Dancing. Last night at the Market Theatre Nelisiwe Xaba turned black to white and back again in a piece that poked fun at our racial confusions through a kind of sophisticated slapstick that was all black and white bodies, fashion, accoutrements, film. Neli is a funny, sharp-dance-tongued, opinionated woman who happens to move like a magic creature. I am at the Dance Umbrella Festival, Johannesburg, South Africa. The piece: BLACK!…WHITE?
The night before, Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe, invited us along on …”journeys and spirits of the Khoi-san people…” the inspiration for SAN. Considering the history-telling petroglyphs of the Khoi-san, the dancers search for a place that’s theirs even as the world keeps shifting markers. They battle interior and exterior forces with Vincent’s forceful, almost-aggressive, possessed-by-spirits-and-demons movements.
How’s that for the first two days of a festival? Plus vital discussion and getting to hang out in the best of all places/worlds/centers of art that matter—the Market Theater. More about the Market later. I think I could live there, in what I think are substantial rock and marble and granite constructions, arches, high ceilings, big fat leather couches everywhere, exotically-decked out and coffee bar restaurants.
My Perfect Life. IT GETS BETTER. In addition to this continuing dance feast, there is rain, pour-downs of pure water with no air between it seems. They mostly come at night and the guesthouse roof magnifies every beautiful noisy bucketful. Remember I’m from New Mexico…this is a water-heaven for my thirsty soul. The guesthouse, Tama Rumah, is the best! Rambling in oddly-shaped rooms with a bathtub here, a shower there, might be a double or single bed. Might be a grand mahogany-looking headboard-or none at all. Windows that open all about looking into one of many gardens and courtyards, coffeepots, cookies…it is just so so so damn…cozy.
I get up early, no alarm and write and write to the music of mourning doves and their chirpier cousins. Make a coffee, turn on the computer…don’t have to go anywhere until noon. It is indeed my idea of the perfect world. If I could just have the Bosque and my Rio Grande a few blocks away I would never leave.
Dance Umbrella/Jo’burg. Johannesburg, South Africa hosts the best dance festival on the continent in my humble opinion; one of the nicest anywhere. Almost all are SA artists, most from or connected to Jo’burg. It is impressive. Not so many cities could present a festival of this variety and strength, all with local artists—NYC, Paris/a few other Euro cities, Tokyo, Rio? maybe that’s it. Since I’m not a dancer/dance expert my colleague, who is here at the festival also, will surely be the one to give you the dancier details on her blog. I will pass that address on later. For me, for now I will just tell what I love and what moves me, and what I hear these captivating dance makers telling me. Maybe my role is to tell the layman’s dance stories.
In addition to two weeks of dance evenings, there’s a most helpful bonus in the series of 1pm interview-discussions that take place between Adrienne Sichel, Johannesburg’s long-time dance critic and scholar, and festival artists. Yesterday’s, with Adrienne interviewing Vincent and Neli was particularly eye-opening for me. I’ve seen both artists’ work several times and I’m always struck by Vincent’s very distinct movement style. When I described him as appearing to dance-fight his way out of a spiritual or demonic possession of some frightful intensity that is simply what I see, the personal story I am making of the art he is presenting to me. Vincent talked yesterday about his attempts to make work that is about the spirit, the search, the individual, not to let it be muddled with contemporary social and political reality all of the time.
Neli appears to be quite the opposite. Her work is all inventive, idiosyncratic , and full of humor and wry comment. Her perspective is ALL about society and politics. She works much of the time in Europe and also in Brazil. BLACK!…WHIITE? is about race…what Neli claims as an overwhelming issue world-wide, not just here in SA.
Both artists include white dancers/artists in their work and both have been criticized for it. Neli, with a slightly caustic laugh, says ‘it seems it’s okay for white choreographers to have black dancers but the reverse bothers people…maybe blacks still aren’t supposed to be telling whites what to do…!” The artists spar a bit over their differing approaches. Everyone agrees on one thing however. Without a renewed effort to gain support for contemporary work here at home…it will increasingly become making their work with and even for Europeans all of the time—that’s where the funding exists.
Jo’burg. We’ll get around this rich vital energetic city more in the next days…but I’ve been here before and I still don’t quite get it! Cape Town was so easy. A beautiful multi-racial city by the bay. Johannesburg. Is. Not. Africa “Lite.” Our neighborhood, Melville, could be any up-scale, yuppie, hip neighborhood in any city world over. And—there may not be anything else quite like it in this city of 2+ million. We drove through downtown/city center last night: Impressive, even grand in some cases, buildings. Wide streets. Parks. Corporate headquarters, City Hall. It was end of the work day so street activity was thinning…could have been Houston. What was noticeable to me—because I keep looking for signs of post-racial South Africa (or post-racial anywhere else for that matter) was there was not a single white person along the entire drive. Gerard, one of our friendly Dance Umbrella hosts says, in response to my comment about this, that not so many years ago you ONLY saw whites on downtown streets unless it was time for the cleaners and servants to go home for the day.
This weekend we’ll go with our dance friends to Soweto. Now I think Lawrence, our festival driver, said a city of 4+ million. Biggest black city in the world he says.
Meanwhile I guess Zuma’s in London being feted by the Queen so maybe that attention will compete with his impulse to only appeal to the traditionalist, least progressive SA voices, and somewhere among his minions they will realize the art is good and not necessarily only important at ceremonial dances for a new wife.