Dance Umbrella 2016: Dances Around Racism

A Two way conversation, with a third person as mediator

It took an interview with Russian Dancer Choreographer Ivan Estegneeve for the huge elephant in the room at this year’s Contemporary dance showcase The Dance Umbrella 2016 to be named. The theme for this year’s event was all about collaboration across borders and while many dancer/ choreographers admitted to the huge challenges faced in their collaborations not many were open enough to name the exact difficulty. When I sat down with Estegneev after the last performance of Hero – a male duet dance interrogating the cultural and societal representation of men and masculine identities, which was inspired by Estegneeve’s reading of Josephs Campbell’s seminal work of comparative mythologies in “A Hero with a Thousand Faces“.  I asked him how he found his “collaboration” with dancers from the forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative and Estegneeve’s Russian based dance company Dialogue Dance on the last day of the dance umbrella, he said “It was difficult to work with black dancers.”  Honesty can be such a breath of fresh air. When I probed why exactly that was the case his Dramaturge JP Sabbagha, a South African choreographer famous for his issue based dance performances particularly on the subject of HIV/AIDS, immediately intervened saying “You must remember that Estegneev comes from Russia, which has been a very closed off society as you know and not as integrated as South Africa, so he’s not exposed to or used to working with black people”.

A simple question

I was wondering why he chose ordinary clothes as costumes instead of more heroic outfits. Estegneeve said it was not culturally appropriate for the black dancers (Fana Tshabalala and Thulani Chauke who were deliberately excluded from the interview) to wear heroic outfits such as those of batman or superman. He had wanted, he said,  for at least one of the dancers to walk on stage with a more outlandish super-hero outfit and then proceed to take it off as a way of metaphorically getting under the skin of a hero but he said that proved to be culturally inappropriate for the two black dancers. I asked what exactly was culturally inappropriate about it, was it being naked? Because one of dancers did strip down to his tight speedo in the piece? Culturally South Africans are used to or more aptly  they are largely influenced by  western ideas of Heroes like Batman and Superman, why new comic books were being produced with black heroes nowadays, so how was wearing a superhero outfit, culturally inappropriate? Estegneeve then looked to Sabbagha for support and Sabbagha responded that when they workshopped the idea, they just chose to go with ordinary clothes and outfits as that would be a less obvious reference to the Hero motif.

I wished he said that in the beginning.

A similar incident took place with South African born Choreographer, Jessica Nupen, now based in Germany for the past 13 years who, when quizzed about her collaboration with dancers from Moving Into Dance Moiphatong (MIDM) for her production Romeo and Juliet, Rebellion and Johannesburg responded that she enjoyed working with them although she’s not sure if they enjoyed working with her.  She then proceeded to say defensively that she’s only human and can only control so much of what other people do with their bodies. Besides, she had consulted with top academics in Germany about her chosen theme of Romeo and Juliet which was thoroughly workshop-ped for at least 18 months. With Sunnyboy Mandla Motau as her choreographic dance assistant she was able to communicate her idea to the dancers, none of whom by their own admission had read or heard about the Shakespearean romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet before. I thought it was a set work at most township schools, maybe they didn’t finish school, ah just as well. “We had no idea about the story we just worked with what Jessica told us she wanted” the dancers said. Many of them said they enjoyed the process, one dancer said the piece allowed her to express her South African-ness in ways that were impossible to do in South Africa. The piece toured Germany in 2015.

In Contrast…

South African pieces produced by South Africans were less racist in their approach, however their intellectual approaches were jarring.  From the vulgarity of obscene amounts of money in Jessica Nupens Rebellion and Johannesburg which turned money into scraps of paper and torn up black plastic garbage bags which were hung around monuments made of hoola hoops and newspaper headlines to the crassness of raw emotion in the uncontained need to spray imaginary semen mixed with blood and gun-powder on audiences in Mamela Nyamza and Nelisiwe Xaba’s Last Attitude.

A compromise

That’s what collaboration is about regardless of race says  Mocke J van Vueren who has successfully collaborated with Nelisiwe Xaba on various productions including, Uncles and Angels, which won the FNB  Arts prize in 2013. The partnership works because both respect each other’s intellect and ability to reason even if they don’t always agree. So where does collaboration begin or end in the hierarchical nature of dance? Asked Nelisiwe Xaba during a discussion on collaborations across borders and geographical spaces hosted by the Goethe Institute. Xaba, an alumni of Moving into Dance and formerly one of Robyn Orlins’ dancers is not a stranger to the intricate power dynamics of the dance world. Her experience in her early years has been just that: a black dancer controlled in her case by a white woman.  “I’m not sure where collaboration begins or ends, in the end it’s the choreographer who gives the piece its context and conceptual direction and not the dancers.”

 My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard 

Julia Burnham a dancer with Gregory Maqoma’s Vuyani Dance Company says working with Robyn Orlin in her 2013 piece “Beauty remained for just a moment and then gently returned to her starting position” was cathartic. I told her that a group of us; writers attending the Dance Writer’s Workshop sponsored by the Goethe  Institute  found the piece disturbing. From the sex scene in the middle of the hour long performance where all dancers were reaching a sexual climax, to the part about her extremely large boobs which were fully exposed towards the end of the piece. The sex scene was a dancer’s idea she said. “When we were exploring what we found beautiful, she told us that the only time she feels beautiful is when she’s having sex and that’s why we included it, it was not Robyn Orlins’ idea” she told me. “See the part with my boobs, I was tired of them, they were not my idea of what’s beautiful, they were very large and heavy, you can’t see them now” she said pointing at her chest with her chin. “I do a thousand push-ups a day so now they have a shrunk a bit, but that part were I exposed my boobs was all me. I wanted to do it, to rid myself of something I didn’t appreciate. It was a breakthrough for me”. She continued to say that “Many people don’t understand why we’re all (dancers) attached to this piece, it’s because Robyn Orlin engaged us emotionally, she pushed us to the very limits. In fact she asked me a thousand times if I was sure I wanted to do that, and I said yes. We cried, we laughed it was special. Collaboration is about sharing. We learn something, she learns something too.’

In the end there’s always a Protest.

I felt like saying we have real struggles today. As I watched four old men prancing around the stage singing old struggle songs in black and white all-star converse shoes and overalls. Their performance was a poetic disaster. One audience member said they seemed to enjoy themselves more than the audience watching them. But Toyi Toyi, a collaborative choreographic piece by the dancers of the French Hors Série and Via Katlehong Companies about struggle songs with stories told by three dancers from Katlehong was rather poignant.  The French government through (IFAS)has been a principal custodian of the arts in South Africa, followed closely by the German government through the Goethe Institute. With that in mind it is no wonder that racism though apparent was not confronted in any of the performance pieces with the exception perhaps of The Last Attitude which received support from the South African Arts Council.  But then again that was never the premise was it? Racism does not exist in South Africa, it is quite frankly old news. What did Thomas Sankara say? “He who feeds you, controls your mind.” Yes, at this year’s Dance Umbrella it was rather obvious that he who pays the piper calls the tune and we all, happily, danced to it.



photo credit: Cristiana Ceppas.

One thought on “Dance Umbrella 2016: Dances Around Racism”

  1. Sooo, true. I stepped out for a bit because of the reasons mentioned. As an African dancer it is hard to get out from under the oppressor or the “piper” it always felt like our stories need to be the same storyline that feeds European ideals and if you want to tell your story it becomes a problem and it won’t get you financially backed. A big problem…cause are we telling the stories? And who has the right to validate your experience? At the end of the day Africans are not telling unedited stories.

    Liked by 1 person

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