By Adam Benjamin
Dance Theatre Journal. Vol 17 No.1 Spring, 2001
From the sky, the sheer reach of the African land mass stuns the uninitiated. Approaching Johannesburg the land below reads like a cubist patchwork. It is only as you fly lower that this strange terrain reveals itself. An endless spread of tiny houses, huts and lean-tos, a humanscape of over six million people, hanging like ragged skirts around the sparkling high rises of the city.
A country that discloses itself cautiously to the outsider, South Africa is rarely what it first seems. The hills around Johannesburg are no such thing; they are unintentional and unglamorous monuments to the exploitation of those workers over the centuries who have dug into the earth and heaped up its guts in search for precious metal - a labour that has offered them little by way of reward but that has instead fueled the injustices of apartheid. Unlike virtually any other human metropolis of its size, the massive sprawl of Johannesburg has coalesced not around a coast line, river or trade route, but around gold.
I was in South Africa as part of Britain and South Africa Dancing at the invitation of Gregory Nash (then at the British Council in the UK) and Nomsa Kupi Manaka his counterpart in South Africa. My path had crossed with Nomsa's in Dublin in 1994, when I had been joint director of CandoCo. Her desire to bring integrated work to South Africa was had been made all the more personal when, some years later, one of her sons became disabled in an accident.
Nomsa and the dance consultant Jill Waterman brought together a vibrant group of thirty-four trainees from all across South Africa. Each was a leader or high achiever in some aspect of their lives, be it dance, disability awareness, sport or as teachers in the arts. This group was a mix of black, white and coloured, (1) people with and without disabilities. (2) The opening circle on the first day reminded me of the ties that are such a vital part of life in Africa. Each participant reiterated the sentiment 'I am here to learn and to take what I learn back to my community.' For the first two days the project was based entirely at the Dance Factory in Johannesburg where the trainees were introduced to the basics of integrated practice through set exercises and improvisations. Ideas and methods were introduced, usually demonstrated by my colleagues Tom Saint-Louis and Louise Katerega, before being handed over to the participants to adapt to their own bodies.
Louise and Tom also led outreach programmes in schools in and around Soweto with small groups of trainees. This was a conscious decision which meant the children in the schools were able to see black teachers delivering the subject. It also proved an essential step in the development of the trainees themselves, confirming belief in their own abilities. For the disabled dancers, it was also a stage in developing their confidence alongside their non-disabled colleagues. All of which was not without its moments of humor. As one of the trainees put it 'At first I was intimidated by all the professional dancers, but quickly I realized we were all sinking in the same boat!.' (3)
I needed little more information as to how the sessions went than the satisfied and smiling faces that rolled in off the bus after the first morning's visit. Each outreach visit was followed by feed-back and discussion, after which those who had stayed at the Dance Factory would show the work they had made that morning. These sessions were looked on not only as an opportunity to develop critical abilities but also to develop teaching and communication skills in what was a large group with diverse communication needs.
The disabled and non-disabled people we met and worked with were powerful, talented young people working with minimal resources, all eager to learn and share. The connections we made will stay with us for a life time, as will the unintentional, sharp reminders that we were in a land divided by history.
In a white neighborhood, I watched a solitary black student participating in a rhythmic gymnastics class. This talented youngster inhabited the periphery of the group, and although she received tuition from the teacher it was clear that she was an outsider, and was allowed to remain so. Despite this, here at least, I felt, one local girl was making her way on merit in this otherwise white enclave. It was only as the students left the gym that I overheard her confident American tones calling out to her father. This was not a township youngster, but one privileged by money - the new apartheid in South Africa.
A performance by a youth group from Pretoria also left a lasting impression. I am never at ease with youth dance that promotes the most technically accomplished at the cost of other students. My belief that dance has greater lessons to teach than this was certainly one of the reasons I was invited to South Africa. It is clear that offering opportunities to talented youngsters to excel is important, but when the most talented youngster is a black student placed out of sight at the back of the group, the whole ethos of privilege becomes transparent in its ugliness. Rarely has a dance performance by a professional choreographer left me with such an acrid taste in my mouth. It is of course possible that this student was simply the most recent to join the group; the desire to place blame is a strong and sometimes misleading one.
Another white teacher's work in the townships left us feeling so disturbed that we were virtually speechless by the end of class, a class that we had endorsed by our presence. My solitary applause was for the children who had performed, with gusto and spirit, material that was divisive and inappropriate on just about every level possible. (My black colleague had not been able to stay in the studio.) The question posed to me afterwards of 'whether it might be feasible to tie some arms onto one of the disabled boys so he could compete in ballroom competitions' was asked in all seriousness.
We then went to see another an ‘all-white’ integrated dance group in a leafy suburb of Johannesburg. Speechless did not sum up my feelings when we discovered her all-white dancers performed under the name of Goose Steps a title that I feel sure Mel Brooks would have been proud to have come up with.
A meeting with an English journalist living in Johannesburg, who allowed her guard dogs to prowl around us while we talked, left one of my black colleagues traumatized. Despite her repeated comments about how uncomfortable they made her, no attempt was made to remove them. Later in the safety of the car she explained that many who had grown up as students in Soweto had been savaged by dogs during the apartheid days, and as adults carry lasting fears.
The same journalist expressed surprise in a later interview when I said that I thought the workshops touched deeply on racial issues and that this was part of their power here in South Africa, even though there was no explicit mention of race during the sessions. 'Oh', she assured me, 'that's all behind us!' (3) Somewhat taken aback by this response, I asked her if she did not consider a white man in a wheelchair approaching a group of black dancers touched on issues of power, race and equality? For me it was a moment that brought so many issues into sudden and startling focus, as I watched the dancers making new and entirely spontaneous responses, something that spurred a photographer to comment: 'This is like a metaphor for the new South Africa.'
Elsewhere too the work was received with excitement and with genuine hope for the future. In The Star, a national paper, the journalist Adrienne Sichel wrote:
'Tshwaragano may not have the high profile of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre outreach projects. Yet in so many ways it outstrips those undeniably historic happenings. This is particularly true of its national networking reach and its already proven ability to trigger, like wildfire, a whole new era in developmental, community and professional dance.' (5)
I saw talented black African dancers brought into white schools, not to teach their own dance skills or even contemporary or creative dance, but a watered down Euro-centric dance-in-education programme - as though indigenous dance had nothing to offer.
In South Africa, black, white, Asians and coloureds continue to dance around each other in an improvisation of unrecognized slights, cautious alliances, tenderly offered guidance, unaccountable acts of forgiveness and long-awaited repatriations. The problems in the country are enough to paralyze thought, and make one question everything one sees and thinks. I know I have never felt so confused and uncertain of my position or my interpretation of events and still am wary of oversimplifying or writing about what I have experienced.
I have a growing respect for those South Africans who, conscious of the past, daily seek ways to negotiate a peaceful and respectful path through the ethical minefield they find themselves in, while others seemingly heedless of the past, step with boots on the naked feet of those around them.
At least in the studio and in our showings so far, we have let the work speak for itself and allowed those who come to see make their own interpretations. Perhaps, without proselytize or insisting, dance may provide some new visions and new possibilities in a country that, despite its complexities and overwhelming problems, seems yet to foster an undeniable optimism, joy and inspiration within its dancers(6).
Adam Benjamin is a freelance dance artist and dance writer. His book on integrated dance practice ‘Making an Entrance’ will be published by Routledge later this year.
1 The South African term for people of mixed race, still commonly used as a cultural delineation.
2 'People with disabilities' is the term preferred by those we worked with in South Africa (as opposed to the term 'disabled people' favored in the UK).
3 Anecdote from Louise Katerega.
4 A few days later the story broke in the national press of the 1998 unofficial police training video of dogs being used to savage suspected immigrants.
5 Sichel, Adrienne. The Start. 4 October 2000.
6 Adam returned in Feb 2001 to make a piece for FNB Vita Dance Umbrella 2001.
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