Moving bodies made to tell stories that matter
MENDI 2 Where: Dance Factory, Newtown When: March 13 and 14 ROBYN SASSEN
‘IWANT my work to go somewhere, not just be entertaining,” says 33year-old choreographer Mamela Nyamza, passionate about expressing social issues in dance. “The audience mustn’t only ‘get it’, they must be moved.”
In 2008, a relative newcomer to Dance Umbrella, she made critics and audiences sit up and look. Her confrontational piece Kutheni dealt with the “corrective” rape of lesbians.
Born in Gugulethu, Cape Town, Nyamza started dancing as a child. She trained at the Zama Dance School in Gugulethu and at the then Pretoria Technikon, graduating with a national diploma in ballet.
She paid her dues, performing in The Lion King, We Will Rock You and African Footprint. In 1998, she won a scholarship to study at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York.
By 2006 she was independent. “The time was right for me. There were too many things I wanted to do my way and knew I could do better,” said Nyamza.
Her first work, Hatch, performed in The Netherlands, Mexico and the US, earned her ticket to Impulsetanz, the Vienna Dance Festival.
Hatch later transformed into a piece called Hatched which was performed at the New Dance festival in Johannesburg last year.
“If we apply the same concepts to dance as we apply to speaking, our dance will be more powerful,” said Nyamza, who teaches part time at Stellenbosch University.
In December Nyamza spent a week at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, the UK’s foremost dance platform. “I value, but don’t prioritise, being away from home. I am a mother,” she said.
Nyamza’s new commissioned work debuts at this year’s Dance Umbrella. “ Mendi 2 is about a troop ship that sunk in 1917. There were 802 members of the Fifth Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps on board.”
The SS Mendi set sail for France from Cape Town. Most of the men were Pondo, from the Eastern Cape, responding to an appeal for help in trenches on the Western Front. In the fog on February 21, the ship was struck by the SS Darro. More than 600 lives were lost.
“It is about men willing to risk everything they had for what they believed in,” said Nyamza, who draws analogies between war deaths and those related to initiation. She plays with metaphors: “White-painted tyres reflect many things. The idea of being dragged to sea is like being arrested by the police. Coins also form an important part of the work, as do initiation symbols. The piece is very layered. I use a range of music to support the work, as well as evocative sounds, like the foghorn; we’re working on the visual effect of a lighthouse.”
Nyamza is among the finalists for the coveted Spier Contemporary Awards to be announced next month, with a piece called Shift. “I’ve got tough, masculinelooking legs. They’re the only black things in this piece: I dance in a box. The work is about sports and the dignity of black women. It confronts how Caster Semenya was turned into a media puppet, played by public opinion, nothing to do with her sport.
“My biggest influence is the choreographers I met in Vienna. Their approach to making dance about things that matter in society is fresh.”
Her mother influenced her, too. “She always wanted to know when I was going to do it. She died in 1999. I feel I connect with her when I am on stage.”