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‘It was never about me’

To celebrate 20 years of Vuyani Dance Theatre (VDT), Gregory Maqoma goes back down memory lane to look at the wonderful journey that has led to the current state of this remarkable, innovative, contemporary African dance company

Gregory Maqoma Vuyani Dance Theatre
PHOTO Stella Olivier

Wow, when did I actually start dancing? I grew up in a Soweto household where music was very much part of the culture, and I was always looking forward to weekends because my father was a great lover of jazz and he had a huge collection of jazz albums. And that’s what brought me into the appreciation of that kind of music which, at such a young age – 7 or 8 years old – was somehow bizarre. As a child, I would not only listen but also dance to the music. My form of dancing at that age was literally responding to that kind of music with my body and creating a sense of language that I got to understand much later on. 
     I also grew up close to a hostel that housed many black men who were from different parts of Southern Africa; over the weekends, I would go there and watch their traditional dance forms. I was fascinated by the traditions and cultural displays. I would go home with the music in my head and play around with fusing these traditional sounds and movements in relation to the jazz I heard at home. 
     When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I came across Michael Jackson. I saw him on a small television screen that we had at the time, at home. And I was just amazed to see a black man able to move people so as to break cultural barriers. In South Africa at the time, we were growing up in the context of cultural boycotts in the townships. So we were not exposed to what was going on outside our country, nor what was going on in terms of arts and culture. And even what we saw on television was sanctioned by apartheid values. Everything that could have been represented as inferior about a black person, and superior about white culture, was. When I saw Michael Jackson I was like: ‘Wow, here’s somebody who is black and I can identify with that person because they are able to break all kinds of stereotypes that I grew up knowing about being black.’
     But it was in Belgium in 1998 and 1999, when I was studying at the Performing Arts Research and Training Studios (PARTS) under the direction of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, that I was able to look at South Africa from the outside. It was there that I was able to think about my position as a black South African, particularly during a time in the country when the landscapes – political and cultural – were changing so rapidly. 
     It was then, and armed with this kind of retrospective vision, that I created a work called Rhythm 123, which was really my first independent work outside an institution. I worked in collaboration with Moya Michael and Shanell Winlock, who had also been PARTS students. The work considered Johannesburg as a concrete slab, with its rules and culture and urban setting. In reflecting on this, I realised that my creation of work was somehow also pulling me into the context of the complexity of an urban setting but also the complexity of South Africa post-apartheid. 
     Thus, I wanted to create a space for artists to come together, for artists to develop so that they could be part of that complexity and start to define it in one way or the other, but through the body. So Vuyani Dance Theatre (VDT) was created as a space for artists to come together, to play, to find something more significant about ourselves, about our country and, significantly, to say who we are in the context of our urban setting.

Gregory Maqoma Vuyani Dance Theatre Roberto Olivan
Gregory Maqoma and Roberto Olivan met at PARTS in Brussels in 1996 when they were both students of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

VDT was never about me only. The great thing is, I was never a soloist, even in my early days at Moving Into Dance (MID). The first work I choreographed was a trio that I created on younger dancers. It was a piece that won me my first award: the Pick of the Stepping Stones. I‘ve always enjoyed working with people and creating a sharing platform. Before I made VDT professional, my focus was on making it collaborative, which makes me sleep with a lot of joy.
     Since starting the business part of the company, I’ve learnt and grown tremendously. Yesterday, I was given a list of all the people associated with the company, from trainees to management, and there are 21 of us. Being in this company makes a difference to everyone: in terms of their careers, in terms of their livelihood and in terms of their self-esteem. We must remember the realities of being a black South African and growing up marginalised. The minute you start thinking about forming a career, it’s not just about yourself, it’s also about your siblings, about other people and your community. I know that every one of the people who come to us, including the students, share even their stipends with their entire families. I know that employing people directly impacts the whole family. 
     From the outset, the very first piece that I created was about global work and not something that could fit into an ‘ag shame’ rubric. I always tried to move away from that and to be unapologetic with it. In my earlier works with MID, I knew I didn’t fit into the company’s culture. I was always different. The titles of my works demonstrate that: works such as Virtually Blonde and Duplicate, which were about colonial invasion. 
     I don’t collaborate with something I don’t believe in or someone I don’t believe in, it’s always about that belief. Collaborations for me must be mutually beneficial. Collaboration stems from deep mutual respect for the artist. It’s not only about having a person on stage; sometimes it’s also about making choices, in terms of programmes, for instance. I am very meticulous in checking that everyone who has collaborated on a project, from the supporters to the artistic directors, has been acknowledged. Everyone’s part is important. If I was not able to collaborate, there would be no point in me doing the work. Collaboration, for me, is not about a transaction, or a contractual agreement, it really comes from the human spirit.
     And collaborative energies come from the audience as well. During the run of Exit/Exist at the Market Theatre in 2019, we brought in people who have never been to a theatre, black people in particular. Many of them came because someone dragged them along, and it has changed their lives for the better. 

Gregory Maqoma Vuyani Dance Theatre
PHOTO Marijke Willems

As to touring and presenting international collaborations, I recently started work on a new project called Tree with Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah, who is the new artistic director of the Young Vic in London. The work was produced by the Manchester International Festival in collaboration with VDT. I was very blessed to be asked, but it was on the strength of my work Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro that I was invited. 
      I was away for about six or seven weeks; in between, I’ve had four productions at the Holland Festival, where I had the chance to work with the festival’s featured artists, William Kentridge and Faustin Linyekula.
     I first met Faustin in 1996 when I was with MID in Kenya. He was in self-imposed exile there, at the time. He’s Congolese. We’ve been collaborating for some time. When he was named the featured artist at the Holland Festival, the first thing he said was, ‘I need Gregory’s work here.’ The same thing happened with Kentridge, who collaborated with me on his production of The Head & The Load. So it comes down to that mutual respect.
     Obtaining funding for my work and my company has always been dependant on a fighting spirit. If you have the money and not the fighting spirit, then you’re trending on something that is serving the money and not really serving the real purpose. I’m about the real purpose. 
     Whenever I go to funders, I tell them that by investing in a production, they are actually investing in the future of many, many other people. When a work is successful and it travels, then it triples the investment. We will often tour with that production for four or five, sometimes even seven, years.
     The work Exit/Exist is a good example of this. It was a piece that sustained the company for many years. When we didn’t have any funding, this was the piece that sustained the company. It paid the salaries of 20 people.
     When I think about the future, I think the word ‘self-sustainable’ is risky to use but we have to try to be an organisation that is self-sustaining, and self-sustaining does not necessarily mean that we need to have money to use. It’s about relationships, it’s about collaborations, it’s about how we sustain ourselves even when there is no money on the table. So for me, I think the biggest wish is that, as an organisation, VDT will continue to be viewed as a recognisable asset for this country, because without it, this country would be robbed of the quality of work that we are able to put on the stages.

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