Mov­ing bodies made to tell sto­ries that mat­ter

Sunday Times - - Arts & Entertainm­ent -

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.”

Pic­ture: JOHN HOGG

GET­TING IT: Mamela Nyamza in Hatched at New Dance in Jo­han­nes­burg last year

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