Dancing to open doors, protesting privilege

(This article was published in the Mail & Guardian, a national weekly newspaper in South Africa, on 29 June 2018.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Even though local dancer-choreographer Mamela Nyamza is this year’s featured artist at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, she still feels like she’s struggling to get work in her home country.

Right now she may be on a high. At the festival, Nyamza will debut Black Privilege; perform Hatched, which she created a decade ago; and two other works she choreographed are to be staged at the 11-day Eastern Cape gathering.

But when the lights go out, she goes from diva to strugglista, says Nyamza.

Dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

It is this dilemma that surfaces in a conversation about Black Privilege, during rehearsals of the piece in her birth-city, Cape Town.

Nyamza struggles with the idea of being black-and-privileged because on the one hand she feels blessed while on the other it seems like doors remain shut.

“There are so many of us who have privilege. We are educated and we are graduates. We have acknowledgment. But still we are struggling. We don’t have platforms. We are still struggling to open gates,” protests Nyamza.

“We are still trying to be leaders. We are being led. I’m asking is there such a thing as Black Privilege. If there is then why are we still struggling? We don’t have platforms and spaces.”

On the flip side, she adds: “I am using my privilege, my body, and I am challenging things on stage. To talk and say what I want to say is privilege. Back in the day people were voiceless.

“At least today you have a name and you are somebody. You might not have all the other privileges; so you use the ones that you have.”

Being a known figure in the dance fraternity offers Nyamza a measure of opportunity and people do actually turn up when she performs. In Grahamstown, where she performed as the Standard Bank artist award winner for dance in 2011, she has had sell-out shows. She works hard, consistently.

So whether it is simply a lack of funds to create more opportunities for artists or gatekeeping, which Nyamza protested against at last year’s Fleur du Cap theatre awards in Cape Town, this privilege seems short-lived.

Nyamza has been producing independent work for the last decade, with her body as a tool for activism.

Among her standout works have been the autobiographical Hatched, which “seeks to convey the deeply personal and challenging issues of culture, tradition and a woman’s evolving sexuality within the customary rites and rituals of marriage”.

A scene from Hatched, an autobiographical work by Mamela Nyamza, performed in Cape Town. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

It also goes back to her childhood when Nyamza started ballet lessons but found that her athletic frame was less petite than desired. Hatched was borne out of that experience and it “reflects her (Nyamza) biography of resistance, tackling (dance) cultures and identity, tradition and transformation”.

The performance presents transitions between “classical western music and dance as well as traditional African vocal scores and movement”.

It was her challenging performance piece, amaFongkong, in Grahamstown back in 2011 that really had audiences taking note though. It was a prerequisite as a Standard Bank award winner to showcase at the festival and Nyamza made audiences sit through what felt like forever. She walked on bricks. She risked disappointing audiences who wanted to see the year’s dance winner. It was more performance than dance and some were just not prepared for that. Those who got it came back for more.

Nyamza has consistently also tackled race issues, with pieces such as 19born76 Rebels and De-Apart-Hate. It was also then that Nyamza realised how more doors were open to her in Europe as opposed to at home.

Back in 2013, Nyamza told me that her “suitcase is always ready to go”.

“I’m just changing costumes. Sometimes I get tired of traveling. But I’m lucky. I say that everyday. I’m excited,” she said at the time.

That year she took to stages in Avignon, Berlin, France, Italy, Netherlands and Paris with various works she had created. But despite being showcased rapidly in Europe after praise following her National Arts Festival performance, Nyamza still had not had a solo show in Cape Town.

“I performed 19born76 Rebels in Paris but I would love to show it to a South African audience. I have found when creating work that deals with politics white South Africans say, ‘Oh no, let’s leave the past’. But as artists, we are bringing this with a different context. I was saying with this piece that we are repeating what we were fighting against,” she said.

“I wish I could show my work more at home. I’m tired of applying to show my work at different festivals or venues locally. I’ve realised that as artists we are always appreciated more outside of our countries. When I was in Paris it was big. You would go in the subway and see my name on big posters.”

Nyamza feels that locally she would be appreciated only when she no longer can perform: “This is a sad thing because we are going to be celebrated when we are 60. People won’t see us perform live. They will only see our archives.”

This makes it obvious why just the other day Nyamza posted on her Facebook wall a video of the deceased singer Brenda Fassie performing her iconic hit Weekend Special inside a stadium packed with thousands of dancing fans. She was reminding us how we appreciate our artists more when they are no more.

And the day that Nyamza will no longer dance is coming soon. She dropped this headline midway during our interview: “I am throwing in the towel as a dancer but not as a performer”.

Nyamza elaborates that she now wants to spend more time creating work for other dancers. Her body is feeling the accumulation of aches and pains.

“I’m 42 and this body can’t jump around on stage anymore. I’m doing Hatched for the last time at home (at this year’s festival). It’s a demanding piece. I’m looking for a dancer who can take over the performance of Hatched,” says Nyamza.

“I want to create and direct work. I have started that already. If I go on stage now I would probably just stand. I need to step back and give other people opportunities to perform.”

To this end, Nyamza created Phuma-langa, featuring The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative dancers in Mpumalanga, also showcasing at the festival.

Nyamza dreams of resurrecting the defunct Dance Umbrella festival in Joburg to ensure younger dancers have platforms to perform.

For now though she is packing her props and clothes and driving to Grahamstown with Black Privilege and self-awareness that she is sometimes still objectified.

“Sometimes I still feel like I am seen as exotic. But I am not Saartjie Baartman. I am not your slave. I just want to stare back at the audience when that happens,” she says.

This is typical Nyamza, looking right back at you with a look that says ‘you know’, outspoken about the confines and inhibitions of working as a dancer in South Africa.

Returning to her privilege as an independent artist, she reflects: “I can do what I want to do the way I want to do it. This is the privilege I have. I’m voicing out things that younger artists can’t voice because they are scared of being unemployed.

“I’m not employed by anyone so I can say whatever I want. And sometimes I say a lot and then I’m blocked. But I still get to perform.”



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