Listen to the Pulse

2011-02-19 09:17

Stories help us to learn about and understand the world around us.

There are tales that reinforce morality, explain cultural practice and demystify the natural world, and anecdotes that create a family’s identity.

How those stories are told, though, has changed. Few are the opportunities for an extended family to sit around and exchange ideas, and listen to each other.

Ironically, the age of technology has increased the number of ways we can communicate, but done nothing to encourage real interaction.

This change in how we relate to each other is the genesis of choreographer Sifiso Kweyama’s piece, circle.

The piece will open this year’s Dance Umbrella as part of a double bill that includes Lliane Loots’ Bloodlines, a piece that ­explores forgotten stories from our ­collective history.

Kweyama says that it was while his eldest daughter was visiting that he started to think about the dying art of storytelling.

While he was watching the news, she wanted to ask him questions.

He couldn’t ignore her, so instead turned off the TV and answered her questions about the world.

There’ll always be another news show, but the chance to interact with his child then and there in that way was a one-time deal.

So, he got to thinking about how things have changed in our interpersonal dealings.

How we used to sit around – no TV, cellphone, Twitter or Facebook – and talk and, more importantly, listen to each other. Now we are so torn between responding to all the demands on our attention that listening is rare.

“I’ve decided when I am talking to someone, I pay attention to them,” says Kweyama.

“Circle is about how things have changed since the old days of living in the rural areas. We used to sit as a family around the fire, and speak and ­listen. This is how I learned to speak to my elders.

“We have lost this. We live in square houses now. When you sit in a circle, you can see everyone,” says Kweyama.

The piece was workshopped at the beginning of last year at the behest of Loots. She heads the Flatfoot Dance Company, which performs the work, and was one of Kweyama’s teachers in the late 1980s.

It is perhaps fitting that in the year that the Dance Umbrella has triumphed against being silenced that the opening night should be about telling stories about our collective history.

After 17 years, FNB withdrew its sponsorship from the dance showcase last year, leaving the organisers with the Herculean task of finding other sponsors to continue the country’s contemporary dance dialogue.

They have succeeded and perhaps this is why two pieces about the importance of continuing the art of telling stories is fitting for the opening of this 23rd Dance Umbrella that celebrates keeping the ­conversation of contemporary dance open to all.

Loots’ piece, Bloodlines, “is a work about history and memory, and how we choose to tell it”, she says.

And its life began with a forgotten plaque.

Says Loots: “I had found, on a long cycle one Sunday morning, a strange small little bronze plaque around the Jacobs area commemorating the women and children of the Great Boer War who had lived and died in the British concentration camp of 1902.

“It obsessively stayed with me and so I began to search libraries, books and the internet. I feel like I have stumbled on a history that our country just does not speak about. It is silent and absent in the political landscape of history, memory and remembrance – and the history and remembrance of white Afrikaner identity. After living in Durban for 35 years, I knew nothing of it.”

South Durban housed the three biggest concentration camps of Boer women and children in South Africa during the second Boer War between 1899 and 1902. Merebank housed about 8 000 inhabitants, while the Jacobs and Wentworth camps each housed 3 000.

“Perhaps the remembering that these women and children interned were to become, in a mere 55 years, the fathers and mothers of the oppressive segregation history of apartheid South Africa, is just too much to contemplate, or for our histories to allow?

 Perhaps we don’t want to be reminded that those who have formerly been oppressed can become even worse oppressors?

“Our multiple histories are written on the skin, in blood. We move them as we represent our race or gender, as we contemplate the movement of Africans into South Africa and our response to the ‘Makwerekwere’, to Jacob Zuma saying that, among white South Africans, only the White Afrikaners are truly African .?.?. These fragments of history are danced with the bodies of six South ­African dancers.”

For Kweyama’s circle it is the dancers’ own stories that create the piece. D

uring the creation process each of the dancers was asked to tell their own personal story, tied in with their family history. The result is seven stories that represent typical and, unfortunately, often tragic tales from our shared history

“One doesn’t know where her father is. Two escaped from an abusive family. A third dancer tells the story of his rural life. All the dancers are telling their own stories – they all do solos. I didn’t dictate the stories. All I did was provide the music.”

Kweyama also provides the direction.

He began the process by having the dancers sit in a circle and tell their stories to each other.

The first thing they had to learn was to listen – not to all talk at once, but to let one person finish before another started talking.

The result of this return to an ancestral storytelling idiom created what dance lovers will see: stories told that evoke reactions from the watchers as well as from the performers.

“There’s a difference between doing a dance movement and telling a story. A performer must be in the moment.

Each movement needs to move the story forward – only a dancer can do this.”

For Loots, the synergy between the two works lies in the fact that they both celebrate dance’s unique storytelling ability.

“Both of them navigate, though stylistically very differently, ways in which contemporary dance takes on the theatrical form of storytelling. Circle is a technically superb work that allows the dance idiom to redefine contemporary African storytelling. As the title dictates, the work focuses on what happens when we all sit together, in a circle, and speak our hearts.

“Bloodlines is less narrative and more about the small moments of our dreams and nightmares that all come together, through film, the spoken word, dance, to negotiate memory, blood and legacy. The work directly came out of the xenophobia attacks of 2008 and circles this by looking at where all of this began – back into a far distant history of vaguely remembered South African bloodlines.”

Kweyama and Loots might be telling the first pair of stories at this year’s Dance Umbrella, but over the festival’s 10 days, there are many other dancers and choreographers continuing the conversation of contemporary dance.

Let’s hope audiences get there to listen.

» Catch circle and Bloodlines at The Dance Factory on Thursday and Friday at 7.30pm.

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