Kgomotso Moncho – Maripane
The description that dance is “wordless expression in a world where words are currency,” by poet Lebo Mashile in her unpublished poem, I Dance To Know Who I Am, speaks to the hesitation and sometimes lack of engagement with South African contemporary dance locally.
The poem also encapsulates the transformative experience that dance can be.
Mashile created the poem for the production, Threads, a collaboration with choreographer and anthropologist, Sylvia Glasser and her Moving Into Dance Mophatong Company.
The poem opens veteran dance writer and arts journalist, Adrienne Sichel’s new book, Body Politics: Fingerprinting South African Contemporary Dance (published by Porcupine Press).
The book is a socio-political cultural history that focusses on the roots and evolution of South African contemporary dance from the mid 1970s to 2016.
Whereas the role of protest theatre is known in its engagement with socio-political issues, it may be taken for granted that contemporary dance, through its activist actions, played an important part in the championing of a free and multi-cultural society, during and post- apartheid.
Sichel’s book illuminates this particular cultural history, revealing how prior to democracy, the proponents of contemporary dance were at the fore-front of cultural activism.
“The policy-making Arts and Culture Task Group (ACTAG) process which culminated in the White Paper, the establishment of the Department of Arts and Culture, Science and Technology, as well as the founding of the National Arts Council in 1997, was the handiwork of many politically focussed dancers, educationists, choreographers, researchers and administrators,” she writes.
One of the standout traits of South African contemporary dance is that it is driven by the activist artist.
“That’s what gives it its originality and made it attractive to the world. You have people commenting on their society and the human condition. It has overtaken theatre in a way because dancers keep working and make it happen despite the challenges,” says Sichel.
“Paradoxically contemporary dance is an individualistic art form, but in so many ways South African contemporary dance is a collaborative mission to express our cultural and artistic identity. A lot of SA contemporary dance and African contemporary dance is sensorial and experiential. Those dimensions create a much more holistic vibrant art form,” she says.
Body Politics gives context to South African contemporary dance. It captures the collusion of cultures and histories as people explored their roots and their identities of the country and the people they wanted to be pre-1994. It highlights these very rich essences and fingerprints their origins with chapters looking at the birth of Afro-Fusion, subversive storytellers, the birth of theatre dance and what constitutes contemporary African dance.
It features festivals, companies and artists including early pioneers and contemporary players like Glasser, Carly Dibakwane, Robyn Orlin, Alfred Hinkel, Jay Pather, Jeannette Ginslov, Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantswe, Gregory Maqoma, Mamela Nyamza, Nelisiwe Xaba, PJ Sabbagha and many more.
It also includes a collection of Sichel’s published and unpublished journalistic writing. This makes it an important documentation and preservation of a unique artistic heritage and a necessary learning tool.
In mapping the evolution of this remarkable art form and its vocabulary, Sichel moves through terrains of contentious issues of appropriation and ownership, leaving questions to ponder on. Questions similar to the ones she asked herself when contemplating writing this book, like, who has the right to collate and tell this history? Who owns this history?
As a dedicated witness to and advocate for SA contemporary dance for 40 years in an environment that often rejects SA contemporary dance, she has earned the right to tell this history. Her background growing up in the rural Rustenburg exposed to her to a variety of cultures, religions, rituals, political practices and prejudices which fueled her curiosity as an arts journalist.
She co-founded the South African Dance Umbrella as a free democratic platform for all South African dancers and dance forms. She has also created an accessible language to articulate meanings behind movements and the fresh aesthetics of South African contemporary dance, which is no easy feat.
At the Johannesburg launch of the book in September, Sichel said, “What is scary about Body Politics is that it’s very concrete, it is tangible and it can’t be changed. I will be judged, just as I have been judging and evaluating people over the decades.”
She is also acutely aware of the gaps the book leaves and this is perhaps a challenge for the gaps to be filled.
The existence of Body Politics also makes the dearth
of books archiving or capturing cultural history in the country glaring. This is an urgent concern for Sichel.
“So many people did not want to publish this book. We don’t respect our history in this country. There are many narratives and cultural histories that are not being published and also need to be written,” she says.
Sichel’s hopes for dance is that “it keeps informing, transforming and educating.”