This paper interrogates the state of contemporary dance in the current South African climate. The South African nation comprises of citizens who are still hungry for shared freedom not yet realised and the ‘hungry artist’. This artist is disadvantaged with little income, education or support, and yet s/he yearns to dance. I hope to define the hungry artist and then ask why s/he chooses dance over other forms of expression. I look at various institutions to uncover the inner-workings of the dance industry in South Africa and note that contemporary dance is mainly run by white women with Eurocentric ideals. The hungry artist is thus required to aspire to these ideals in order to make a career for him or herself, yet the Eurocentric models are elitist and are not supportive of or nurturing the new dancer/choreographer. The current models are also not providing the sustenance the South African nation craves. The paper finally suggests ways in which the hungry artist might be better supported so that their dance might nourish the hungry nation.

The vast majority of South Africans are still hungry for freedom. Despite the dismantling of apartheid and a new dispensation, many citizens do not experience basic freedoms such as housing, running water, electricity, healthcare or a decent education. This vast majority are still mainly black while the wealthy minority are still mainly white (Hoeane 2004). With the gaps between white and black, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, the South African nation is highly divided. Citizens are united occasionally by a hunger for shared experience and camaraderie, such as during the 2010 FIFA World Cup when all South Africans donned a Bafana Bafana jersey to support the national team.

Out of this hungry nation arises the hunger or rather the hungry artist. This artist diverges from Kafka’s ‘hunger artist’ (1996) who fasts out of artistic choice. The South African hungry artist lives in a poverty-stricken community, such as a township or location. S/he might be literally hungry for food but also hungry to produce and create artistic work – this, despite little or no resources, education, income or support. In these dire circumstances, it is intriguing and inspiring then that the artist continues to hunger to/for dance.

The phenomenon is clear to Georgina Thompson, artistic director of the annual Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg, who says ‘There are hundreds of community dance groups’ (Thompson 2010). She notes that these groups have been formed in poor areas by “innovators” – people who want to do something positive for the members of their long-suffering, hungry communities. These innovators lead groups of hungry artists, some of whom I have encountered at Urban Arts Platform. I began Urban Arts Platform in 2010 as a space for young artists to perform in all genres at the Ansteys Building, a heritage site in the inner-city of Johannesburg. One innovator I met here is led by innovator Treasure Mackensie. He lives in a township near Randfontein, has had no formal dance training but has gleaned what he knows from music videos. With a few friends, he started a break-dancing group. These young men are now dancing rather than joining gangs and taking drugs.

Treasure Mackensie

Figure 1: Treasure Mackensie and company break-dance. Photo: Laurence Horwitz, Courtesy of Mama Creative.

There are many more hungry artists who dance in groups like Treasure’s. Robyn Sassen (2010), an art critic, notes that in 2009, over 400 community dance groups applied to perform at ‘Stepping Stones’, a platform for non-professional dancers at the Dance Umbrella. Sassen (2010) notes their dreams to follow in the footsteps of dancers/choreographers like Vincent Mantsoe, who, as Sassen writes, is the son of a Soweto cleaner living and working in France. He is also considered amongst the top choreographers in the world. Surely these role models are not the only motivation and inspiration for these community dance groups. There must be other reasons why they dance. Certainly, there are many more lucrative career paths to choose.

Dance in South Africa is not an industry to earn one’s daily bread. Many dancers/choreographers like Mantsoe have to live or travel frequently abroad to make ends meet. Lack of funding in the dance world is a common occurrence in South Africa. Robyn Sassen (2010) writes, ‘The 21-year-old Dance Umbrella […] is in danger of dying of a lack of funding.’ First National Bank, nourishing the Dance Umbrella for twenty years has corked its funding tap. If even the most formidable platform of dance in South Africa is supposedly in the throes of starvation, how then could a hungry individual in the industry hope to feed him/herself?

Perhaps dancing is intrinsic to the hungry artist’s identity and traditional black culture. S/he is often introduced to movement at a young age through traditional African or township dances which use movement to communicate a message. This is an ancient phenomenon as Judith Lynne Hanna (1987, p.58) notes: ‘Human dancing behaviour emerges from an evolutionary process lasting millions of years’. Dance is used as a universal form of communication, either traditionally or for artistic purposes, and is effective as it forces the audience to use many of their senses. It can be used ‘to fully engage the human being; it is a multidimensional phenomenon codifying sensory experience’ (Hanna 1987, p. 66). Perhaps the hungry artist knows from his or her experience of traditional forms of dance, that the moving body can be used as an effective tool for communication. For example, s/he might have experienced a traditional wedding where dance creates an atmosphere of celebration. The toyi toyi is a traditional protest dance used during the days of apartheid and most recently at workers’ strikes and public service delivery protests. Even our current president, Jacob Zuma, has to dance deftly to old protest songs to ensure winning the votes of the masses.

Africa Dance interact with the audience

Figure 2: Africa Dance do the kwasa kwasa and interact with the audience at Anteys Building. Photo: Edith Lüttich, Courtesy of Urban Arts

Hungry artists are performing more than just traditional dances. Performances at ‘Stepping Stones’ also include pantsula, a traditional township dance, hip hop and contemporary dance, to name a few. Thompson (2010) notes that the hungry artist dissects issues like AIDS and teenage pregnancy. Perhaps with traditional dance, the hungry artist would not be able to comment on such contemporary issues. It is interesting then to contemplate why the hungry artist would want to explore AIDS and teenage pregnancy through dance.

Hayley Kodesh (2006) determines the need of the hungry artist to dance. She notes how important dance is ‘in a postcolonial setting where what is still the problematic idea of identity […] and the question of freedom’ (Kodesh 2006, p.172). She discusses the work of Gregory Maqoma, a dancer like Mantsoe who began as a hungry artist and is now critically acclaimed on home soil and abroad. Joana Simões Piedade (2010) writes of his work that it ‘destroys […] stereotypes and offers an alternate vision of a unique artist that possesses his own culture’. Maqoma dances to make audiences more aware of his complex African identity. He notes that dancing as an expression of his identity and past ‘is hard and complex because the past may be full of shame, guilt and anger, but it is also full of pleasure, pride and wisdom. We want to bury the negative side in the attempt to create something new and better, but the past never dies’ (Piedade 2010). Maqoma wishes to shock audiences into awake-ness – not everything he reveals is palatable, perhaps prompting his audiences into a reality check. Of course, Maqoma is no longer hungry. However, he shares with the hungry artists experiences of oppression and their continued struggles.

Dance lends itself to freedom of expression in a nation still struggling to be free, because it breaks cultural barriers and is a universal primordial language of communication (Hanna 1987). Even the old apartheid regime, which typically denied indigenous culture, was unable to supress dancing bodies. In addition, Kodesh writes: ‘Performing bodies make political and social statements often more effectively than the spoken word’ (Kodesh 2006, p. 163). Spoken language is codified by structures of power in South Africa (Distiller & Steyn 2004). Currently English has a hegemonic status, used in business and politics and throughout the cities as the lingua franca. Yet in most instances, English is not the hungry artist’s mother tongue and may not be a language in which s/he is proficient. By dancing, the hungry artist is able to shrug off his/her own disadvantaged status and overcome some of the ‘structures and languages of power’ (Distiller & Steyn 2004, p.2). As there are eleven official languages in South Africa, the hungry artist is enabled to communicate to multilingual audiences of South Africa.

It is still rather uncertain why the hungry artist chooses to perform on a Eurocentric-styled stage, in a darkened auditorium where audiences passively consume the dance. The hungry artist places high value on stage performances, evidenced by the high demand to perform at ‘Stepping Stones’. Performance on a stage is fundamentally different to more traditional models. On stage, the performer is watched by viewers who are consumers rather than active participants. Perhaps in a theatre complex, the hungry artist reaches an audience who is different to him or herself; this audience can afford to buy a theatre ticket. When the hungry artist dances, s/he presents something perhaps culturally new or different to this audience.

On stage, the hungry artist is thus in an empowered position because s/he has knowledge of an experience that others do not and shares this experience through dance. The sharer of knowledge is a powerful role to play and one which the hungry artist rarely plays in life. S/he typically has little or no access to centres of knowledge such as libraries, the internet or tertiary institutions. This lack of access is a remnant of the apartheid past. The old regime took great steps to withhold knowledge from the black masses through the Bantu Education System. Many hungry artists’ parents were educated by this system and the cycle of poor quality education continues to plague the current generation.

Hungry artists have much to comment on yet often are disempowered to do so. Kodesh notes: ‘Dances and the bodies that perform them carry the histories in which they were made’ (Kodesh 2006, p.163). By performing with their bodies that have struggled and continue to struggle, hungry artists begin to comment on and question their status of hunger. In addition, by telling his/her story, the hungry artist is an advocate for the mainly silenced voices from the townships and locations in which s/he lives. One such unknowing advocate is Tshidiso Mokhuto, who performed with his company at Ansteys Building and told the story of a young girl from the townships who could not choose between two persistent men.

For the hungry artist, then, dance seems to be a common currency and a known form. It is one which manages to empower him/her to tell his/her stories and the stories of those who are similarly disempowered. It seems that stage platforms, such as ‘Stepping Stones’, are an excellent way for hungry artists to showcase their abilities and to convey their message to audiences. And yet, Georgina Thompson (2010) comments on the dilemmas facing many a hungry artist:

People who have the talent and the real aspiration to dance have nowhere to go beyond their community dance groups. […]What makes me so sad about ‘Stepping Stones’ is there are hundreds of them, that you see with so much potential and you’ve got nowhere to take them. […] There are not enough institutions.

As Thompson suggests, many hungry artists are falling through the cracks of an institutionally starved system. She says, ‘It’s only when dancers get to a proper institution that can they really start working towards a career’ (Thompson 2010). I suggest that with the considerable amount of power she wields in the dance world, she has the ability to commission works and nurture careers. According to her, training in community dance groups is not sufficient to launch the hungry artist into his or her career.

Thompson is not the only white woman making and breaking careers in contemporary dance. Other company directors like Suzette Le Sueur, of the Dance Factory, and Sylvia Glasser, of Moving into Dance Mophatong (MIDM) have similar power and similar Eurocentric notions. They are perhaps aware of the problems facing the dance world, that there is a lack of institutions and training, but are seemingly unaware of any alternatives.

Two once-hungry artists to be nurtured by these women are Vincent Mantsoe and Gregory Maqoma. The two have managed to leave their communities and receive formal training at MIDM, Glasser’s dance company located in Newtown, the cultural district in Johannesburg. This has been fundamental in shaping their careers. However, such success is a rare delicacy for the hungry artist. Currently, MIDM offers training and then a chance to join the company. Places in the training programme are few, and there is little guarantee of a position in the company. Also, this is one of very few institutions to offer such training. Another institution is Le Sueur’s Dance Factory, also based in Newtown. ‘When the Dance Factory was founded in 1992’ writes Inge Ruigrok (2004) ‘it sought to create an accessible space for people from the townships’. However, only 30 students are taken each year (Ruigrok 2004).

Figure 3: Moving Into Dance Mophatong trainees performing on the balcony of Ansteys Building. Photo: Wayne Sussman, Courtesy of Urban Arts Platform.

Hungry artists who fail to get into dance companies go back to their communities and teach with inadequate knowledge and experience (Thompson 2010). Not only are the opportunities limited, but also their initial training is lacking because of insufficient training their mentors, the innovators, receive. Perhaps the entire system of dance in South Africa is not geared towards encouraging, training or supporting the hungry artist. Ex-hungry artists, like Mantsoe and Maqoma, are not staying or working in South Africa; proof that something in our dance world is amiss.

The iron grip these three white women seem to have over the dance world is also evident in the form of training dancers at institutions like MIDM and the Dance Factory receive. At the Dance Factory, ‘classes on classical ballet and contemporary dance are taught two to five times a week’ (Ruigrok, 2004). It seems that training in these forms is extremely valued and that in order to get ahead in the South African dance world, one has to be trained, just as Mantsoe or Maqoma were. As Sassen (2010) notes young dancers on the ‘Stepping Stones’ platform ‘look to people like Vincent Mantsoe’. Thus for the hungry artist, Eurocentric forms of dance and performing in a theatre complex are seen as the ideal.

The ideal forms for the hungry artist are not always considered as the ideal by the hungry nation which then refuses to consume the dishes that Mantsoe and Maqoma and others are serving. Robyn Orlin, who now lives in Berlin and is lauded in France, embellishes her choreography with metaphor and often excludes the dance form altogether. Pointed toes are hardly seen in her work and one has to read her mainly cryptic programme notes in English to understand her complex symbolism and representations. Similarly, to view Mantsoe’s work, with its half African, half Eurocentric vision, one needs prior knowledge and appreciation of dance and movement. Knowledge and other structures of power are problematic for the hungry nation many of whom lack access to these structures. Thus, we see how both Orlin and Mantsoe might be inaccessible to a vast number of hungry citizens.

Hayley Kodesh researched audience responses of Virtually Blond (2004) by Gregory Maqoma. She writes that some viewers ‘strongly disliked the work because it felt empty and inaccessible’ (Kodesh 2006, p.163). Similarly, Suzette Le Sueur, spoke of the audience’s reaction at Swan Lake(2010), choreographed and performed by Le Sueur’s most successful trainee, Dada Masilo: ‘Hardly anyone was reacting. I think you have to know ballet to find the work funny’ (Le Sueur 2010).

However, even those within the arts industry find post-apartheid dance works difficult to decode. In 2005, I interviewed the small audiences at the Market Theatre performances of Orlin’s …when I take off my skin and touch the sky with my nose only then can I see tiny voices amuse themselves…. Twenty out of forty five interviewees were in the creative industry and their responses were exemplified by this viewer’s remarks who said the work was ‘too strange, too loud, too much’ (Nudelman 2005 unpub.). It cannot be possible that even this elite, empowered sect of the South African audience, is unable to decode contemporary dance. As Janet Lansdale (2006, p.15) writes, ‘Dance […] can be seen to be part of a much bigger cultural, political and historical landscape that can possibly be encompassed by our local experience’. Contemporary dance in South Africa similarly draws from its context, histories and narratives. Thus, audiences should find contemporary dance relevant to their lives. Perhaps the problem lies with wealthier audiences’ willingness to engage with the form.

For poorer individuals, their unwillingness to engage with contemporary dance is not pure lethargy but rather, as Thompson (2010) says, is due to a lack of knowledge. Dance Umbrella over the last ten to fifteen years has engaged in staunch audience development programmes in schools across Johannesburg and these programmes have paid off. The performances are full and often oversubscribed. Now the general audience is ‘young, black and moneyed’ (Sassen 2010), curious and willing to watch anything. Sadly however, Thompson (2010) says, they only watch dance ‘at the Dance Umbrella’. Dance, throughout the year is performed mainly in theatres complexes reeking of the old structures of power. For example, Gregory Maqoma staged Ek sê Hola (2003) at the State Theatre in Pretoria. At the performance in 2003, sadly only a handful of viewers sat in the large auditorium, namely my mother and I and what looked like Maqoma’s family. Perhaps in the State Theatre and similar complexes built by the apartheid government, black yuppies generally feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. However, the lack of knowledge is not the only factor alienating audience to contemporary dance. Robyn Orlin (2005) suggested that ‘[we] need to start performing in the streets’, noting that many in the hungry nation cannot afford to buy a theatre ticket. This would include performances in the townships to give poorer people access to contemporary dance and thereby alter the current elite and powerful systems.

With Urban Arts Platform, I have tried to create a space outside of the theatre complex to present contemporary dance and other art disciplines to a heterogeneous audience. Kristin Wilson and Marlin Zoutman, both classically trained, performed a contemporary duet on the balcony of Ansteys Building in June 2011. The audience, mainly residents of the building who are black, low income earners and not at all schooled in Eurocentric dance forms, was hooting with excitement at the dangerous leaps and splits and cried at the more tender moments the two shared.

Nevertheless, even those Eurocentric forms, which are currently placed as the pinnacle of training and choreography, should be questioned. New forms need to be introduced that will be accessible to all. Such forms were explored by the Hillbrow Theatre Project children who performed The Piper (2011), choreographed by Sibusiso Hadebe. Hadebe played an African drum and sang while the company danced. The audience could easily relate to the story in song form and the dance forms were not foreign, but rather assisted the viewer to understand the narrative.

Hillbrow Theatre Project perform

Figure 4: Hillbrow Theatre Project perform The Piper on the balcony of Ansteys Building. Photo: Edith Lüttich, Courtesy of Hillbrow Theatre Project.

From my observations, it appears that contemporary dance will die in South Africa unless two things change. First, Eurocentric forms need to be performed outside of the theatre complex to expose audiences so that they might engage with this approach and broaden their vision. Secondly, Western training should not be considered the only way to launch dancers/choreographers into their careers. New methods need to be explored, which in turn will ensure contemporary South African dance is more inclusive.

The hungry nation’s lack of interest in contemporary dance is not entirely due to its struggle towards shared freedom. Just as it is difficult for the hungry artist to train in contemporary dance, so too the majority of the hungry nation has little knowledge, appreciation or access to a predominantly Eurocentric form. Possibly, a new dance recipe, one specific to the hungry artist in South Africa, needs to be created if contemporary dance has any hopes of survival in this post-colonial, post-apartheid setting. Maybe mentors such as Le Sueur should encourage the hungry artist to find new forms of dance, instead of channelling them to train in Eurocentric forms. Alternative performance spaces for dance should be developed. Teachers are needed however, the visionaries and the leaders in dance, people like Mantsoe, Orlin and Maqoma, to name a few, are rarely present in South Africa as they are better nourished overseas. Despite these difficulties, dance continues to enable the hungry artist to rise above, question and challenge his/her condition of hunger. So we must continue to strive towards a more nutritious dance form that will entice our audiences.


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