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Dance Umbrella: 28 Years Later

The longevity of Dance Umbrella has been extraordinary. From the initial, small, three-day event, it has grown to a 15-day long festival. It now features commissioned new works from South African choreographers and carefully-selected international works.

Dance Umbrella had its beginnings in 1989 when Vita Promotions, responding to a suggestion by two journalists, created a contemporary dance platform called the Vita Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg. At the outset, the majority of companies presenting works were white. This, of course, was the effect of apartheid. However, as one of the main aims of the Dance Umbrella was to bring everyone in the contemporary dance industry together, programmes featuring mainly mixed-bills with works from PACT Dance Company, Soweto Dance Theatre, traditional and hip-hop/pantsula dance and afro-fusion, were presented.

The first Dance Umbrella was funded by Vita Promotions Director, Philip Stein. From 1990 to 1992, AA Life stepped in, followed by IGI Life in 1993 and then long-time funder First National Bank (FNB) took over from 1994 until 2010. This committed sponsorship ensured the development and extension of Dance Umbrella.

‘When FNB came on board, we could play,’ says the Director of Dance Umbrella since 1997, Georgina Thomson. ‘We started commissioning new work when Dance Umbrella turned ten; we started residency programmes; we started collaborating nationally and internationally and the future looked rosy.’

By the time FNB determined to withdraw their support from Dance Umbrella, Vita Promotions had already closed due to cancellation of FNB funding for most of Vita Promotions projects – the National and Regional Theatre Awards, the Vita Art Prize and the contemporary dance awards, among others – and the retirement of Philip Stein.

In 2012, Dance Umbrella became part of the annual Johannesburg International Arts Alive Festival on a three-year contract. A budget for the Dance Umbrella was then allocated by the City of Johannesburg and, although a quarter of what had been received from FNB, Dance Umbrella continued ‘in two tiers,’ as Thomson explains. ‘A small presentation in the traditional calendar slot of February/March and then a ten-day event during Arts Alive in September.’ During this three-year period, Dance Forum (the administrators of Dance Umbrella) also received funding from the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF), resulting in a 15-day event in September 2013.

With the conclusion of the Arts Alive contract, Dance Umbrella had to find other means of survival. Fortunately, funding was received from the NLDTF. This enabled the presentation of an 18-day long event in 2015, featuring work from grassroots to international companies.

Securing funding on a year-to-year basis proves to be no easy task and, while funding from the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) and the Gauteng Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture has been secured for Dance Umbrella 2016, nothing is yet in place for 2017.

The Dance Umbrella has, over the years, become an important and essential conduit for emerging, young artists. ‘If we can continue to keep the Umbrella going, even just a piece of it, that would be of value,’ says Thomson. ‘I would hate to see it go away entirely.’

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