‘When I started working on Dance Umbrella the one thing that struck me was that it was all men,’ Artistic Director Georgina Thomson states. In its 27th year, Dance Umbrella 2015 festival focuses on the female choreographers who have formulated fresh forms of performance in the democratic era.
It was 1995 when Thomson first took over the management of the dance festival and only a year since South Africa’s first democratic elections. Women were not strongly visible in the contemporary dance world – in ballet, yes – but they were generally dancers who stepped to the beat as it was tapped out by a male choreographer. The ability to vote was not only an issue across racial lines, but also a critical gender-based problem where, interestingly for South African politics, the right to have a say in the running of the country was argued for as a larger human rights dilemma that affected all disenfranchised people; black, female, homosexual and the differently-able. The Constitution indemnified the need to address all these injustices as inseparable from the need to restore the peoples’ humanity. When female artists like Mamela Nyamza articulate, in interviews, that ‘No one warned me that it would be this difficult to be a dancer in South Africa, and there weren’t many black female dancers back in the day who could have advised me on how to make it in this profession,’ it is a testament to the need for continued development within this sector. Thomson’s artistic direction for Dance Umbrella 2015 highlights the necessity for women choreographers to continue to carve the path for younger female artists to empower themselves and to create a new dance language.
Thomson reflects that ‘in the last ten years, women have really come into their own’ and so, the second week of Dance Umbrella 2015 hosts a female-focused lineup; with Sello Pesa as the only male counterpart. Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Dance 2011 Mamela Nyamza will perform her latest work Wena Mamela after a year of exploring choreographic techniques and collaboration with artists like Germaine Acogny from Senegal and premiering in Germany. The cross-continental residencies that result in the final presentation of the piece speak to Nyamza’s for a ‘unique movement language,’ as she communicated at the time. The need for an authentic voice, as has been a focus for Nyamza’s choreography over the years, saw her re-create the work Hatch (2008) into Hatched in 2010. The piece saw her affirm her place in the choreographic world as well as cultivating her artistic identity as a socially conscious creative. Wena Mamela is an investigation of her Self as a perpetual understudy. Having trained as a ballet dancer, her unique background growing up in Gugulethu informed her fervour for the arts and dance in particular as she moved to the multiple rhythms playing out in the music and noises around her. One of the issues that has become prominent in her work is the need for sexual freedom as one of the freedoms inherent in the Constitution of the democratic country. For her contributions she was named the ‘festival icon’ for the Artscape Women’s Humanity Arts Festival last year. At Dance Umbrella 2015, she performs alongside Nelisiwe Xaba, Tossie van Tonder, Constanza Macras and Nora Chipaumire; as some of the prominent names of female choreographers on the program.
Nelisiwe Xaba’s work has been celebrated by critics and contemporary audiences for its intriguing stylistic approach to the issues that continue to curb the constitution of democracy. Using multi-media she has created work that challenges its audience in complicit ways and brought a fresh perspective to the way that identities are constructed; by exploiting some unexpected collaborations. Tossie van Tonder returns to the stage after a number of years and having recently held workshops with older women to reignite their sense of ability and affirm the crucial need to pass on their wealth of knowledge for the betterment of the industry and greater society. Thomson, who attended the workshops said that she had not danced so much in such a short space of time, in a long while; and she was empowered to kick-start another year of the Dance Umbrella afterwards.
It is the very positive aspects of lighting the flame for future generations that makes the female-centered Dance Umbrella 2015 a beacon of hope for what is to come. There is nothing soppy or sentimental about it. These are women doing for themselves and simultaneously for all of humanity.