Pantsula morphs into ballet

2013-03-03 10:00

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In Mmakau, the battered village that marks the border between Tshwane and Brits, people might have long learnt to enjoy perfect sunsets to spite their hunger.

The twilight here gives a heart-warming romance to the shabby shanty houses that leap out of the shrubberies for want of improvement.

I take a meandering drive along its crater-like, pothole-ridden roads to meet with contemporary dancer Thabo Rapoo.

I’ve followed him to see how he shares the stage with the Badimo Jazz Band at the local community hall, where they are hosted by the Tshwane Jazz Collectors Club.

The annual Dance Umbrella, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, was choreographed by Thabo Rapoo, the multiaward-winning contemporary dancer and jazz musician. Pictures: Herman Verwey/City Press

This is part of the monthly jazz appreciation sessions regularly organised by the gathering. They visit a different member township across the metro each month.

Rapoo also gave a performance at the Dance Umbrella festival in Joburg last week. The programme was aimed at providing a taste of what’s to come at the main dance jamboree later this year, Arts Alive in Joburg.

He also shared the stage with Duo Four IV Two, a musical outfit that includes Magdalena de Vries on marimba and Frank Mallows on vibraphone, at the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival. His contribution included three short solo dance pieces to accompany the musicians’ efforts at the Wits Art Museum.

Now the Ga-Rankuwa-born choreographer is in Mmakau with Badimo Jazz Band. He sits hunched and slapping away at the cajón, a box drum of Peruvian origin. He grooves it up with cymbals, shekeras and tambourines. Riding every lift in the harmonic swirl of the horn section, his head rises skyward and his glistening skin catches the fleeting lights in time with the music.

Rapoo is not dancing this evening, at least not in the obvious sense. He is a jazz instrumentalist enlisted to croon working-class sound connoisseurs in Tshwane’s back of beyond.

At the interval, he masters a thuggish dip step toward the back row where I’m sitting. He smiles and says: “This is my other life, bra.”

It’s as if he senses the obvious wonder. It’s hard to make out the famous figure with graceful twirls and gentle falls of a ballerina from the guy before me.

He almost contrasts the Rapoo who, in 2002, was honoured with an FNB Vita award for the most promising male dancer in contemporary style; and then in 2009 with the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year award. He’s enjoyed a steady but sure growth path.

Dance is his first passion. He says: “I started out doing pantsula dance routines with a group of guys. We called ourselves Majita and did performances at high school events and beauty pageants around Ga-Rankuwa.”

Laughing at how improbable it now all seems, he explains that the group would later change its name to Mother Nature. This because they had added some girls in the group and their repertoire also became broader to include theatre dramas.

The broadening creative palette coincided with him completing high school and a chance encounter with Tlokwe Sehume of Medu Arts Ensemble. The band leader was looking for a young enthusiast for his brand of pan-African orchestral music to teach drums and percussion. Sehume warmed up to a young Rapoo and taught him the skills he now showcases.

Beyond his duties at the drum kit, Rapoo added dance to the Medu’s on-stage alchemy. Sehume would later advise Rapoo to head to Joburg to pursue his burning passion for dance.

He enrolled for a three-year diploma in dance at the Johannesburg Dance Foundation, where he worked with the likes of Grayham Davies and Eugene Berry.

In 2001, Rapoo choreographed a solo dance piece for his graduation project, which saw him being included in the Arts Alive programme that year.

The fast-moving pantsula had completed his metamorphosis into a promising contemporary-dance star.

Rapoo’s piece at this year’s Dance Umbrella (pictured) involved a thug chased by police after a ­cash-in-transit robbery

However, it would still be a while before he would convince his township kin of his impending triumph. In a world where men are expected to get real jobs, dance doesn’t quite make the grade.

He says: “You know, guys where we grew up don’t even take you seriously because you are a dancer. In fact, they even call you ‘gay’. They laugh at the idea of holding a girl’s body with a dancer’s passion without sexual intent. It’s unheard of.”

He gazes into the void, then says: “My parents disowned me, bra! They wanted to know how I was going to get paid just for dancing on stage.

“So they made it clear that though they support me because this is what I want to do, their support would be limited because they don’t understand this thing.”

That was around 1999, when he was still starting out. Last year, Rapoo invited his parents to see him on stage for the first time. He was working with the Tshwane Dance Theatre at the State Theatre in a production titled Pula: Blessed Rain, directed by Sbonakaliso Ndaba.

The long journey through modern and contemporary dance is leading him back to his pantsula roots in a convoluted way. Rapoo’s work is rooted in the township and focuses on Africanist subject matter.

His piece at last week’s Dance Umbrella depicted a thug chased by police after a ­cash-in-transit robbery tip-off. The thug is caught in a shoot-out with the cops. After being cornered, he is killed.

At the Mozart festival, his story was about a poor father who left his children back home in the rural areas. He drinks himself to a pulp for failing to make enough money to send home. This wasteful drinking only drives him to more depression and drinking. The story is steeped in the migrant labour experiences of many poor, working-class blacks.

But how does he reconcile this elite medium with his subaltern narratives? Rapoo starts by declaring how he loathes that to be acknowledged as a professional dancer, he had to first go through a European tradition.

He says: “So as African dancers we have to develop our own productions here, our own stories, and address them as they happen here. We have to move away from Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and so on.

“Europeans can tell those stories better. They are theirs. Our stories will demand we develop techniques unique to our environment. The body’s anatomy will force us to respond accordingly. Just as it did in the European classical tradition.”

At this point, our chat has grown serious. The darkness has also claimed the night sky and buzzing mosquitoes compete with the jazz music the DJ selects for the gathered masses.

Rapoo stretches his limbs in between sentences. But tonight he is jamming, not jiving.

Death becomes the only solution out.

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