Yvette Nowell, head of Corporate Social Investment at Rand Merchant Bank (RMB), inherited an association with Gregory Maqoma and Vuyani Dance Theatre (VDT) when she joined RMB twelve years ago.
‘Greg is adamant about his company being a business. He’s not holding a begging bowl. He’s building a brand which deserves support,’ says Yvette Nowell.
Gregory Maqoma took part in the Social Entrepreneurship Certificate Programme run by the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) some years ago. Getting into the programme was one thing. Showing his commitment to the business skills learnt, was another, which made RMB sit up and take notice of him.
Coming to banking armed with eight years of teaching high school English in Port Elizabeth, a year as director of education at MID, a master’s degree in sustainable leadership from Cambridge University and some scary moments behind the open mic at Cool Runnings as a stand-up comic, Nowell is empathetic to the story behind a business plan and cognisant of how hard it is to dance professionally from a working-class background.
‘I admire Greg for how he has mapped his direction and professionalised VDT.’ Nowell speaks of Maqoma’s training at MID, explaining the complexity of a legacy. ‘Sylvia Glasser, the founder of MID in 1978, in her Victory Park garage starts teaching kids from all demographics during apartheid. That’s how it started. But you cannot rely on that as a legacy. Today, the organisation has turned 40. It is adult. It has been rebranded and revamped. If you dwell on hallowing the founder, you will die in that space, because you’ll lose relevance. So how do you acknowledge the value of where you’ve come from? Address the present, imagine your relevance to the future; build to that.
‘RMB supports VDT’s commercial model and its education programme. But I think Greg stands out because of his collaborative skills, especially when it comes to audience development.
‘When I see a VDT piece, I have high expectations. I know I don’t have to understand every nuance. I don’t have to understand the story or where it originated. What I can do is be open to being transported by live music, by costumes made by high profile costume designers – such as Marianne Fassler and David Tlale – and by his choreography.
‘Contemporary dance can be difficult and self-indulgent. But VDT’s major showcases are audience pleasers in a way that develops audiences who might not be contemporary dance fans. Each professional brings their own followers.’
These days, RMB soundboards Maqoma’s ideas. The bank’s funding of VDT is two-fold. ‘It’s unlocking talent and social transformation. So it’s not only about the top stars. It is about equipping young people with the capacity to work and facilitate because of the training they’ve had.
‘VDT has taken success sensibly. There are economies growing around individuals such as Maqoma. He will perform, but not all the time. He doesn’t need to be. He’s working his own choreographic magic in his brand. He is a social entrepreneur. Rethinking a dance company in terms of business is a big leap for a creative practitioner; it comes with the complicated issues of generating income.’
In the previous generation, Glasser would often stand on stage after a production and ask for money from her audiences. The next generation cringes at such practices. They argue that if you’re thanking people for being there, don’t ask them for even more money. Earn money in different ways, pay it forward. But MID is to be credited for being such an excellent foundation for people like Maqoma, she adds. ‘If you’re talking creative economy, this is it.’
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