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REBELLION & JOHANNESBURG is an epic dance-theatre production that will tour Germany later this year before returning to show in South Africa in 2016 at Dance Umbrella, as a means to create connections between the two nations. The concept for the production was birthed by German-based South African choreographer, Jessica Nupen, who collaborated with the dancers of Moving into Dance Mophatong (MIDM) and composer Spoek Mathambo to make her vision a reality.
Skhothane/Izikhothane/Ukukhothane have become synonymous with excessive waste, careless spending, boasting, and capital-battling. Skhothane is a township sub-culture that has emerged in the democratic years of South Africa’s new history. Izikhothane are groups of young people commonly clad in expensive floral T-shirts and Carvela shoes who live a life of deliberate decadence. In a dance-off called Ukukhothane, the winner is elected by lot of who has willingly destroyed the most currency. The direct translation – to lick each other – fails to translate the complexities of the sub-culture and its roots in a heritage of rebellious profligacy. In its simplest form it is youthful rebellion.
Choreographer Jessica Nupen relishes the term ‘apartheid after-party’, which she borrows from composer Spoek Mathambo. In revolt against the continued struggle of their parents who fought in the struggle, as apartheid became colloquially known, the youths of South Africa’s townships took to the streets to burn money and pour custard on the floor in ostentatious displays of their disregard for the currency of freedom: wealth. It is this picture of protest against the perpetuated cycle of struggle that opens the curtains of REBELLION & JOHANNESBURG. It is a fresh dance that aims at understanding what it means to be young in Johannesburg today.
Another important aspect of South African urban rebellion is ‘train surfing’ or ‘staff riding’. The complexities of this movement, which has increased in popularity in post-authoritarian Johannesburg, are explored in this piece. ‘The urban daredevil phenomenon has been compared to a rite of passage for the “lost generation” from poverty, violence and HIV stricken communities with bleak future outlooks who use it to express themselves,’ explains Nupen. ‘This risk-taking fatalistic behaviour has become a popular trend in train stations around Johannesburg, Soweto and township train stations and is expressed through the piece as a practice that enables the marginalised train surfer to exert control over his surroundings. Hanging outside and underneath the train as well as surfing on top of the train are stunts honed by the surfers who hunger for the appreciation and admiration from the crowd. The idea of literally dancing with death is what I am exploring in the piece and how the inherent danger of the practice, although well known by the surfers, is mocked and teased. It seems that train surfing has in itself become a culture and is passed down through generations, gangs, friends. It provides a false sense of overcoming alienation while theses youngsters perform these spectacular acts of bravado waiting for the inevitable-death. It is also incredibly interesting to note that in Germany a train surfer, or someone who rides the train illegally, is called a schwarz Fahrer.’
Having taken up permanent residence in Germany, she has continued to regularly revisit the home that inspires her work. ‘My parents were very politically active during apartheid,’ she states with a sense of respect. Working in both countries she has been able to view her home-country from a different perspective and she hopes to change the way Johannesburg is perceived to the German eye by showing a city that is constantly evolving with many exciting, challenging and rebellious facets.
‘They know Mandela and they know Zuma. They don’t know what our generation has to say,’ she says in an urgent tone that is peppered with the hurried sound of multiple thoughts vying to come out at once. This generation consists of those in their 20s and early 30s: those who were born in the last years of apartheid and have grown up in democracy. She speaks of the generational divide between the freedom-fighters and the born-frees, who were conceived after apartheid and seem lost to their parents. The latter are those who seem to be in an endless ‘apartheid after-party’ and are highly criticised by the former, for their reckless lifestyles and for appearing to have forgotten the past.
Nupen’s perspective as an ‘in-betweener’ – neither a born-free nor a freedom-fighter – as well as a South African living in Germany, cast an intriguing light on the nature of everyday life as a free South African. Her work straddles the gap between dance and theatre. Play and game, improvisation, discourse, theme analysis and mapping emotional experience through movement and experimentation are all vitals tools that she uses to create further vocabulary and to choreograph.
Working with doctoral candidates from the University of Hamburg, she will create a research opportunity through this piece by documenting the process and conducting a workshop when the show goes on tour. It will be a study of perception as the students attempt to analyse the specific gestures performed in the work through the lens of German citizens who live in a world marked by 26 years since the fall of the Berlin wall. And perception is a major theme of REBELLION & JOHANNESBURG. While the idea of perceptions of wealth and a life-lived-without-a-care is indicative of the Skhothane sub-culture, this becomes the entry point of the underlying questions of the dance. When Beyoncé poured an exorbitant bottle of champagne into her bath-tub in the music video for ‘Feelin’ Myself’, the educated youth wrote furious reprimands of her wastefulness citing that the price of the champagne could have paid their student loans. And similarly, the Skhothanes are admonished by the freedom-fighters and others as being lost. The retort is that there is no need to work and study hard if one is going to remain enslaved to debt and so money is burned by the Skhothanes in rebellion; they seek to create new paths. When they wash their hands with champagne it is a pointed waste. It is a revolution of the young against the lack of freedom that persists due to economic battles. So they dance at the ‘apartheid after-party’. And their dance form is a battle.
‘We’re rebelling! Against our times! It’s an endeavour to take some personal control,’ Nupen exclaims. She sees in the destruction of the symbols of wealth, a sense of the cultural violence and conflict that has been part of the country’s history for generations. Rebellion falls at the centre of REBELLION & JOHANNESBURG. ‘Johannesburg demands rebellion from each and every one of us everyday,’ comments Nupen, ‘We rebel against our cruel history while trying to unearth our personalities, identity, expression, outspokenness, individualism. We rebel against our present, our leaders, our conditions, our own people. We rebel against the idea of living in a crime-ridden, poverty-stricken place. We rebel against our reality with humour, teeth-sucking smirks and shoulder-shrugging, greeting complete strangers in the street. We rebel against security guards, high fences and night-soaked streets with our inquisitive and adventurous spirits, our openness. We essentially rebel to survive and express ourselves in a city filled with paradox and irony.’
Nupen has collaborated with a playful production team with Spoek Mathambo’s score (an original piece created following their meeting), Anmari Honniball’s colourful wardrobe and Ed Blignaut’s abstract film. The work aims to become self-sustainable and performed annually. But the art is what is most important to her and in pursuing the ideas that have brewed for so long she has also spent time seeking the right partners to collaborate with creatively.
REBELLION & JOHANNESBURG is about ‘the culture of the individual’. In the months prior to rehearsal she posed questions to the dancers. Working with the company from Moving into Dance Mophatong (MIDM), she sought to collaborate with a group of dancers who would effectively be the subject matter of the production so she needed thinking performers, which she found in the company. In searching for the stories, with which to begin the choreographic process she asked: ‘How do you continue to develop in Johannesburg, when you can’t trust anyone?’; ‘Does it make you want to go closer to your culture or rebel?’; ‘Do you feel liberated by your culture or do you fell limited by your culture?’; and ‘When do you feel most free?’ What she observed in the responses was a divide between the males’ and the females’ perceptions of culture. The liberty provided by tradition seemed to work in favour of the men, who found a sense of masculine strength in their cultures but paradoxically also struggled with being contemporary dancers in their cultural moulds. The women of the company spoke of culture as obligatory and had different perspectives on which traditions to maintain and which to discard.
In working with the cast and alongside co-choreographer Sunnyboy Motau (as well as artistic assistant Oscar Buthelezi), she found a generous freedom of expression in discussing the issues that young South Africans face in their day-to-day paths toward success. She is most in awe of the resilience that seems to be part of the nation’s heritage. She says, ‘There’s no black and white answer here. Somehow we keep going. And that paradox, for me, is fascinating.’ She laughs at how her German friends cannot conceive how the country keeps moving even with loadshedding. She sighs at how Oscar Buthelezi witnessed his taxi driver being killed. She gleams at how Buthelezi still made it to rehearsal that day; and on time. When she speaks of how much fun they have in rehearsals she attributes it to sameness, of age and of growing up in Johannesburg. But there is also an intense and analytic dedication at work when she spends hours in discussion with Motau after rehearsals. She says that she and the company ‘just clicked’, although also adding that ‘there has been an incredible amount of work… the process is strenuous and arduous. Participation from each dancer is key to the productive environment that we have managed to establish.’
Every aspect of this has been carefully planned, with the administrative, technical and artistic team putting in over a year of planning. From the composer, whose understanding and own personal investment in new youth cultures gave Nupen the phrase ‘apartheid after-party’, to the company of MIDM, the costume and filmmaker, and even the financial sponsors. There is a symbiosis of efforts that is authentic. In Nupen’s words, ‘The film doesn’t dictate. The music doesn’t dictate. The dance doesn’t dictate. The wardrobe doesn’t dictate. But they all arrive at the same time.’ It is creatively interesting dance piece built on effective collaboration.
Romeo & Juliet/REBELLION & JOHANNESBURG is proudly supported by: Lufthansa; Ammer Foundation; Goldman Sachs Gives; Rand Merchant Bank; The German Embassy South Africa, Hamburg Ministry of Culture; Hamburg Cultural Foundation and private sponsors. In cooperation with: The Consulate General Munich; The South African Embassy Germany; Dance Forum and Brand South Africa.
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