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Dancing through the grief: Steven Cohen at Dance Umbrella 2018

Throughout his legendary career, Steven Cohen has often presented works at Dance Umbrella. This year, as the festival turns 30, Cohen’s put your heart under your feet… and walk! serves as one of the festival’s highlights. Dave Mann spoke to Georgina Thomson, Director of Dance Umbrella.

     Grief is not a very linear process. Some of us remember too strongly, or forget too much, while others attempt to move on, but struggle to keep a hold on the things that matter. If Steven Cohen’s latest body of work is anything to go by, grief is best handled by celebrating what was and, quite simply, carrying on.
     A multi-faceted project that’s part performance and part exhibition, put your heart under your feet… and walk! is a deeply moving body of work by Cohen that debuted at the 2017 Montpellier Danse Festival before running as a solo exhibition at Johannesburg’s Stevenson gallery in the same year.
     Now, with the 30th anniversary of the Dance Umbrella, the piece returns to the stage as a performative work, co-produced by the festival.

Director of the Dance Umbrella, Georgina Thomson, says that the inclusion of Cohen’s performance in this year’s programme is a welcome continuation of his long history with the festival

     Following the death of Cohen’s partner and artistic collaborator Elu, put your heart under your feet… and walk! is both a tribute to Elu and a testament to the art of living through intense periods of grief and mourning. Director of the Dance Umbrella, Georgina Thomson, says that the inclusion of Cohen’s performance in this year’s programme is a welcome continuation of his long history with the festival.
     ‘Steven Cohen “discovered” Dance Umbrella via Elu who presented works annually at the Dance Umbrella for over ten years. Steven entered the Dance Umbrella for the first time in the early 1990s,’ Thomson explains. ‘His work immediately created controversy simply because he created very challenging and sometimes difficult work that made the audiences either cheer or say, “oh no, how can you programme this?” I personally was challenged by Steven when he presented a blue movie on the performance night instead of the footage he had worked with during the rehearsals.’

Steven Cohen
Steven Cohen in “put your heart under your feet and walk!” PHOTOS Pierre Planchnoult

     Considering both Cohen and Elu’s longstanding history of provocation and innovation with Dance Umbrella, as well as their personal histories as collaborators and life partners, the piece serves as not only a tribute to Elu and the art of performance, but also to the process of dancing as a form of healing.
     A week after the opening of the exhibition component of put your heart under your feet… and walk!, artist Penny Siopis sat in conversation with Cohen about the work, and the inspiration behind it. Speaking briefly on Elu’s childhood years, Cohen explained how the dancer experienced constant bullying from his peers and fierce discouragement from his parents. ‘So I guess you could say that Elu never danced purely for the enjoyment of it,’ Cohen tells Siopis. ‘He danced to survive.’

His work immediately created controversy simply because he created very challenging and sometimes difficult work

     Festivals such as Dance Umbrella, then, become even more significant in the fostering and celebrating of contemporary dance and performance when you consider the life and career of dancers such as Elu, whose works for the festival have included Broken Bird as well as the Ballet Atlantique-commissioned piece I Wouldn’t Be Seen Dead in That which was presented at Dance Umbrella in 2004.
     ‘Dance is a language that needs no words. It opens up the audience’s opportunity to take from it what they want or to reject what they don’t want. Contemporary dance especially is a language that invites any form of movement to recreate itself,’ explains Thomson. ‘Elu was a unique choreographer and a brilliant dancer. He was different in that he, like Steven, worked with challenging issues and styles of work.’   

Steven Cohen
Steven Cohen in “put your heart under your feet and walk!” PHOTOS Pierre Planchnoult

     In its 30 years of existence, Dance Umbrella has been home to many groundbreaking performances and artists. This year’s programme seeks to celebrate this rich history, as well as champion new and exciting works. Gregory Maqoma and Vincent Mantsoe who are presenting a double bill of works performed by Vuyani Dance Theatre, are both artists who started choreographing on Dance Umbrella over 20 years ago, while Gerard Bester, who appeared in the first edition of the Dance Umbrella, comes full circle through a collaboration with Cape Town choreographer Alan Parker.
     Other artists include Germany-based Constanza Macras, Durban-based Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Dance 2017 Musa Hlatshwayo, and Johannesburg-based Gustin Makgeledisa, Phumlani Nyanga, Thabo Kobeli, Sello Pesa, Themba Mbuli, and Thulani Chauke who make up the main programme artists. A bonus, says Thomson, is the New Dance platform which will host over 30 new works from young choreographers.

Festivals such as Dance Umbrella, then, become even more significant in the fostering and celebrating of contemporary dance and performance when you consider the life and career of dancers such as Elu

Looking towards this year’s Dance Umbrella and Cohen’s involvement, Thomson adds that the internationally-renowned performer is one of many highlights in what looks to be a truly incredible programme. ‘I personally feel that Steven is one of the most important artists the Dance Umbrella has given the space to present their work, and he’s gone on to an international career that supports this,’ she says. ‘I believe the Dance Umbrella programme will offer some exciting and challenging new work that should entertain, provoke debate, and hopefully celebrate our amazing choreographers.’

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