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Dance Umbrella: Johannesburg’s unique contemporary dance festival

- Robyn Sassen

An African dance festival that's been one step ahead through the decades.

It’s always been easy to coin a “lucky packet” metaphor around the Dance Umbrella, Johannesburg’s unique contemporary dance festival. It’s often pot luck for an audience where “sweets” – as a quality yardstick – get mixed with “sours”. This is as it should be for the discipline, which is arguably one of the most difficult for a lay audience to watch.

But after nearly three decades of existence, the festival has become an institution about much more than being critically fêted.

Similar to classical or traditional dance, contemporary dance has its own nonverbal language, which is not immediately accessible to everyone. Similar to theatre, it can draw in a range of elements such as lighting and sound to uplift or lend it nuance. Similar to visual art, it has the power to take on political issues and shock an audience into awareness. Blending all of these tools, it remains a field of art that fits with some difficulty into the unconditional love of a fan base.

But if you turn from looking at the stage to looking at the audience in any given Dance Umbrella work, you would be hard-pressed to believe this. Not only has Dance Umbrella grown dance, it has grown an audience.

Physical expression

It was coined as a platform for contemporary dance in Johannesburg by dance critics Marilyn Jenkins and Adrienne Sichel in conversation with Vita Promotions. Dance Umbrella debuted in 1989, showcasing the work of just 14 choreographers. It has since ticked all the proverbial boxes in terms of not only attempting to shape an audience but in giving extraordinary levels of physical expression validity and currency.

One need not think beyond performance artist/contemporary dancer Steven Cohen. Over the years he has taken the festival by storm with his outrageous and oft impromptu gestures engaging with sexuality, xenophobia and hatred head on. Cohen has done so in a manner that made it difficult for audience members or even dance administrators to side-step.

Dance Umbrella in 2008 featured French choreographer Dominique Boivin’s Transports Exceptionnels, which was staged on the Johannesburg Market Theatre’s parking lot. It anthropomorphosised a trench digger that “danced” to the sound of Maria Callas’ voice – one of those unforgettable moments that made you open your heart to what contemporary dance is or can do.

Dance firebrands

The notion of “undance” was coined by choreographers of the ilk of Elu. The audience’s role was challenged by mavericks such as Robyn Orlin, one of Dance Umbrella’s founding choreographic firebrands. From year one, Dance Umbrella enabled contemporary dance to be rich with as yet undreamed of possibilities. Effectively on several levels, the discipline became a catch-all.

But in juxtaposition with a stretching and a shattering of the envelope in which dance used to be able to sit comfortably, the role of Dance Umbrella was about opening doors that creative young South Africans didn’t even know existed. The time, in 1988, was ripe for a festival specialising in what contemporary dance could be in Johannesburg.

Many of apartheid’s punitive and violent regulations were collapsing from within. South Africa was still reeling from a State of Emergency and its society was ripe to start re-identifying itself.

Moving Into Dance Mophatong, the Newtown-based dance company established by dancer-choreographer Sylvia Glasser who enjoyed an interest in ethnodance, was then ten years old. It was rapidly developing as a multiracial platform: the first of its kind in the country when it was technically still illegal to host black and white dancers on the same stage together. It was both melting pot and incubator for new dance blood.

Astonishing achievement

Fast forward 28 years, and a broad overview on what Dance Umbrella is and what it has achieved, is astonishing. Glasser recently immigrated to Australia, having retired from Moving Into Dance. She leaves in her wake choreographers such as Gregory Maqoma, Boyzie Cekwana, Vincent Mantsoe, Portia Mashigo, Moeketsi Koena, Sonia Radebe, Sunnyboy Motau, Fana Tshabalala and many others, whose lives she touched and focused significantly. Most of them are internationally respected today.

But it would not be accurate to focus on MIDM only. While it was the first dance company to open its doors in Johannesburg in 1978, its existence enabled other dance companies in the city. These include PJ Sabbagha’s Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative (established in 1995), Martin Schönberg’s Ballet Theatre Afrikan (1996-2009), Jayesperi Moopen’s Tribhangi (established in 1988) and Maqoma’s Vuyani Dance Theatre Project (established in 1999). Each of these companies has in turn generated new approaches to the discipline and new performers and choreographers.

More than all the critical success and collaborative energy Dance Umbrella generates, is the kind of audiences that traditionally each February, when the festival takes place, fill its venues.

Old, young, black and white, the consistently full houses represent South African’s society’s spectrum. Not necessarily comprehensively dance-savvy, it’s an audience with a buzzing curiosity. And long may they continue to be seduced by Dance Umbrella as it feeds contemporary dance’s relevance.

Robyn Sassen, Research Fellow, African Art Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.