Celebrating African spirituality through dance at this year's National Arts Festival

Ballerina Kitty Phetla on going back to the truth.
Ballerina Kitty Phetla on going back to the truth.
Image: LAUGE SORENSEN

A standout trait of South African contemporary dance is that it is driven by the activist artist. This is why dance remains ahead when it comes to grappling and dissecting pertinent socio-political and personal issues, making activism its leading cultural agenda. 

Due to the sensorial distinction of the art form, dancers dig deeper into their social commentary and exploration of the human condition, moving beyond what words can capture, to find meaning. Context, therefore, becomes important in helping one decipher the messages in the movement.

This year the spotlight is on Kitty Phetla, the 2019 Standard Young Artist for Dance winner. She collaborates with jazz artist Nduduzo Makhathini (2015 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz winner) on a production called, Going Back to the Truth of Space. This is a reflection on and an evocation of African modes of performance and ritual, that works with memory and the wisdom of ancestry for the purpose of healing. 

Part ritual and part artistic expression, drawing together the existence between dream state and reality, Going Back to the Truth of Space hints at a spiritual experience. It comes from Phetla’s awareness of the divinity of space as a channel to her ancestors. It also stems from her keen interest in the music and life story of Makhathini who as a jazz pianist, composer and healer, presents a virtuosity on the piano and in his rich compositions, of a deeply spiritual inclination.

“As a young girl thrust into ballet, my life has always been westernised. When you grow older you realise the importance of the reality of our ancestors. I find Nduduzo’s music very ceremonial. I was drawn to his music for a longtime. And I have always dreamed of working with him as an artist,” Phetla says. “This is a different journey for me. As a choreographer, I have always been safe within my classical training. It’s about discovering how to challenge myself as a choreographer and a dancer. Discovering the divine space and a comfortable space of self,” says Phetla.

The cast of ‘Amawethu ’, a dance production by Luyanda Sidiya.
The cast of ‘Amawethu ’, a dance production by Luyanda Sidiya.

Amawethu by 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance winner Luyanda Sidiya seeks to reclaim the truth from colonial distortions that labelled African spirituality as uncivilised, demonic and barbaric.

“Amawethu has impacted me for years and it sparks a lot of questions. In restoring what has been lost and distorted,how do we make sure we move away from the secondhand anger passed on through genera ions? How do we reclaim ubuntu bethu (our humility) unapologetically and for posterity? This work for me is about having a discussion within ourselves. If it happens to bless other races and they find a connection, that’s a bonus. However, it is mainly for umzontsundu . It’s about us, for us, to work on ourselves internally, with no judgement,” Sidiya says. 

Influenced by his mentors, Sylvia Glasser (of Moving Into Dance Mophatong) and Gregory Maqoma (of Vuyani Dance Theatre), Sidiya has put his own nuanced signature on Afro-fusion, and created a distinguished dance language with which he digs into his roots to question his place in modern society and its politics.

Themba Mbuli in ‘Dark Cell’.
Themba Mbuli in ‘Dark Cell’.
Image: SYDELLE WILLOW SMITH

With The Boat, 2016 Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance winner Themba Mbuli is inspired by African migrants.  With this focus he hopes to reshape the perception of Africa and illuminate its light with an examination into mental and spiritual indoctrination, borders, power, colonialism, culture and belonging. 

Mbuli’s work is inherently political, leaning towards personal and shared history His popular piece, Dark Cell, evokes images of political prisoners to highlight mental imprisonment. Sold! , his 2016 NAF showcase the voices of women in the German genocide in Namibia. In The Boat he collaborates with intuitive theatre maker, Billy Langa. “The Boat came out of my travels into Europe and a few African countries. How Africa is perceived is troublesome.” “The perception continues to be one-sided, about a suffering continent begging for help. “The danger lies in some Africans believing this narrative – that nothing good comes out of Africa. We respond by going back and highlighting all the good and the riches that we have...,” he says

Catch these dance pieces and more at the National Arts Festival, taking place at Makhanda from June 27 to July 7.

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