PICTURES: Jeremeo Le Cordeur

Professional theatre makers and dancers were hard hit by the Covid pandemic, which cost them not only income but also sense of community. The Take-a-STAND Dialogues presented in Stellenbosch from February 19 to 21 aimed to reinvigorate this community with panel discussions featuring a diversity of voices from dance and theatre on challenges in the performing arts. The event was presented by the SU Woordfees and STAND (Sustaining Theatre and Dance) Foundation with the generous support of the Embassy of Netherlands and NATi. DIANE DE BEER reports:

The instigators: Gregory Maqoma, Conelia Faasen, Saartjie Botha, Mike van Graan:

“I believe our job is to be human because from the bottom (of our hearts), we hold deep faith, we’re resilient and passionate about bringing change to the world and we see the human spirit as more important than just building wealth – the true spirit of an artist.”

This was the starting premise of keynote speaker dancer/choreographer Gregory Maqoma addressing the topic  Theatre for whom? Dance for what? Towards a rationale for theatre and dance in our contemporary world.

 Making a link between the migrant workers who lived in hostels next to his childhood Soweto home whose dance (on weekends) he knew was a “deliberate psychic survival tool, a deliberate silencing of the harrowing voices of those they left behind and those they might never see again” and his own creativity and compulsion to dance, he says: “Every performance becomes a memory and when the lights go off and the curtain falls, a new history is written.”

And elaborating: “As an artist living in the binary of what is real and denied, I question the existence of living in this chaos, with realities so unbearable, I choose to override and escape by dancing, my body being one with itself, a moment where I care less about my country – at least the portion that doesn’t care about me, so yes I do ask, dance for what?

Dutch Ambassador Han Peters

Yet the ambassador of The Netherlands, Han Peters, underlined: “Culture gives us a lens to look at reality, perhaps even transform, and this is how we cope.”

Which is something Maqoma has always understood; presenting powerful work and establishing an international presence.

And throughout the weekend, moving from one panel discussion to the next with changing panellists, artists from both theatre and dance reviewed and tried to revise their changed worlds with the aim of constructing a stronger community with cohesive future plans.

 “This is a time of crisis,” said a speaker.  “It’s a situation that had to happen and has been a huge wake-up call,” noted Maqoma, who has often spoken out about the precarious world of artists in this country. This is highlighted by the fact that even his successful Vuyani Dance Company rehearses and works in an uncomfortable environment rather than accommodating rehearsal spaces of their own.

He emphasised that in circumstances where there was no opportunity to earn a living, the fragility of the industry was again at the forefront. “It feels as if a hurricane flooded our space,” he said. And this in a milieu where the arts is an escape from poverty for many youngsters entering this world. Often their only way out.

And yet as another panellist pointed out, “We have a wealth of resources. We should keep on engaging government but also dip into and recognise our own resources,” which was a welcome turning of the gaze to new frontiers away from tired tropes that bring no benefits. If things didn’t change in good times, it is hopeless to imagine a sudden about-turn in times as dire as the unfamiliar and unknown pandemic.

Again  and again the power of the arts was underlined. It’s not something that is ever going away. It’s not something out there,” said a participant. “It’s part of everyone and everything.”

Exploring different avenues, problems and solutions, one of the biggest roadblocks identified is access on different levels. And as pointed out by many panellists, it is something that could easily be fixed.

One artist who is changing the lives of many youngsters told how rehearsal space at Artscape was offered to her at R400 a day. She retorted that she could afford to pay perhaps R400 a month. And in the end, that was conceded.

Think how often around the country theatres are empty in-between performances and how many rehearsal spaces could become available to artists with nowhere to turn.

Accessing conversation and in that way mentorship is another easily fixed yet major stumbling block for many entry-level artists. One acclaimed young artist pointed out how filing tax returns became a nightmare in a life that is stretched simply trying to survive. Or writing proposals for funding, a lifeline which keeps many artists employed and creating.

Many prospective life-changing questions arose when someone pointed out that the arts were already broken before the crisis of Covid19. “How do we build something new from below? We need to invent new currencies,” said another. “How do we integrate?” asked yet another.

Dance, for example, said one panellist is a healing tool for those who are broken, something that can be said for all creativity. “There is a calling involved.”

As another artist reminded everyone, theirs is not simply a career. “There’s a propellor pushing you forward.” But in all of this, there has to be an engagement with the economy and a confrontation of the many challenges artists face – but together is where the strength lies.

Panellists Wessel Pretorius, Nwabisa Plaatjie, Jefferson Tshabalala and Sbonakaliso Ndaba

As theatre maker Jefferson Tshabalala explained, he has long ago discovered where his economy lies. “We are not always fully utilising the periphery. My foyer is my domain,” he elaborated. “(With every production, for example) artists need to build an echo system for your evening.”

All of this came about when he realised as a theatre maker he is predominantly dealing with a public who is not interested in plays. Merchandising is where he makes his money and this then goes towards funding his next project. Through the merchandising and his success, he is also building a brand and a future theatre audience – thus fully engaging every space he claims at any specific time.

He had actor/playwright/director Wessel Pretorius very excited as he noted that he had never given merchandise a second thought. What Tshabalala was doing is showing a different way. For example, if Pretorius could have found a way of also translating his first hugely successful play Ont (later translated into English as Undone) into Xhosa, just think of the audiences opening up to him. “The way in is theatre,” said Nwabisa Plaatjie, “but the outcome not always theatrical.”

“We have to think how we can multiply and stretch one production,” Tshabalala explained.

This points to both currency and sustainability. Business plays an important part and artists have to understand that currency is not the enemy. “With autonomy, you are able to curate your own art,” agreed another panellist.

The exciting thing about the coming together of these particular communities was the recognition that with the devastation of the pandemic, new avenues and thinking needed to be explored.

Why bank on something that wasn’t there in the first place? Instead turn to the many strengths and resources available in the broader arts community and in that way strengthen the precarious pathways sometimes followed in the past because there simply weren’t any options.

While veterans in the business could show newbies the way in both practical and artistic terms, the youngsters who are familiar living in a digital world can show those less comfortable new ways of operating. “We have to see the internet as a benefit,”  said one young participant. And in these times, that has become obvious. In  a profession that often teeters on the brink, it has to embrace every available resource and everyone should be available to give a helping hand.

Theatres can be more embracing of the wider community by opening up their facilities to creatives, who in the long run will then become contributing artists as they are given some protection to operate and not always having to focus on simply surviving.

Those of us working with the arts all know the problems – starting with funding. But focusing purely on solving issues that seem to have a mind of their own instead of exploring new avenues makes no sense.

And that is what felt different listening to the artists speaking. It was as though many of them understood that this is a time without any fallback options. Sink or swim – and fortunately for those of us watching, artists have no choice – they are creative and will come up with a vision that hopefully is more sustainable than in the past.

It also felt as if many of those in attendance grabbed this opportunity as a chance to navigate a much more cohesive path.

In this way many found an opportunity to re-evaluate and fix the foundation of their lives. Reskilling and exploring new avenues that haven’t been tried before was another suggestion.

Nancy Sekhokoane

Access is something that has to be evaluated and managed. We all know that in this country with its past, it is still an obstacle for too many. “Let’s develop the places that need developing,” said panellist Nancy Sekhokoane. “If you give an artist a platform, he/she will be creative.”

It’s about access to knowledge and institutions. Who opens those doors and who decides who is allowed to enter?

One of the topics that I found quite frustrating was the one exploring African aesthetic in dance and theatre. For anyone watching performances around the country – dance and theatre – it’s who we are and what we create.

Long gone are the days where colour is a determining factor. Language might still be a hindrance, but in a country with 11 official languages we still have to find that particular solution.

Just don’t tell me that you can’t see this continent in almost every production on local stages. Even when we do the classics, a local sensibility, even if it happens simply in the casting will determine the outcome and that is what we need to recognise and celebrate. We don’t always see it, because we’re spoilt.

“We come from here and our stories are from here.”  And that’s it!

The excitement of local performance is because of the riches the diversity of our art landscape holds. For too long, art was created by too few for too few. Fortunately our stages changed dramatically bringing with it a kaleidoscope that benefits who we are and who we hope to become.

“Does is make my art less African if I wear a ballgown and dance to Bach?” asked Maqoma. What it does, is make it uniquely African. And that’s what we love and should cherish.

So let’s support and share and we all win.