In one field especially, the new freedoms of post-apartheid South Africa have brought new life – dance has became a prime means of artistic expression, with dance companies expanding and exploring new territory.

Music and dance are pulling in new audiences and a number of home-grown productions, particularly those aimed at the popular market, have taken South Africa and, in some cases, the world, by storm.

Among these are entrepreneurial producer Richard Loring’s African Footprint, enjoying a long run at Gold Reef City’s Globe Theatre. The show, which also performed in London at the 2000 Royal Variety show and played to enthusiastic audiences in Atlanta, features a cast of talented professional dancers, many with a classical background, and explores 2,000 years of African history through its evolving dance traditions.

The musical, Umoja, created by Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni, received critical acclaim on London’s West End after a thoroughly successful run in Johannesburg.

The two productions sum up the spectrum of contemporary dance in South Africa. Umoja’s dancers have no formal training, they are drawn from communities, and many of them would have had their performing experience in companies like that of Gibson Kente. Members of the cast of African Footprint, on the other hand, are drawn from professional companies and are trained in professional (sometimes classical) techniques.

South Africa has had a long tradition of fine classical ballet but, until relatively recently, contemporary dance was not an important feature of the local dance scene.

Since the late-1970s, though, that has changed, and contemporary dance companies have burgeoned and spawned an “Afrofusion” (a concept conceived and named by MID’s Sylvia Glasser) that combines the techniques of formal dance training with a spirit that is purely African. The result, a blend of multiple cultures, including classical ballet, is controversial and hugely exciting.

Ironically, says the country’s foremost dance critic and writer, Adrienne Sichel, much of the impetus for this very African movement has come from white, often Jewish women, who had the resources to travel and to import into the country techniques and trends from abroad, and the sensitivity to challenge the aesthetic and realise that the techniques they learnt could not be imposed, unadapted, on the African body.

Companies like Cape Town’s Jazzart Dance Theatre, Johannesburg’s Free Flight Company and Moving Into Dance (MID)- Mophatong, the Soweto Dance Company, the Napac and Pact Dance Companies, led the way, creating the first contemporary companies in South Africa and inspiring a new dance movement.

More recently, groups like the exotically named Fantastic Flying Fish Company have leapt into the field. Artists like Sylvia Glasser, Tossie van Tonder, Carly Dibokwane, Adele Blank, Robyn Orlin, created a new vocabulary of dance, working with their own companies, directing at Fuba (Federated Union of Black Artists), and inspiring and nurturing local talent.

Jazzart, the oldest modern dance company in the country, has long been actively involved in performing and teaching workshops and classes in disadvantaged communities. Moving Into Dance-Mophatong, whose Community Dance Teachers Training Course has just celebrated its tenth anniversary, has given space to the talents of dancer/choreographers like Vincent Mantsoe, Moeketsi Koena, and Gregory Vuyani Maqoma.

A major blow

In small, inadequate, and frequently inappropriate spaces all over the country, dance began to burgeon and, as did theatre in its early days, to need a more professional platform. Sichel, together with a fellow critic and writer, Marilyn Poole, saw the need for “neutral space”. “We knew that a lot of the choreographers didn’t have money, there needed to be a space where there could be a professional platform to show work, meet other dancers, work under professional conditions.” One of the first to make a “leap of faith” and join them was Soweto Dance Theatre’s Carly Dibokwane, who was to become an important force in bringing dance out of the townships and into “town”. As a result of their efforts, Dance Umbrella was born in 1989, and “Afrofusion”, became public property. Out of Dance Umbrella grew a contemporary repertory which now is performed internationally.

Ironically, though, just as contemporary dance began to become a respectable sector of the theatre scene, and as dance schools began to turn out professionals, the curtain came down on government funding of dance, and companies like the PACT (Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) Dance Company (a contemporary company) were forced to close. Youngsters trained to high levels have found themselves with nowhere to go.

The blow fell just as South African dance was beginning to make a major impression internationally, and the country was reaping the benefits of local dancers, like the PACT Dance Company’s Christopher Kindo, returning from training abroad to start new companies, collaborate with older ones, and impart their skills and creativity to their compatriots, redefining contemporary dance in Africa, and attaining worldwide recognition.

South Africa is a major force in the dance world “but the country doesn’t recognize it,” says Sichel. “Dance is one of the few things in this country that has done all the cross cultural reconciling, but it needs a careful infrastructure and policy which these young pioneers have to sort out.

Source: Brand South Africa