Collaborations are spearheading the 2016 Dance Umbrella. Garreth van Niekerk goes backstage before the opening act’s big leap forward
For the first time in its 28-year history, the whole programme of the annual Dance Umbrella fits on to one page of an A5 booklet – a far cry from the more than 200 new works it debuted in the early noughties.
It’s only thanks to visionary leadership, dedicated alumni and a state-funded lifeline that it has, once again, survived. Yet the smaller 2016 programme may be its most dynamic yet.
Rebellion & Johannesburg, a collaboration between Moving into Dance Mophatong and South African-born, Hamburg-based choreographer Jessica Nupen, opens the festival this year. It’s a powerful collaboration that features a score by electro wunderkind Spoek Mathambo, costumes and sets by stylist extraordinaire Anmari Honiball and eye-popping multimedia visuals by art-world darling Ed Blignaut.
Navigating the chaotic traffic that hums through the streets of Newtown – where I watched their first rehearsal since the production’s premiere five months ago in Germany – the Joburg around me breathes with a rhythm of its own, bustling with life and then quietly decaying. In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare calls the exhale – the collective release of all this effort – “a smoke made with the fume of sighs”. Between this city smoke and literature’s most celebrated love story emerges Rebellion & Johannesburg.
This energy came rushing into studio as the rehearsal began – a first scene of shirt-tearing, sweaty and passionate pantsula that Sonnyboy Motau, the production’s Romeo and co-choreographer, describes as “a new pantsula, broken down and explored with our bodies”.
It is Motau’s strength and occasional vulnerability that drives this first part of the production, interacting with the anonymous characters of Johannesburg who will later become the Mercutios, Tybalts and Juliets. Beyond these names, very little remains of the original Shakespearean narrative.
“There’s this guy in Johannesburg with this name they call Romeo,” a dancer says before he drawls off, “and his girlfriend’s name is...” Someone else shouts, “Juliet!” Another dancer asks, incredulous: “Romeo the Indian?” Someone nearby almost slaps him. “No, Romeo is black.”
One in grey next to her says, appalled, “I hear he’s gay!” The whole eight-piece cast is squeezed together on a small table, their bodies forming a taxi. The driver starts explaining this mysterious Romeo – a man who came to Joburg with big dreams but lost it all to the city. Some speculate he lost it to a shady deal with a sangoma; others say it was to Juliet, his love; but others say it was to his boyfriend, Mercutio.
“It’s in an old, funny language of ‘who art thous’ and ‘thys’, but to cut the long, boring story short: poison,” says a dancer as she draws her finger across her throat. “Hawu,” they all say sadly.
Almost as soon as the talking begins, it’s over, and the dancing continues, telling what remains of the story. “We’ve taken the elements of the classic tragedy and flipped them on their head a bit,” says Nupen, smiling. She says it was a combination of time with the dancers, her own classical training and the contradiction of Joburg that informed the work.
“What was the common denominator in [Romeo and Juliet’s] feeling of the lack of power and lack of control over their own lives? In this piece, they are trying to find how they survive together in South Africa in such a fast-paced and difficult environment.”
Mathambo’s epic score steers the ensemble, opening with an Umshini Wami rendition.
“It’s that big junction,” is how Mathambo describes Joburg to me, “a huge meeting point of so many cultures, from traditional African culture to township culture.”
Sitting on the floor, the crew members go over their lines in the taxi scene again, Nupen instructing them to make their voices clearer so they can be heard. The driver starts: “They say Johannesburg is the City of Gold.”
“No, it’s the City of Nothing, there’s nothing left in Johannesburg,” another dancer shouts back.
“Eh, eh. Johannesburg is the City of Power,” declares another.
After jumping out of the taxi and doing some cartwheels over the table, they return to rehearsals and I manage to get a moment to speak with Juliet, played by Thenjiwe Soxokoshe.
“In Romeo and Juliet, I stand up for myself because I have to, because this city is like that.” She’s no wilting flower, this Juliet, and it’s beautiful to watch her defiance on stage.
Strong, powerful women drive the Umbrella and are the reason it has survived for so long.
Georgina Thompson, the director of the Umbrella, says: “Every year I think this is the last Umbrella, but I don’t give up. I still don’t know why. I saw the first Umbrella in 1991, coming from The Playhouse, where it was all very Eurocentric and neoclassical, and for the first time I understood the huge spectrum of dance in South Africa. That was a revelation to me. It’s been amazing to go on the adventures with the artists, as we have with Rebellion & Johannesburg.”
. Dance Umbrella will be held in venues throughout Joburg from February 25 to March 6. Rebellion & Johannesburg is on at the UJ Arts Centre on February 25 and 26. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za for more info