzart Dance Theatre with Ananda Fuchs as resident teacher, while Marlin Zoutman and Celeste Botha are putting heart and soul into training young hopefuls at their New World Dance Theatre.

Hinkel describes Jazzart graduate and new Garage recruit Lynette du Plessis as one of the best dancers he’s ever trained. That’s not to mention all the other dancers who are still performing, choreographing, teaching and producing. And the list goes on.

Hinkel and Linden decided to head for home when their Jazzart journey ended, shunning any notion of retirement at the time. They are now inspiring impressionable young souls in the streets where they live and in neighbouring towns, where Garage tours as often as funding allows. It’s their way of spreading hope by sharing skills for survival in a world where opportunity doesn’t always knock. They not only teach the discipline required for pursuing a career in dance, whether in performance, administration or education, but shine a light towards finding joy. It’s right there in the rhythms that children naturally relate to, whether they’re experiencing it themselves or watching the Garage dancers and teachers doing their stuff in the humblest environments you can imagine. And then there’s the poetry, and the music, and the song, often expressed in a multitude of African languages.

The Garage Dance Ensemble. Picture: Ruth Smith Photography
The Garage Dance Ensemble. Picture: Ruth Smith Photography

When the Garage dancers are asked why they’re dancing in Okiep, Hinkel responds: "Why not? Why should SA’s top dance company not be based here? There’s something in our Namaqualand blood that makes us different from everybody else."

Linden adds: "Dance brings people together. We’re doing great work here in Namaqualand. And many parents tell us that their children’s schoolwork is improving because of the discipline they’re learning through dance."

A life’s work

Hinkel’s dreams of being a professional dancer were thwarted when he was not able to "choreograph my way out of a paper bag", and he spent many hours trying to make things work for his own body. He says this is what has made him a good teacher. Linden, on the other hand, was a star rugby player but was pulled into the dance world when called to help with dancers’ lifting movements in his sister’s high school ballet class. It was a skill that ultimately got him doing the same thing when Hinkel was one dancer short for a production. But that’s another story.

Hinkel’s style and method of training are drawn from SA communities and strongly influenced by the Alexander technique, behind which is the idea that the mind and emotions are connected to the physical body. "I’m not interested in dance that’s just about executing a step — the training is far deeper than that," he says. "If you work only with recognition (as in classical ballet), it reaffirms the prejudice that that’s the way it should be. If I can get the dancers to experience the shift, their audience will feel it too. Their duty is not to affirm but to challenge."

He has always pushed the boundaries of dance through his work, challenging classical notions of dance and striving to reach new audiences and gain acceptance in wider society as well as making political statements and creating employment opportunities for dancers and teachers through training programmes.

His ability to create emotive new work from carefully curated words, music and movement, performed by bodies of different design, capability and training, continues to have an impact on the SA dance industry. "The dancers need to be skilled, as skilled as they can get their particular bodies to be. Some bodies can take on more of that conventional dance skill, and others can’t. But when they move they’ve got to inhabit their bodies. I’ve got to believe them. They’ve got to be real," says Hinkel.

The Garage Dance Ensemble. Picture: Ruth Smith Photography
The Garage Dance Ensemble. Picture: Ruth Smith Photography

Garage not only throws a lifeline to talented youth keen to train for the professional stage and the administrative performance environment, but also offers dance classes for all age groups to promote wellness and offer healthy recreational and skills development opportunities.

Young people with exceptional talent are invited to enrol in the Ensemble training programme with a view to becoming professional dancers and teachers. To that end, Garage employs locals who demonstrate the desired potential and discipline to perform with and teach the company. Garage now provides 12 people with permanent employment at a living wage, and another six with part-time employment.

Photographer Ruth Smith has documented much of their progress over the years. More recently, she joined the team in Okiep to capture some rather unconventional studio time.

Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, who is a former Jazzart dancer, CEO of Jack Hammer, an author and a keynote speaker, travelled from the US to indulge in some serious dance time with Garage dancer Byron Klassen, with whom she has established a special connection. "[Hinkel] took them through his ritual and improvisational techniques and, as he puts it, the empty space was pregnant with possibility. [The intention] was to get access to that magical ‘state of flow’, that altered state, that moment in dance where you step beyond yourself," says Smith.

The dancers who get it, achieve exactly that, not only for themselves but for their audiences. Hinkel says: "Now I realise that journey that [Linden] and I were on was preparing us for Okiep. The quality of work that Byron, Faroll [Coetzee], Dustin [Jannetjies] and Jaime-Lee [Hine] are delivering is the highlight. They are the best dancers we’ve ever trained. Now my life has meaning, because we Namaqualanders are now there!"

The question remains: what next? Hinkel said in a recent interview: "We have to let go now, and just hope that they keep going, that they have the strength and the vision. My dream is for them to dream, and that it will be a beautiful dream, and that they will achieve it."

Garage will be performing at the 2019 Baxter Dance Festival, which takes place at the Baxter Theatre until October 5