Rebellion & Johannesburg in performance at the opening night of Dance Umbrella 2016. Photo credit: John Hogg.
Dissecting boundaries with the cutting edge. This is what contemporary South African dance is well known for. Think First Physical Theatre Company, Tossie van Tonder, Mamela Nyamza, Gregory Maqoma and his Vuyani Dance Theatre, PJ Sabbagha, and newer companies and artists such as Underground Dance Theatre and Nomcebisi Moyikwa. There are many more, including artists who exist more in the performance art or physical theatre categories. Think Gavin Krastin, Liezl De Kock.
That’s where it gets interesting.
Categorisation. The ‘Disciplines’. And in the contemporary arts world, these sexy terms emerge: multidisciplinary cross-cutting collaboration.
The democratisation of dance, the concept of not having an omnipotent choreographer who prescribes exact steps and moves, has grown in popularity over, well, the time of South Africa’s developing democracy. The move away from traditional hierarchical arts-making sees everyone’s opinions and contributions become equally important. This includes the dancer-performers, designers, composers, and whomever is involved in the creative process.
Furthermore, as Gregory Maqoma recently mentioned in the Goethe-Institut’s dance writing workshop, the audience becomes collaborators of a kind too.
The 2016 Dance Umbrella’s programme selection highlights collaboration, between international and South African artists, between local choreographers such as Sonia Radebe and Teresa Mojela (in Lingering – part of a double bill), independent musicians such as Spoek Mathambo (in Rebellion & Johannesburg) and live percussionists such as Given Mphago (in Ketima).
But why is collaboration in the arts worth discussing?
Exploring different perspectives as collaboration does, an obvious message and metaphor could be that interdisciplinary works act as a conceptual microcosm of South Africa, a country in desperate need of more cross-cultural understanding.
From an arts perspective, collaboration is interestingly necessary if it invites new ways of looking at and considering the arts (and our world) – if a ‘new’ art emerges. The adage that “nothing is original” springs to mind. And perhaps that is what is important about cross-disciplinary work which incorporates a multiplicity of artistic perspectives in a bid to find something new to say. Whether this is responding to socio-political current affairs or creating and developing new aesthetics and artistic concepts.
This is seen in Maqoma’s work. Using live musicians performing original compositions in a dance piece is not new. In 1995, First Physical Theatre Company collaborated with Leonhard Praeg for The Unspeakable Story. Yet, as Maqoma explains today, he has a dual-purpose for using live musicians. Maqoma speaks of the necessity of keeping the performance dynamically alive but also of the relationship that working with live musicians encourages – the dance, and his body, become the ‘score’. This is a fascinating reimagining of the formal dancing body and the strict structures of musical composition.
Collaborations in South African contemporary dance, most importantly, produce challenges. Professional creative artists working together necessarily challenge each other, it is the nature of creativity. Although this does not always guarantee successful works, one of the purposes of art is strongly brought to the fore – to challenge audiences. Challenge us to rethink, reimagine, reassess the boundaries we impose on what dance and the arts should or can be; and, hopefully, to challenge our understanding of the world at large.
The Dance Umbrella runs between 25 February – 06 March 2016, at various venues in and around Johannesburg.
– Sarah Roberson
- This article was produced during the Dance Writers Workshop, organised by the Dance Umbrella in partnership with the Goethe-Institut.