Field Notes from the "My Body My Space Festival" in Mpumalanga, South Africa
This weekend I got to see a different Africa from the one I have been told about and shown my whole life.
I had never been anywhere on the African continent before this trip, so my only knowledge was whatever stereotypical nonsense I've gotten from movies, TV shows, and those ridiculously other-izing fundraiser ads (think Toms). The depiction of African people in such media are typically the same- first off, a generalizing of the entire continent and treating it like one big country (not the 2nd largest continent on the planet with 54 individual nations), secondly, showing nameless black people in dire conditions in want of "saving", and thirdly, if we're lucky enough to be given such a positive angle, a romanticization of an "old" and "traditional" way of life- no technology, no urban centers, no smartphones, just huts, spears and bushes. Ah, the real Africa.
Well, I come from a developing part of the world that gets stuck in such nonsensical and insulting depictions as well (think naked Brazilian carnaval dancers and living in the rainforest- which by the way, some of us do but no, not all 200 million of us), so I know to distrust such stories. But still, I wasn't sure what I would find in South Africa- not in a metropolitan center like Johannesburg but much less at a public arts festival in the rural and remote town of Machadodorp, Mpumalanga.
What I encountered at the My Body My Space Public Arts Festival was a different Africa from the one I had been told about my whole life. Not a backwards Africa, a "stuck in the past" Africa, an Africa in need of saving, an impoverished and helpless Africa, or a violent and war-torn Africa. For a weekend in Machadodorp, I experienced an Africa that was innovative, complex, beautiful, grotesque, reflective, compassionate, hopeful, questioning, and real. Much more real than any of the one-dimensional, over-simplified and generalizing depictions I have seen on TV. Even to say that I saw a different Africa is not doing it quite justice, because what I saw was so deeply South African- South African artists engaging with the history and issues of their particular experience, inviting, provoking and challenging fellow South Africans to do the same. It was truly an awe-inspiring and humbling experience.
The dance companies (which included such well-known and established artists like Gregory Maqoma's Vuyani Dance Theatre, PJ Sabbagha's Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative, Moving Into Dance Mophatong, Unmute Dance Company, and Mamela Nyamza) were stunning in their versatility. I was particularly taken by this aspect of the work because of my own eclectic background in Afro-Latin social-traditional dances and Modern/Contemporary concert dance.
I danced with CONTRA-TIEMPO, an Urban Latin Dance Theater in LA, for many years and while I was with them, it felt like we were virtually the only ones in the country even interested in bridging these dance cultures, besides a few others like the pioneering Urban Bush Women and Ron K Brown dance company. It was (and still is) a struggle to prove that African Diasporic urban and sacred dances are just as contemporary and technically complex as European and classical ballet-derived forms.
But these South African dancers seemed to be all bi and tri and multilingual. They seamlessly weaved together long extensions and fluid port de bras with syncopated hips and pulsating spines. Their artistic voice was so clearly grounded in their history and traditions as Africans, and made all the more innovative and interesting for it. And none of them did it like the other- each artist interpreted this in their own unique way, whether it was through Afro-futuristic choreography (Moving Into Dance Mophatong), satire dance theater (Mamela Nyamza), site-specific installations (Thulani Chauke), or improvised House fusion (Nicho Aphane).
In witnessing so much multilingual creativity, I had a moment of feeling nervous about the kind of multi-genre dance I create in my own work, thinking to myself, "perhaps what I do isn't so special after all". Thankfully, this was immediately followed by a profound feeling of relief and affirmation- "nothing is new after all."
I especially got this feeling while watching the local community groups perform at the end of the first day of the festival. There were several that performed traditional music and dance back-to-back, like gumboot dancing and the bare-chested Ingoma Zulu dance. I hadn't witnessed any of these dances before, yet I felt like I saw so much of my dance training, of me as a Brazilian, of my story and identity in those dances. A step here and there, the rhythms of the bodies, the mechanics of the shoulders- it was all so familiar. Because, of course, it all came from here. Nothing is new.
Which is to say, it was a fascinating embodiment of South African history and innovation. Most of the performers were young people, and they creatively found ways to bring themselves into the show, by mischievously inserting the Ney Ney into the middle of a solo or wearing adidas flip flops along with their traditional garbs. And because so much of the audience was made up of family and friends of the performers, they brought the house down. All I could do was stand there, poised with my iphone and smiling ear to ear. The joy the children felt when they came forward for their solos and duets was palpable. They were experiencing, perhaps many for the first time, the power of sharing their dance, music, culture, and identity with an audience, the power of performance, and I could visibly see them transform before my very eyes. A shy and hesitant young boy became a fearless lion with the help of a beating drum and a choir of dancers and singers behind him.
This is how our traditions are kept alive- this is how they reinvent themselves over and over again and make themselves stay relevant. This is why they are so vital and so much a part of us, why the first thing that gets taken away from us in a repressive society is our dance, our music, our expression. This is why art matters.
Coming back from Mpumalanga, I feel invigorated, inspired, and yes, exhausted. I shared my own 12-minute solo, "Limbs", choreographed by the incredible NYC-based artist Maria Bauman, at the start of the festival (in a school auditorium with tiled concrete floors) and helped Bobby with his mobile typewriter-bike throughout the searing outdoor venues. Still, despite my sunburn and bruised limbs, I am so grateful. There's nothing quite like sharing and experiencing art, especially from such talented and strong artists like the ones at My Body My Space Festival. All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you, obrigada, obrigada, obrigada.