29 August 2012
On the front line again
As we step onto this ‘normative’ path that now defines our arts and culture landscape, I have become so mindfully aware of a South African, African and global context that is demanding of its arts and culture sector that it delivers two things: firstly that it offers this ubiquitous thing called “entertainment”, and secondly that it be about “economic sustainability”.
I would like to unpack these terms tonight as a political act of my own; as someone who fiercely defines myself as an artist and as a cultural practitioner and - like many of you sitting in this audience - who remains angry that the work we do is either trivialised or devalued. And worse, that we ourselves have begun to consent to the political, social and cultural lies sold us about our own art. That this is most prevalent in the South African dance sector is why it hits me so hard.
18 years into our democracy, I feel like we – as artists - are on the front-line again. While we might not be facing riot police and bullets like other workers in our country, we as artists face the pervasive lack of care and absence of a remembered political history, which, like a bullet into an angry mob, is as silencing and as violent.
We have accepted as “normal” that the National Arts Council in March 2012, without consultation can change the funding landscape of dance; a funding landscape originally created through consultative democratic process pre-and post-1994. They have quite literally begun to shut down long-standing working and functioning dance companies and we as dance artists, are being called greedy when we question these decisions.
But apart from our cries of disrespect at these comments, perhaps we should not be shocked. The new echelon of young arts bureaucrats in South Africa, like many other bureaucrats in this country, are growing up in a cultural climate that honours the annihilation of histories; that feeds on the idea that artists are here to generate this thing called “entertainment”, that we are here to amuse the wealthy, the elite, and the culturally astute (and even the culturally not so astute!).
We ourselves, in turn, begin to make art to serve this normative construct of “entertainment”. We have started to feel guilty and defensive if our work is political, if it has a social conscience. More than ever before I am hearing young artists saying of their work: “It is entertaining, it is just a lot of fun, don’t look for anything deep”.
Somehow we have begun to feel like pariahs if our art work carries a political ethos. If we ourselves cannot fight for the right to understand our acts of cultural production as political and as necessary to our continued humanity, why should we expect our bureaucrats to?
I am reminded of French theatre-maker Antonin Artaud who, in his search for a socially relevant theatre in the 1930’s, called the Paris theatre of his day “a greedy brothel”. That theatre and dance can be entertaining is undisputed, that it should and must be the conscience of our time, needs to be re-remembered. The two are not mutually exclusive.
We, in South Africa, come from a long history of performance being part of a liberation struggle. We did not only dance and sing before the main event, we, in the historical absence of the ability to gather politically, were the main event. Arts and culture spoke to our deepest sense of who we were and who we could be; and now 18 years into that dream, we are being forced to serve another type of “greedy brothel”; one that prefers not to have critical arts, that is choosing generally not to fund it, and that has begun to normalise our arts as a leisure pursuit.
Further, if we consent to only understand our art and dance as “entertainment” we run the risk - and we are witnessing this happening to us right now - of being seen as expendable; as that which can most easily be done away with in a society when faced with other more pressing ‘serious’ political concerns.
And if we construct our arts and culture industry within the paradigm of “leisure” and as “entertainment”, then indeed, the catch-phrases of becoming “economically self-sustaining” will follow very quickly. Understanding dance within this vast area called ‘self-sustaining creative economy’ asks us to unpack the myriad of meanings associated with the concept of creative economy.
Firstly we could simply focus on the word economy and thus extrapolate the commonly understood sense of economy within a neo-liberal capitalist paradigm, and that is the idea of economic growth. For dance this would mean more jobs for dancer and choreographers. There is nothing wrong with this - we all want work.
However, it is essential that within the arts in a continent like Africa, we also need to understand growth in another and perhaps more profound way. This would be not to lose sight of the ‘cultural economy’ of our Human Rights practices.
One of the great gifts of the arts sector in our country and our continent is the way in which accessing arts and culture as a fundamental Human Right, is a way of (and I borrow here Paulo Freire’s language) humanising ourselves and understanding that arts and culture are our greatest asset towards a consensual critical democracy, and, indeed, the self-actualisation of a continent that often remains trapped in the neo-colonial globalised discourses of always being the raw material on sale to global markets.
Mostly, I use this occasion, to remind us all; fellow artists, willing audience, arts journalists and maybe some bureaucrats who have joined us, that our art does not primarily serve to allow you to escape reality through the lights, the music and the dance. I ask that we come back to an understanding - in this renewed war zone that ask us to dodge the bullets of our cultural and artistic extinction - that our humanity demands lucid and critical memory and reflection, which for me, is the highest calling any artist and choreographer in Africa can heed.
We cannot consent to anything less!
And so it is with the deep pleasure of hopefully being a dissident, non-consenting artistic voice that I welcome you, on behalf of UKZN’s Centre for Creative Arts, here tonight to the opening of our 14th JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience (and actually our 15th festival).
For me this is a deeply holy space where I fiercely defend our invitations to dance-makers from all over the world who are gratefully NOT consenting to narrow ‘leisure entertainment’ definitions of dance, and who, in their different artistic ways, remain politically charged in their unique visions of contemporary dance.
We welcome back to our JOMBA! stage after a long absence the dancing feet and voices of South Africa’s Vincent Mantsoe, Jay Pather and Musa Hlatshwayo. In a remarkable two-year France-South Africa season over 2012 and 2013, we are delighted to host Michel Kelemenis and our first journey into offering dance theatre for younger audiences.
This two-year France-South Africa programme has resulted in numerous North-South collaborations and for JOMBA! this has seen the incredible influx of Reunion Island artists coming to our shores to share work with us. South Africa’s PJ Sabbagha collaborating with Reunion’s Eric Languet; the Theatre Taliipot working with San history and South African dancers; and the Maloya music of Reunion’s slave history join forces with Via Katlehong’s pantsula dancers. This year’s festival is a celebration of collaborations; of artists meeting each other face-to-face and culture to culture.
Most unique perhaps is tonight’s offering. Being a little bit on the inside, I have called it a “love project” right from the word go not only for the amazing goodwill which has seen us spending two years setting it up, but because it has seen artists from four different countries finding a way to selflessly come together to create and be part of something bigger than themselves. Almost 100 years to the day we watch tonight a re-defined contemporary version of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps/A Rite of Spring. It is music that has been written on over and over again by choreographers foolish enough to think they may be able to count it.
Tonight we see Holland’s Jens van Daele’s choreographic workings of the music. He has openly and generously collaborated with Durban’s Flatfoot Dance Company and Dutch guest dancer Patricia van Deutekom. They are joined by four young and very energetic musicians, two from France and two from Switzerland who call themselves Ensemble Batida.
When Stravinsky first played this music in 1913 alongside Nijinsky’s choreography, the Paris audience rioted - the music too discordant, the dance too tribal and vulgar. This is not consenting art, and we in Africa, know where to put the label “tribal” … I want to thank Bongani Thembe and the KZNPO for being gracious partners with us in this work as well.
Our festival has many more unique offerings from city performances to workshops and so I ask you to study your programmes and spend the next two weeks revelling in this festival.
I end by paying my respects to all who have made this festival possible; who have served their community by being the eyes, ears, hands and technical feet of what we do:
- Publically I want to honour Peter Rorvik for his careful and humble leadership of the Centre for Creative Arts these past 13 years, for his ethical governance of the CCA which has put our university and our city on the arts and cultural map of the world.
- I honour the quiet, steady and incredibly hardworking presence of Magdalene Reddy, and all the extraordinary staff of the Centre for Creative Arts whose love for what they do, shines through onto all of us.
- The JOMBA! technical crew for being around to hold our dance work so carefully,
- The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre,
- To Val Adamson for being our eyes as she takes images of our dance work,
- To Sharlene Versfeld for being a publicist who understands kindness and ethics
- We thank David Gouldie for his unflagging vision of taking dance out of the theatre and for being the driving force behind JOMBA! City.
- We thank Tammy Ballantyne for running the JOMBA! dance writing and journalism mentorship programme.
- And we are deeply honoured also tonight to be hosting UKZN’s Dean of the School of Arts, Prof Nogwaja Zulu.
Finally a huge but gracious thanks to our funders whose belief in what we do has allowed for so much:
- Our principle funder the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund
- The French Institute of South Africa and the France-South Africa Seasons 2012 & 2013
- The City of Durban and the eThekwini Municipality
And by name:
- Eric Apelgren
- Guy Redman
- Laurent Clavel
- Benedicte Alliot
But mostly I end by welcoming you all tonight into this place of history, politics and memory called the theatre where we, as audience and artist, actively fight the amnesia of a global zeitgeist all too eager to reduce our work to the vulgarity of “leisure entertainment”. Like Stravinsky in 1913, may we too rise up and disrupt!