Col­lab­o­ra­tions are spear­head­ing the 2016 Dance Um­brella. Gar­reth van Niek­erk goes back­stage be­fore the open­ing act’s big leap for­ward

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For the first time in its 28-year his­tory, the whole pro­gramme of the an­nual Dance Um­brella fits on to one page of an A5 book­let – a far cry from the more than 200 new works it de­buted in the early noughties. It’s only thanks to vi­sion­ary lead­er­ship, ded­i­cated alumni and a state­funded life­line that it has, once again, sur­vived. Yet the smaller 2016 pro­gramme may be its most dy­namic yet.

Re­bel­lion & Jo­han­nes­burg, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Mov­ing into Dance Mopha­tong and South African-born, Ham­burg-based chore­og­ra­pher Jes­sica Nu­pen, opens the fes­ti­val this year. It’s a pow­er­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion that fea­tures a score by elec­tro wun­derkind Spoek Mathambo, cos­tumes and sets by stylist extraordinaire An­mari Honi­ball and eye-pop­ping mul­ti­me­dia vi­su­als by art-world dar­ling Ed Blig­naut.

Nav­i­gat­ing the chaotic traf­fic that hums through the streets of New­town – where I watched their first re­hearsal since the pro­duc­tion’s pre­miere five months ago in Ger­many – the Joburg around me breathes with a rhythm of its own, bustling with life and then qui­etly de­cay­ing. In Romeo and Juliet, Wil­liam Shake­speare calls the ex­hale – the col­lec­tive re­lease of all this ef­fort – “a smoke made with the fume of sighs”. Be­tween this city smoke and lit­er­a­ture’s most cel­e­brated love story emerges Re­bel­lion & Jo­han­nes­burg.

This en­ergy came rush­ing into stu­dio as the re­hearsal be­gan – a first scene of shirt-tear­ing, sweaty and pas­sion­ate pantsula that Sonnyboy Mo­tau, the pro­duc­tion’s Romeo and co-chore­og­ra­pher, de­scribes as “a new pantsula, bro­ken down and ex­plored with our bod­ies”. It is Mo­tau’s strength and oc­ca­sional vul­ner­a­bil­ity that drives this first part of the pro­duc­tion, in­ter­act­ing with the anony­mous char­ac­ters of Jo­han­nes­burg who will later be­come the Mer­cu­tios, Ty­balts and Juli­ets. Be­yond th­ese names, very lit­tle re­mains of the orig­i­nal Shake­spearean nar­ra­tive.

“There’s this guy in Jo­han­nes­burg with this name they call Romeo,” a dancer says be­fore he drawls off, “and his girl­friend’s name is...” Some­one else shouts, “Juliet!” An­other dancer asks, in­cred­u­lous: “Romeo the In­dian?” Some­one nearby al­most slaps him. “No, Romeo is black.” One in grey next to her says, ap­palled, “I hear he’s gay!” The whole eight-piece cast is squeezed to­gether on a small ta­ble, their bod­ies form­ing a taxi. The driver starts ex­plain­ing this mys­te­ri­ous Romeo – a man who came to Joburg with big dreams but lost it all to the city. Some spec­u­late he lost it to a shady deal with a san­goma; oth­ers say it was to Juliet, his love; but oth­ers say it was to his boyfriend, Mer­cu­tio.

“It’s in an old, funny lan­guage of ‘who art thous’ and ‘thys’, but to cut the long, bor­ing story short: poi­son,” says a dancer as she draws her fin­ger across her throat. “Hawu,” they all say sadly.

Al­most as soon as the talk­ing be­gins, it’s over, and the danc­ing con­tin­ues, telling what re­mains of the story. “We’ve taken the el­e­ments of the clas­sic tragedy and flipped them on their head a bit,” says Nu­pen, smil­ing. She says it was a com­bi­na­tion of time with the dancers, her own clas­si­cal train­ing and the con­tra­dic­tion of Joburg that in­formed the work.

“What was the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor in [Romeo and Juliet’s] feel­ing of the lack of power and lack of con­trol over their own lives? In this piece, they are try­ing to find how they sur­vive to­gether in South Africa in such a fast-paced and dif­fi­cult en­vi­ron­ment.”

Mathambo’s epic score steers the en­sem­ble, open­ing with an Umshini Wami ren­di­tion.

“It’s that big junc­tion,” is how Mathambo de­scribes Joburg to me, “a huge meet­ing point of so many cul­tures, from tra­di­tional African cul­ture to town­ship cul­ture.”

Sit­ting on the floor, the crew mem­bers go over their lines in the taxi scene again, Nu­pen in­struct­ing them to make their voices clearer so they can be heard. The driver starts: “They say Jo­han­nes­burg is the City of Gold.”

“No, it’s the City of Noth­ing, there’s noth­ing left in Jo­han­nes­burg,” an­other dancer shouts back. “Eh, eh. Jo­han­nes­burg is the City of Power,” de­clares an­other. Af­ter jump­ing out of the taxi and do­ing some cart­wheels over the ta­ble, they re­turn to re­hearsals and I man­age to get a mo­ment to speak with Juliet, played by Then­jiwe Sox­okoshe.

“In Romeo and Juliet, I stand up for my­self be­cause I have to, be­cause this city is like that.” She’s no wilt­ing flower, this Juliet, and it’s beau­ti­ful to watch her de­fi­ance on stage.

Strong, pow­er­ful women drive the Um­brella and are the rea­son it has sur­vived for so long. Georgina Thomp­son, the di­rec­tor of the Um­brella, says: “Ev­ery year I think this is the last Um­brella, but I don’t give up. I still don’t know why. I saw the first Um­brella in 1991, com­ing from The Play­house, where it was all very Euro­cen­tric and neo­clas­si­cal, and for the first time I un­der­stood the huge spec­trum of dance in South Africa. That was a rev­e­la­tion to me. It’s been amaz­ing to go on the ad­ven­tures with the artists, as we have with Re­bel­lion & Jo­han­nes­burg.”

Dance Um­brella will be held in venues through­out Joburg from Fe­bru­ary 25 to March 6. Re­bel­lion & Jo­han­nes­burg is on at the UJ Arts Cen­tre on Fe­bru­ary 25 and 26. Visit dance­fo­rum­ for more info



Os­car Buthelezi and Then­jiwe Sox­okoshe dance the ro­mance and tragedy of Shake­speare’s Romeo and Juliet in Re­bel­lion & Jo­han­nes­burg, which can be seen at the 2016


LOVE IN FULL COLOUR Then­jiwe Sox­okoshe plays Juliet in this con­tem­po­rary ren­di­tion of the Shake­spearean clas­sic. With her is Romeo, played by Sonnyboy Mo­tau


NEW DI­REC­TIONS Bold new works by young chore­og­ra­phers steer the lat­est Dance Um­brella


CO­OR­DI­NATED RE­BEL­LION Dancers cre­ate fresh per­spec­tives on life in Joburg at the Dance Um­brella

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