The story of South African dance cannot be told without the inimitable Gregory Vuyani Maqoma. With a love for dance that reaches back to the late 1980s, the internationally renowned dancer, choreographer, teacher, director and scriptwriter has collaborated with some of the best-known artists and dancers across the globe, and has produced a string of award-winning productions. With the founding of the Vuyani Dance Theatre in 1999, Maqoma has also helped nurture the careers of countless South African dancers over the years.
Recently, Maqoma announced his leave from live performance. While this doesn’t mean he’ll be retiring from the industry completely – he will still be active as a mentor, teacher and choreographer – it nonetheless marks the closing of a chapter for the artist, and for South African dance.
Creative Feel has a long history with Maqoma and with Vuyani Dance Theatre, having covered some of his best-known performances over the years, as well as producing the retrospective book on Looking Back to Move Forward: Celebrating 20 years of an innovative contemporary African dance company. As former Creative Feel editor Tammy Greer put it in a 2019 editorial:
“We have followed the career of Gregory Maqoma, founder and creative director of Vuyani Dance Theatre (VDT), for a long time. He first popped up on our radar in a big way when he was announced as the Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance in 2002, not long after Creative Feel (then Classicfeel) was first established. His first appearance on our cover was in 2009, cementing a relationship built on mutual respect, support and appreciation. Since then, Maqoma and VDT have been staples in Creative Feel and we have partnered on many of their productions over the years.”
In light of this, Creative Feel’s Angelia Müller and Lore Watterson reached out to Maqoma to reflect on some of the stand-out moments of his dance career, his views on the changing landscape of dance in the country and the globe, and what he’ll be up to next.
Angelia Müller, Online Editor, chats to Gregory Maqoma about legacy and what lies ahead.
After dedicating more than three decades of your life to a professional dance career, and more than two decades to a successful dance company, you’ve achieved world-renowned excellence and managed to keep innovating South African dance, even through a pandemic that crushed the arts. Resilient is one word to describe you. Inspirational is another. Now, in 2023, who is Gregory Maqoma?
In 2023, Gregory Maqoma is the man who is about lasting legacies, about the stories of each and every single person I have touched, and is now becoming the change I have always aspired to. It is a time where I’m able to take many step backs in the things I have done for so long and be able to follow new dreams.
I’m sure you’ve told this story many times, but we’d like to look back and hear about some of the key moments that lead to you becoming the world-renowned dancer, choreographer, teacher, and director. Where did it all start and what have been some of the decisions or turning points that, looking back, you consider to have been vital?
I believe every project that I have undertaken has been a building block and a wonderful path of learning. I have learned a lot more from the failures. It is, however, the people I come across in all walks of life that are my constant sound board, and who provide the much-needed inspiration. It is those decisions that many doubted, that I was pushed to follow through. A ‘no’ to something I believed in propelled me to fight for accomplishment – failure had to be reason to try again.
You’ve used your ancestry and your heritage as inspiration for a few of your works. Initially, how did your family feel about your passion and pursuit of dance, what was their response? Were they supportive?
My parents wanted the best for me and of me and dancing was not one of those things, though I was allowed to dance but not as a profession. My father wanted me to be soccer player as a hobby and a medical doctor as a profession. While my mother understood and supported my desire and need to dance, she never believed in it as a profession. I had my family support me in a way that was not intentional to groom me to be the dancer I am today, but as a means to show my ability within family and friends. I come from a family that believed solely in Christianity, I grew up in an Anglican Church and that is what I knew as a belief until I was old enough to see the traditional dances of the mineworkers, and that changed my perception of dance.
I saw Exit/Exist at the Market Theatre in June, opening day, and the crowd was enamoured. Congratulations on still receiving such a warm and enthusiastic response this far along in your career. Exit/Exist is a performance you’ve returned to throughout your professional career since its inception in 2012. Why was it fitting to end your legacy with such a personal piece, what was your thought process here?
Exit/Exist pays homage to my ancestral heritage and it is more important this year as it is 150 years since Inkosi Maqoma’s passing and my 50th birthday. I couldn’t have chosen a better work to give thanks to my heritage that drives my passion for dance. On stage I am with them, I have been with them, I exist because they are and, through their exit, my life is a monument of histories, theirs included.
Can you give us a taste of some of the legacy projects you’re working on in line with your retirement from performance?
The focus of my legacy is on the future generation of the world with a clear focus on the continent. I have two books with a possible third to be released. In October, we will launch a children’s picture book co-written by Dr Gcina Mhlophe and a young adult book co-written by Lorato Trok. The project aims at inspiring young people, particularly those living in the most rural areas of our country with little inspiration, for them to see a possibility of their dreams in my story, just like them, my life is shaped by my time in the tough times of growing in Soweto with very little resources. The other project is a version of Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero which will give birth to Cion Cothoza (Baby Steps) created for children. The third being a renewed focus and energy on Vuyani Dance Theatre as a premiere African Dance Company and institutional space of choice for future generation of dancers and dance-makers.
Do you have a favourite piece? Whether it’s one you’ve performed yourself, or one you’ve choreographed, does anything stand out to you?
Every work is done with love and care, each one is a child that continues to grow, some grow old quickly and some continue to grow with you like Exit/Exist, Southern Comfort, Cion, and Beautiful Me. Now that I have outgrown these works, I am passing them on, in fact it is already happening with Cion being performed exceptionally by my protégé, Otto Nhlapo, in the most prestigious theatres in the world like The Joyce Theatre in New York, and the Kennedy Centre in Washington.
The National Arts Festival has been a constant in your career. You’ve performed there multiple times and you were even a curator of the 2017 Main Dance Programme. Was your performance of Exit/Exist at the National Arts Festival your final appearance in Makhanda? How did the audience receive the show this year?
I have had the most amazing experience with National Arts Festival as a dancer, choreographer, festival committee member and curator – all of these hats have been worn with enormous pride and I am sure that relationship will continue even with one of those hats falling off. It was important to also say thank you to the festival and the fans I have got to know over the years but more important was to dance on the Eastern Cape soil, where the story of Exist/Exist lives. It’s a full circle.
Similarly, you’ve seen South African dance move through countless eras and iterations. What is the state of contemporary South African dance? Where is it going?
South African dance is clearly in the hands of new, growing dance-makers who are not afraid to go where politicians wouldn’t dare go. This is reassuring of a great future of dance in our country, I’m excited about the future, I am an optimist in that way.
What’s next for VDT? Will you still be actively involved in the company?
I will always be involved with the company perhaps even more in shaping and activating a new strategy, I am not retiring from the artistic offering which comes with mentoring, teaching and choreographing but I’m retiring from performance.
Finally, what’s next for you? What are you most looking forward to following your leave from the stage?
Shu, there is enough to take me to 100 years – exploring new forms of making work, collaboration and making films. But also taking time to myself and exploring love of family and friends.
Lore Watterson, Editor in Chief, chats to Gregory Maqoma about taking South African dance to the world
Having met you many times at international festivals, it is evident that you not only have a wide South African following for your performances, you have a very special and high reputation internationally for your work. Please share some of these international milestones with us.
So, so many. My relationship with theatres and festivals has been one of the most cherished. Theatre De La Ville in Paris, Sadler’s Wells in London, Julie Dance in Amsterdam, Joyce Theatre in New York, Fairfield University in Fairfield, Joburg Theatre and Market Theatre in Johannesburg, Manchester International Festival in Manchester, not only do they present my work but they commission and co-produce my work often asking what is next!
Shortly after you received the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance in 2002, you started working with the Rolex Mentorship Programme in 2003. To this day you have a very important and a high standing reputation within the worldwide Rolex Arts community. Please tell us more.
My relationship with Rolex started when I was still very much shaping my body of work and, when I received a call from them that I have been earmarked for the mentor and protege award, of which I went on to be a finalist, though I did not get that opportunity to be with a mentor, what was apparent and gratifying was that I was part of the family. Since then I have gone on to the advisory level and I always look forward to the amazing work and opportunity this project is giving to aspiring artists. Rolex also funded some of Vuyani Dance Company’s literary projects.
You have been honoured by the French Government with the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Arts & Literature) Award. Your feelings of this great French order?
France is my second home, whenever I’m denied funding in my own country, the French government has always stepped in. France still holds a record for a country that has presented my work the most. It is therefore befitting that I was given that prestigious honour. That relationship is getting stronger each time with sold out shows.
You have taken your very own local work like Cion and others to international claim. How did you achieve that?
It takes a team of players for a production to be made and takes a lot more to get it out there. The office team at Vuyani is very slim and I am often amazed by the incredible achievements that Siya Dokoda (production and marketing manager) and CEO Lindiwe Letwaba are able to pull off. Also important is the relationships I have continued to build with institutions, programmers and theatres all over the world – they are the first consumers before the public.
You have had some wonderful collaborations with other artists like William Kentridge to stage The Head & the Load both locally and internationally. What was special about this work?
Papa William Kentridge is a genius, intentional in his collaborative approach and gives room, time and resources to his collaborators not only for his works. Cion was first conceived at his centre: The Centre for the Less Good Idea with Season 1 when I was one of the curators and produced Requiem Request.
After Exit/Exist I wish you all the very best for your future and I like to thank you personally once more for having opened my own eyes to this wonderful art medium – the performance of Dance, a truly special form to share expressions.
I thank you and your team for the belief and incredible support extended to me and Vuyani Dance Theatre.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.