The dance festival moving South Africa

Artistic director Georgina Thompson ©  Graham
Artistic director Georgina Thomson © Graham
From sociopolitical context to literary reinterpretations, South Africa’s leading dance festival will offer up a smorgasbord of new work from 23 February to 5 March at venues across Johannesburg.
Now in its 29th edition, Dance Umbrella 2017: The Commissioned Works, displays a punchy mix that juxtaposes contemporary South African society against its vivid and brutal history. IAM speaks to artistic director Georgina Thomson about why she’s chosen this year’s theme of ‘Young’, and how dance moves audiences in RSA.
The festival launches with The Workers CHANT at the Workers Museum (23 February). Created by Nhlanhla Mahlangu, CHANT celebrates the unsung Black migrant heroes who built the city of Johannesburg, yet lived in terrible conditions in compounds. For the full list of new work see the programme online here.

What was behind your decision for this year’s theme?
We decided to focus on giving young choreographers the space to present their work on the main programme, mainly due to the limited opportunities they have within a supportive infrastructure. Although the majority are young artists, the programme also includes older and more established dance professionals.

What is the status of dance in South Africa?
Dance in SA is volatile. Many artists present their works more internationally than in RSA. This is due to the lack of continuous funding, as most companies find themselves having to access funding annually. Equally, the majority of funders don’t appear to understand our need to create a more sustainable funding infrastructure. Many companies work commercially to keep going.

Lulu Mlangeni © Ruphin Coudyzer
DU performer Lulu Mlangeni © Ruphin Coudyzer

What do you do to promote South African dancers, new works and choreographers abroad?
We invite international programmers to attend the Dance Umbrella. We have found many works are invited to festivals abroad and some choreographers now enjoy an international career. We also co-produce and present work at other festivals like the National Arts Festival South Africa and festivals abroad.

Why should programmers travel to see these new works in South Africa?
Because they are original new works, with many reflecting on the current situation both here and internationally. The work created in South Africa is unique simply by the huge diversity we have here and as a result the work is very varied. The Dance Umbrella is undoubtedly one of the most important platforms for new contemporary dance as it continues to set the pace for other events.

What does Dance Umbrella bring the SA scene?
It’s an opportunity for both artists and audiences to discover new work from their compatriots as well as international work. It creates a buzz in Johannesburg that brings many people to the theatres that wouldn’t normally go and watch contemporary dance. It’s also a place for dance practitioners to meet and network with both local and international artists.

How do you choose the new commissions? And what type of funding is available for artists and companies?
We work on different levels. We invite choreographers to send proposals to present their work. From these we select work and ensure that it includes both established and young artists. We sometimes focus on specifics: for example, in 2016 we profiled female choreographers and this year it’s young artists.

We collaborate with foreign embassies who co-fund international companies and/or collaborations. Sometimes we initiate a premiere by approaching a selected choreographer to create a work. The festival pays for everything: venue rental, technical hire, stage management, PR, accommodation and international transport. What we pay as a commissioning fee really depends on how much we have raised.

Likewise, people approach us to collaborate or we initiate the projects. Often it starts with proposals and then we proceed to discussions and see how we can do it. We often approach foreign embassies to partner with us for collaborative projects between RSA and international artists.