Gumboots in a giant Soweto dollhouse

2012-10-03 08:46

The wonderful thing about dance is that it speaks its own language.

Take, for example, the two dancers from the Congo I saw on Saturday, moving their bodies angrily on sizzling plastic canvases on a dimly lit stage, urban traffic droning in the background.

It’s obvious what they wanted to say.

Also, it could have played anywhere in the world: Mumbai, New York, Beijing – probably even Cologne, the city I lived in until recently.

Despite the terrible issue it addressed it somehow made me feel comfortable. For I understood, without having to ask awkward questions and too obviously giving myself away as a complete outsider.

It was one of my first experiences, not only in South Africa, but on this continent.

So Danse l’Afrique, Danse!, which is staged at various Joburg theatres until Sunday came at just the right time: What could be better for someone who has just arrived from what is almost like another world and urgently needs to get some idea of this one than going to a Pan-African dance festival in Soweto?

I looked at the programme, not knowing a thing about anything, and randomly picked shows that either seemed very African or very political or just interesting.

I decided to go to the opening night on Friday at Soweto Theatre, which meant I would have to go to Soweto.

Everyone – including locals – had warned me it’s a place where I would probably get mugged before I could count to three – or maybe even two.

Now I’m not quite sure why.

The theatre in the heart of the township is probably the most beautiful I have ever seen.

It’s like this giant playground made of three cubes – red, yellow and blue – and odd-sided walls, windows and a roof shaped like a tent.

It looks like a doll’s house, right in the heart of Soweto. It is equally stunning on the inside.

Interestingly, the audience was either black African or French – which is no doubt because the festival is part of the 2012 France-South-Africa Seasons collaboration.

There were hardly any white South Africans. Why, I don’t know.

The first show was held on the open-air stage in front of the theatre against the backdrop of a picturesque setting: the township’s lights were flickering in the distance while the sun set in a cloudless sky, turning slowly from purple to blue.

The South African company, Via Katlehong, was performing the same dance that had celebrated the 10th anniversary of the abolition of apartheid by revisiting gumboot dancing and toyi-toying, singing and shouting.

They released powerful energies into the sky. It was all new stuff for me.

It was hardly new for anyone else, as I found out afterwards from Jonas, a dancer from Uganda. I told him how much I loved the gumboots and the energy and the shouting.

It was good, he said, hesitating, but “pretty normal for us actually”.

Perhaps it shows the value of getting an outside perspective from time to time.

» Schneider is a journalism exchange intern from Germany on a research scholarship from the International Journalists’ Programme

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