Dance: My Body My Space – Street Strut, Or Put Your Art Where The People Are

February 9, 2015



Site-specific cross-genre and cross-cultural performance works have long been a feature at many of our arts festivals and other platforms across the country: we’ve watched Jay Pather’s Siwela  Sonke Dance Theatre on the Durban beachfront, in a seedy Joburg hotel, up on Constitutional Hill and in the now-defunct old Johannesburg Stock Exchange building; we’ve witnessed Peter van Heerden and his erf [81] tackle difficult and fraught issues around white masculinity and rape on top of the hill in the freezing cold at the National Arts Festival and also outside the Constitutional Court as well as working with Sello Pesa’s Ntsoana Contemporary Dance Theatre at Dance Umbrella.

Pesa has also inhabited the dark street corners of downtown Johannesburg with his dancers, while Brett Bailey has always sought out-of-the-way venues to stage his operas and theatre works. Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MIDM) has made work in township streets, under trees and on the concrete of town squares and other informal spaces. Hlengiwe Lushaba had us board taxis for a Dance Umbrella-commissioned work a few years ago.

There are many more artists who continue to move away from traditional theatre spaces and take art to the people in their own neighbourhoods and gathering places. PJ Sabbagha and his hardworking team from Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative (FATC) have just completed a gruelling week of outdoor performances in Wattville, Ekurhuleni – all part of the My Body My Space public arts festival.

Roseline Keppler in “Belonging”. Picture: Suzy Bernstein.

Roseline Keppler in “Belonging”. Picture: Suzy Bernstein.


FATC, with independent dance-makers and choreographers, companies such as MIDM, Vuyani Dance Theatre (VDT) and Sibikwa inhabited taxi ranks, malls, parks and street corners with flash mobs, art installations and interventions, all partnered with community and cultural groups from the East Rand.

The festival culminated on Saturday with an all-day programme of dance, music and performance at the OR Tambo Cultural precinct. Many of us gathered in Newtown to catch two buses organised to transport us to the precinct. Despite load-shedding (read: numerous traffic lights out) and being stuck behind a funeral procession, we made it to the venue – an incredible space set among grassland overlooking water. The central feature is an outdoor amphitheatre where hundreds gathered to hear what the programme for the day was, all of us sheltering from the blistering heat and hunting for cold water to slake our thirst.

Audience members happily received brightly coloured umbrellas from the organisers, which quickly became a feature of the festival, as we wandered or were herded from space to space, watching artists in various performance modes. Lucky Kele’s “Reflexion” played out against the backdrop of Tambo’s history in the Narrative Centre – crushed into a small space, bodies sweating, we watched Kele and Victor Seteng weep for the loss of our freedom and the darkness and pain of a future filled with disillusionment.

From there we gathered in a hot, open space framed by grasses where dancers from MIDM, FATC< VDT and Sibikwa used audience members as props and objects of ridicule in “what controls your?”.

Fana Tshabalala linked the action dressed in a suit and red high heels, urging the audience to “woza” and hurry up to the next space.

Probably one of the most effective and visually exciting works was “Road”, choreographed by MIDM’s Oscar Buthelezi and Muzi Shili. Both performed on a balcony above the audience, daring to take risks with both the space and the choreography. First performed as part of FATC’s Spring-Loaded season last year, Buthelezi explores growth and the journey of learning – Shili, as the ageing parent, learns from his child, Buthelezi. It is moving, gymnastic and clever.

Onto Sonia Radebe’s “Muted CHANT” where she asks the audience to form a line with their unrellas and we processed to another area where she talked to us from on top of a wall and asked audience members to build a house and wrap her in a paper dress. Radebe has grown into a mature and arresting performer but much of her solo was lost to us as we couldn’t get close enough to really engage.

Muzi Shili and Oscar Buthelezi in “Road”. Picture: Suzy Bernstein

Muzi Shili and Oscar Buthelezi in “Road”. Picture: Suzy Bernstein


Shawn Mathupi’s “Belonging” featured the VDT dancers in a fairly unstructured work on dance mats which began with him shouting instructions to the performers. After that, load-shedding kicked in and the generators were fired up to allow the rest of the performances to take their course in varied spaces. Unfortunately, I missed some as the programme was changed, with several works being done simultaneously so that the petrol reserves didn’t run dry!

I found myself trapped in a smelly, hot public toilet engaging with Nadine Joseph’s “Fear of Loss”, performed with Daniel Nubian, also first conceived for Spring-Loaded. It is an intense exploration of sexual violence and loss, marred largely by Joseph remaining in a state of inertia on the floor (very different to its first showing last year), while Nubian seems unable to centre himself, is lost in a maelstrom of emotion, washing and wringing white shirts in the metal basins.

I had to leave mid-afternoon so missed the community arts and cultural programme which was scheduled to take place until 6pm. The festival worked on many levels: the calibre of the artists was of a high standard; the venue was interesting and varied; the audience reflected the citizens of Wattville and they came in their numbers. The atmosphere was jovial and receptive.

Load-shedding conspires to wreak havoc on all our lives so it was unfortunate that the generators had to be fired up and the programme altered. This caused some confusion and clearer communication was needed. But, FATC can reflect and work on the weaknesses for next year. The overall impression I came away with, was a community of artists working together to create alternative spaces for their performances to happen. It is this shared spirit and mutual vision for a better future for dance, which drives FATC  and fellow artists and companies to make these events happen.

It is important to acknowledge here the vital part of the sponsors and partners who played a role in making the festival a reality: the Department of Arts and Culture; the City of Ekurheleni; Rand Merchant Bank (whose energetic Yvette Nowell was trying to organise food for the audience members and fuel for the generators!); the University of Johannesburg; the French Institute and the Arts and Culture Trust.

And it was quite a kick to see Carolyn Steyn and her group of Knitwits knitting away in a corner for the 67 Blankets for Mandela Campaign.