Blogs The Green Room Curatorial Travel

South Africa Journal: Philip Bither in Johannesburg

After 24 hours of travel this February to Johannesburg (or “Jozi” as it was now called by locals), I landed in what looked like a transformed city, at least since my last visit in 2001. Meme, a young driver awaiting to shuttle me into town, said that South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 Soccer World […]

After 24 hours of travel this February to Johannesburg (or “Jozi” as it was now called by locals), I landed in what looked like a transformed city, at least since my last visit in 2001. Meme, a young driver awaiting to shuttle me into town, said that South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup led to many new roads, upgraded buildings, and a city-wide cleanup. Clearly, she seemed optimistic about the future. After dropping off bags and getting a quick shower in a guest house in the “trendy” Melville neighborhood, it was off to the first of more than a dozen contemporary dance performances (including 23 different companies or choreographers) that I’d see in the coming week. Several purposes drove my journey: a key three-day meeting of the African Consortium, a group of nine U.S. based organizations (including the Walker) and six African affiliate artists or arts centers; the chance to attend the annual Dance Umbrella Festival, a diverse three-week showcase of South African new dance and performance; and an opportunity to independently seek out music, visual, or theatrical work and make connections with interesting local artists.

Driving over the trippy, multicolor, illuminated Mandela Bridge that first night, I was sleep-deprived but also re-energized, ready to throw myself into as much dance as I could and connect with African artists and colleagues. We arrived at the legendary Market Theater, in the heart of the city’s semi-redeveloped downtown arts district of Newtown. In many ways, the Market — famed as the theatrical “home of the struggle” in the ’70s and ’80s, where many works by Atold Fugard, William Kentridge, Mbongeni Ngema and others originated — remains a theatrical center of Johannesburg.

Gregory Maqoma

The festival started out strong, with a premiere by Gregory Maqoma, one of the acclaimed dance leaders here. His Exit/Exist is a dance-music reclamation of Black historical memory, a semi-abstract dance rumination on the renowned 19th century Xhosa chief Maqoma, a distant relative of the choreographer and a black hero of the “frontier wars,” a conflict which felt similar to American Indian-White settler conflagrations in our own history. While primarily a solo work, inclusion of projected text and visuals and live music by the South African a capella vocal quartet Complete and Italian fusion guitarist Giuliano Modarellies made its scale and ambition feel larger.

Finally catching up with the intense, fiercely committed movement work of Maqoma was something of a revelation. The post-show interview by the grand dame of South African dance critics, Adrian Sichel, ended with a Xhosa audience member, another of Chief Maquoma’s distant relatives, giving a moving testimonial about how just a few months earlier he’d organized a rescue and reburial of Chief Maquoma’s remains from Robben Island (where he had died in prison). A few days later, Gregory explained to me how little of the pre-European history had been taught in schools: “We had basically been taught that history began with the arrivals of the Dutch.” This would not be the first time in the coming days that I felt how fresh and bitter land-rights issues remain here.


Sunday gave me polar-opposite dance experiences: a morning witnessing more than a dozen youth ensembles performing short works with simple, often naïve choreography, but also performed with great heart, joy, and often breathtaking physicality — a sheer pleasure. The evening was spent with the nearly three-hour raw, site-specific work Qaphela Caesar by Durban’s Jay Pather (head of the Performance Studies department at University of Cape Town), which extended throughout the deserted offices, halls, and the trading floor of the  abandoned Stock Exchange in downtown Johannesburg. Beginning with a walk-through of six rooms of living installations in empty ’70s-era offices, the expansive performance spectacle shifted seating and viewing perspectives at least six more times, even after it got down into the very odd, film-set-like, deserted old stock market trading floor. The sprawling work included a teenage Afrikaner punk band, free glasses of wine, a live exotic dancer, choral song, recorded music, videos of anti-apartheid rallies, and more. Many scenes were visually and aurally powerful, and the ensemble cast was strong. The echoes of collapsed economic power were resonant throughout the space during the two hour-plus South African riff on Shakespeare’s power play.

The next day, spent traveling through the historically important black township of Soweto on the outskirts of Joburg, was alternatingly fascinating, infuriating, and inspiring — if nothing else, it felt essential to understanding the context of so much here. Black residents were forcibly removed (dumped?) here throughout much of the 20th century by both the British and Dutch apartheid regimes. This sprawling settlement, with a population of at least 1.5 million (locals insist it’s more like four million), now sports recently opened parks as well as shrines to the anti-apartheid struggle, including Nelson Mandela’s modest home and the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, named after the 13-year old who was shot and killed by police during the ’76 Soweto uprising. These stand in stark contrast to the still-remaining sprawling shanty towns like Motsoaledi, which despite deep poverty seems to retain a strong  spirit and sense of self-organization — collective day care, mini-play areas, small gardens, even makeshift driveways for the few who are able to afford cars. But there’s also no running water in homes, unpaved dirt paths, fragile-looking shanty homes. Many new larger housing units have been built to replace migrant worker hostels, but we passed long stretches of them sitting empty due, I’m told, to bureaucratic delays. People we met seemed remarkably resourceful and even hopeful, but the entire day served as a visceral damnation of the apartheid system and the entrenched inequities and humiliations that continue today and, likely, will continue long into the future.

In six days, one can only begin to untangle dense layers of history, racial and economic dynamics, post-colonial and, more important, post-apartheid challenges still facing the country. I was reminded at many turns that there are 11 African tribal languages spoken here, in addition to English and Afrikaans. Aside from the Black tribal-affiliated populations (the largest being Khosa and Zulu), there are white, Indian, Colored (mixed race), and, at the bottom of the economic ladder, diverse African immigrant communities.

The seeming danger and intensity of urban Johannesburg feels like it has softened considerably in 11 years, yet as a (white) visitor from the West, it is not the easiest city to navigate. With streets in many areas still considered unsafe to walk in, at least at night, one has to depend on prearranging rides or on the rare appearance of “maxi taxis,” making spontaneous travel difficult.

Nonetheless, I saw 23 contemporary dance works spread across 12 programs in six different venues. A few things were clear: the interest and energy around contemporary dance has only grown in recent years, while the infrastructures in place remain as challenged as ever, particularly around the lack of what we think of as presenters or performing art curators who are actively helping artists develop and offer their work to the public and direct necessary support for artists. For the handful of the most prominent artists, European (or occasional Asian) commissions help pay them to be able to present their work here, essentially self-producing. An exception is, of course, the Dance Umbrella Festival and, while the relationship between the Festival and many of area artists seemed a bit strained, it at least continues to offer a rare platform.

There was a lot of uneven work, but that’s not unusual for a festival focused exclusively on its own national dance scene (as opposed to a more international orientation). While powerful, often virtuosic physical dancing was very strong, sometimes amazingly so, the choreographic ideas didn’t feel like they were breaking a lot of new ground. Many artists locally concurred: they discussed the need for outside stimulus, choreographic training programs, and exchanges.

Boyzie Cekwana and Neli Xaba

Other performance highlights of the week included: Neli Xeba’s Angels and Uncles, a sophisticated feminist performance solo plus live video manipulation that interrogated the Reed Dance, a traditional celebration of virgin girls which has made a revival in the age of AIDs; Inter.fear by Johannesburg dancer Athena Mazarak and Barcelonan Hansel Nezza (about states of fear and paranoia); and Boyzie Chekwana’s intriguing but opaque three-minute performance work (part of his Influx Controls trilogy, which he characterized as just a starting sketch of some new ideas). Robyn Orlin’s work provoked the most discussion and debate, both about its highly stylized and elaborately anarchic, extremely well produced slapstick performance art, and its racial underpinnings, which, depending on one’s point of view, was either boldly courageous or racially/historically insensitive. Other artists showing intriguing aspects of their work included Alfred Hinkel, choreographer/dancer Otto Andile Nhlapo (from the major feeder company Moving Into Dance), and PJ Sabbagha.

One of the big disappointments was not being able to access more live music. The music scene in Johannesburg seems to have shrunk, with the ascendance of South African House (primarily DJ-based) music fully overtaking Kwaito (black South African Rap/hip hop) as the dominant form. A few jazz and reggae clubs are open on Friday and Saturday nights, but my sense is they’re not breaking much new ground and primarily serve an older audience.

By midweek I had befriended Thando Lobese, a 20-something award-winning costume designer from the Market Theatre, who was willing to connect me with some other artist and musician friends that she felt were right for the Walker’s interest. Thando along with Nomvula Molepo (Market Theatre’s resident lighting designer) drove me to the upscale neighborhood of Bramley to attend a rehearsal of the indie-Afro-futuristic rock/performance collective The Brother Moves On, made up of five accomplished musicians and three performance artists. A mix of blacks, whites, and artists of Indian descent, the playfulness and DIY aesthetic was infectious, and I only wished I could have seen them in full performance, like the one scheduled for a few days after my departure. Still, it felt good to music/performance that felt young, fresh, and fearless.

The next day, Thando and young theater director/writer Princess Zinzi Mhlongo and I went to the hip hop club Kitcheners for an art opening for pioneering graffiti artist Themba “Dreader” Malaza and a host of DJ’s, rappers, and young graf artists who were painting out in the courtyard of the sprawling club: homemade beer, lots of interesting artists, administrators and producers, good (again only DJ-based) music. We left at 2:15 am with the club/opening in full swing.

Cathy Zimmerman (MAPP International), Laura Faure and Philip Bither at the Lucy Bean

On my final day, I escaped town with Laura Faure, director of the Bates Dance Festival; Neli Xaba; Memella Nyamza; and Makgati Molebatsi (who is on the board of the Bag Factory visual artist residency center) and a few others to drive an hour into the country to visit the The Cradle of Humankind site, which lies mainly in the Gauteng province.

The seven members of the U.S. Consortium there met for two long meetings over three days, joined by three of affiliate artists from South Africa and written updates from four others from Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, and as well as much discussion of associated artists and organizations from West and North Africa. The consortium was continuing to plan the latest in its ongoing efforts around building deeper relationships between performing art scenes in U.S. and Africa. Plans were discussed on how or whether to expand the network, how to encourage more U.S.-African choreographic or performance collaborations (versus. touring and educational exchanges), where new funding might come from in the U.S., how to help influence/support arts organizations small and large to support artists and the development of new work, and how the work of this nine-year-old consortium might continue to develop and thrive, despite limited arts resources on both sides of the U.S. African divide.