Chit Chat: Georgina Thomson

2011-02-18 15:27

Dance fever comes to Gauteng this week as the 23rd yearly Dance Umbrella gets under way. Though pared down to 10 days thanks to its sponsor pulling out, there’s plenty to see. The festival’s artistic director Georgina Thomson, who has been in the post for more than a decade, talks about the Umbrella’s place as an incubator of South African talent.Gayle Edmunds speaks to her.

How did you ensure the Dance Umbrella’s survival for this year?
It was persistence and making sure we matched projects with funders. I have to say a big thank you to the National Arts Council who stepped in this year as the main funder.

In the years you’ve been heading up the Dance Umbrella what are three of your most memorable dance moments?
Seeing Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe in the first work he created called Gula while watching the Fringe programme in 1995.

I know most of us were tired, having sat there for about five hours already, but he woke the whole audience up and it was a spectacular launch of his now international career.

The second one is when I watched the premiere of a work created by Robyn Orlin called Daddy. I’ve seen this piece six times since and I still don’t know why they’re hurting each other .?.?. I knew instinctively this work was different and it also launched Robyn’s international career and it’s still touring in Europe after premiering in 2000.

The third memorable moment I get every year is when watching the Stepping Stones programme and seeing the amazing talent that’s there and how special South African dance is.

As the only platform for dance on a large scale for South African dancers, what effect has the Dance Umbrella had?
I think the main role it has played is keeping the platform open for new work, which gives young and old choreographers a place to show their work. But, also, the changes have been important.

Ten years ago we started to commission work and several of these have gone on to tour internationally and launched careers for South African choreographers.

We have also developed an audience for contemporary dance: people who danced in Stepping Stones 10 years ago are now the audience coming to watch.

What are your criteria for commissioning works?
I watch work all year round. From this I can assess who is doing what (nationally). The main basis is to commission different people each year and to make sure it’s fair in that there are both young and established choreographers ­invited to create work.

This year the festival pays tribute to German choreographer ­Pina Bausch. Why was she such a key figure in contemporary dance circles?
Like Martha Graham (an American choreographer who was a pioneer in modern dance), she changed contemporary choreography and created new forms of expression within the sector.

She broke rules and in so doing paved the way for young artists to see new ways of creating work.

A key element is collaborations between choreographers from different countries and disciplines. What can fans of these hybrid pieces expect this year?
There are interesting collaborations: Mark Hawkins works with Moving into Dance Mophatong for the first time and will undoubtedly move the impressions of the company.

Lucky Kele attended a residency programme in Senegal and it was here he connected with the people he is collaborating with, and Thabiso Pule met Hind Benalo in Cairo.

I think it’s important especially to connect dancers within Africa so that a new language that comes from here can be created.

This year Stepping Stones, the platform for new talent, has been pared down. Why is this?

We were not sure how much money we would get so we cut the festival into 10 days which meant we would have to take out one Stepping Stones day.

The Fringe was added for people who couldn’t get onto the main ­programme.

Some might argue that contemporary dance is a difficult language to learn for those who are not ­familiar with the art form. How do you counter such arguments?
Any art form is difficult. I think it’s up to people to take the time to investigate it. Of course there will be times they like it and times they don’t .?.?. but it grows on you.

»The Dance Umbrella runs at venues in Joburg from February 24 to March 6.
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