Dance Umbrella: save the last dance
Why we should care that the 30th Dance Umbrella this month may be the final one
If this, the 30th anniversary edition of Dance Umbrella, is going to be the last one, it certainly intends to go out with a seismic bang.
Not only does the festival programme brim with premieres by SA’s most exciting choreographers, as well as intercontinental collaborations that pop and fizz with creativity, it also features the return of a few of our Europe-based heavy hitters — some of whom were there when this influential contemporary dance showcase was in its infancy.
These veterans (some might say rock stars) include the taboo-smashing Robyn Orlin and Steven Cohen, whose performance art laced with sociopolitical and personal activism still raises eyebrows and gets knickers in a twist. Vincent Mantsoe, along with contemporaries such as Gregory Maqoma, is also seen as a pioneer in crafting a distinctively African choreographic language and identity.
Over the years, important work has premiered at Dance Umbrella. Spectacular new talents have hatched and flourished. Choreographers have had free rein to confront uncomfortable issues in uncomfortable ways, often at odds with the conservative mores and dance conventions of the time.
As a space for unearthing and incubating excellence, the festival has helped SA contemporary dance become the toast of stages around the world.
Indeed, Dance Umbrella has been the cradle and the wet-nurse of SA’s contemporary dance scene ever since dance journalists Adrienne Sichel and Marilyn Jenkins birthed their labour of love on Valentine’s Day in 1989.
Given this pedigree, why is this likely to be the final iteration of Dance Umbrella? Has SA’s love affair with contemporary dance soured? Not really, says artistic director Georgina Thomson. She has simply grown weary of knocking on doors and bashing her head against walls to keep the festival sustainable.
Ever since FNB withdrew its financial backing, it’s been an exhausting uphill battle to secure funding, she says. "I’m throwing in the towel now ... I’m carrying no security blanket of assurance, and I can’t do it any more. It’s just slap after slap in the face. It’s like running up Mount Everest."
Even though the National Lotteries Commission is this year’s main funder, the lack of continuous funding to keep institutions afloat is an ongoing gripe in the arts community. Still, the French, German and Swiss arts councils are on board, as are the National Arts Council and Business & Arts SA. Nine international programmers will be here for a close look-see at what’s presented.
Given these networks and linkages forged over time, the goodwill that the festival attracts and its clear importance to the country, can’t someone take over?
"The dance community doesn’t give a shit," says Thomson bluntly. "And Dance Umbrella is not for me, it’s for them. There’s no money in the bank, and no interest. But people in the arts are just hanging in there at the moment — people are desperate. We need a new activism in the arts."
The best-case scenario, she believes, would be if another corporate sponsor threw its weight behind the festival. "Dance Umbrella is a product, an established brand, and any partnership would be mutually beneficial. There’s also a strong legacy component, with the Dance Xchange residency programme for artists in communities with little access."
Though Thomson maintains there has been no funding to mentor associate artistic directors to take over the reins from her, some in the dance community are critical of the festival’s lack of succession planning.
One of these is Maqoma, an internationally garlanded dancer-choreographer who runs Vuyani Dance Company. He is presenting his work Mayhem, and Vuyani dancers will be interpreting Mantsoe’s seminal Afrofusion work Gula Matari, which premiered at Dance Umbrella in 1992.
"It will be sad if Dance Umbrella folds," reflects Maqoma. "I view it as a national event, a national treasure that belongs to the dance community. I think there could have been a consultative process instead of this being a personal decision. It’s tough to run an arts organisation, but we’re all in the same boat."
Part of the problem, he believes, is that local theatres — particularly state-supported entities — do not have dance curators. Plus, most theatres’ artistic directors honed their chops in theatre, not dance. As a result, dance is seen as an "add-on" to their programming and not as an integral component of it, says Maqoma.
He believes it’s time for action: "My wish is for the dance community to have this kind of discussion around leadership and succession planning, and not let their own personal feelings affect the survival of organisations like Dance Umbrella."
He thinks back to 1992, when he presented his first work at Dance Umbrella (danced by teenagers, with Maqoma a teen himself) which went on to win the Pick of the Fringe Award.
"That’s when I discovered I had a love and passion for choreography. My first performance at Dance Umbrella was Tranceformations by Sylvia Glasser, an important work, and in 1994 I presented my duet with Themba Nkabinde, which started showing a different aesthetic that I wanted to express ... I started cementing my choreographic language.
"Dance Umbrella has always been a safe place — and also an incredibly daunting one — for me to play and experiment with new work. I know that if it succeeds in this country, it will also succeed overseas."
Someone who was there at the beginning, when Dance Umbrella took its first tentative steps, is Gerard Bester, director of the Hillbrow Theatre Project. He is overjoyed that his theatre will be a Dance Umbrella venue for the first (and hopefully not the last) time. It’s hosting a work called Hillbrowfication by German choreographers Constanza Macras and Lizi Estaras, featuring inner-city children alongside professional dancers.
In 1989, Bester was a fresh-faced Wits movement studies graduate. He recalls performing his third-year exam work, a devised ensemble piece, at the first Dance Umbrella. At this year’s festival Bester, who is also known for his work with Orlin, is undertaking a collaborative piece with Alan Parker titled Sometimes I Have to Lean In ...
Bester describes Dance Umbrella as "an extraordinary and vital platform, especially during the growth of dance in those early days, that time around the transition to democracy ... when the language of dance thrived. It really seemed to take off. And Dance Umbrella provided that platform for experimental and diverse works."
He remembers "weeping" when seeing Mantsoe’s Gula for the first time, and being struck by Cohen, whose "gentle, soft-spoken" nature seemed at odds with his explicit performance-art creations.
"I commend Georgina for continuing to bring Dance Umbrella back," says Bester, noting that Dance Umbrella is not the only local arts festival to be beset by issues of succession planning and mentorship — it’s a common problem.
As she heads into her final Dance Umbrella, which she’s headed since 1995, Thomson notes with a tinge of nostalgia: "It’s been an incredible adventure for me. I’ve never dictated to artists. It’s been an open and free platform for any type of dance, where anyone in SA can enter and get programmed — even if it’s dreadful, they’ve had that space. It would be a tragedy if it ends. I’d love to hand it over so it flies for another 10 years."
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