‘I’m never in here,” Gregory Maqoma says, almost as an apology. He is leading me into his office, downstairs from a dance studio – where he has been rehearsing with other dancers. He reaches up to open the windows and I can hear a woman upstairs, instructing the dancers on their next steps.
I ask the choreographer and dancer why he doesn’t spend time in the office. “I’m always dancing,” he smiles. For someone in his early 40s, Maqoma has an enviable vitality. “My fountain of youth,” he asks me coyly. “It’s in Orlando East in Soweto.”
Maqoma began dancing professionally in 1990 and started his company, Vuyani Dance Theatre – which bears his middle name – in 1999. He has performed all over the world, produced two trilogies and become an outlier in a mainstream dance industry that had become stuffier than what he believes his office to be.
Last night at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg, Maqoma debuted Cion. While from Zakes Mda’s book of the same name, this production used a character called Toloki, who is a funeral mourner for a living, to expressed Maqoma’s creative licence in tackling issues like humanity and femicide.
“The book title is pronounced as ‘sigh-on’ but we say it as ‘see-on’ because we wanted to bring it into the context of Africa and the church,” Maqoma says. Like Zion as in the Zionist church, I offer. “Yes, exactly like Zion,” Maqoma confirms.
“We’re treading between Cionist and Zionist. For me, [Cion] was already working around the binary of religion and power. In how those are misconstrued and sometimes misunderstood in order for someone to hold on to their own beliefs and in doing so, they hurt others.”
“The idea of death became a strong symbol in the work in itself. I started focusing on Toloki, the professional mourner character developed by Zakes Mda in his two books, Ways of Dying and Cion. I looked at the events happening in our world today. Particularly zooming into South Africa.”
“The past two weeks have been horrible in the sense of how death is no longer a mature passing or a rite of passage. I wanted us to pause and raise a sense of consciousness for us to start thinking again of death. I wanted to create this work as a lament for those who have passed on under such horrible circumstances.”
Over the rehearsal upstairs which has become like white noise, I ask Maqoma if he looks inward first for work that also comments on the world. “As an ordinary citizen, I am affected.
“I took it upon myself to play the role of Toloki, the lead in this piece because I feel strongly that I need to say something. And my dance, and my work, is a powerful way for me to comment. Other people use hashtags, I want to use art as commentary about how we treat each other as human beings.”
Eight more dancers accompany Maqoma on stage. He says: “I wanted to work with other dancers in this work because it takes a community and not just an individual to tackle a topic such as this. It takes a whole community to fight it.”
Speaking of communities, the French Embassy recently awarded Maqoma, along with Dance Umbrella’s Georgina Thomson, the Chevalier de * ’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Arts & Literature) Award. According to a press release, this award recognises “renowned artists and writers, as well as people who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world”.
I am reminded of Maqoma’s recent accolade because on wall behind him is a huge poster of his excellent show Exit/Exist – all written in French. This poster indicates that he performed it at Theatre de la Ville in Paris. He smiles when I ask him about his award.
“I’ve worked a lot in France,” he shares. “And I think I’ve done more performances in France than any other country. They commission me to create new works – like the work I’m creating for a pantsula group from the East Rand called Via Katlehong. That work will premiere in Lyon in France.
“It’s a great honour for a government of another country to recognise your contribution to the arts. It’s particularly interesting for an African and a dancer to achieve that stature that has been achieved by huge names in the industry, like William Kentridge.”
When it comes to the broader dance industry in South Africa, Maqoma says he is excited because “we have so many voices and not everyone is singing the same tune. I’m seeing popular forms making their way into the mainstream theatrical spaces. Many art forms come to dance to find more inspiration. We see it in visual art, films, in theatre, spoken word, all of it. Dance is a haven for inspiration for different art forms.”
In just three years, Maqoma will celebrate 30 years as a professional dancer. I ask him if he has anything planned to mark the occassion. “We’re working on an idea for film,” he says beaming with pride. “Film is a medium I’ve never put my hands on before so it’s quite a daunting experience. We’ve put 2020 as a mark for us to release the film. That’s first.
“Secondly,” and here he is the most serious he’s been since we sat down, “I want to have a permanent space. For me, it’s always about legacy.
“Aside from the knowledge I impart to choreographers and dancers and administrators I work with, what do I want to leave behind as a concrete symbol that defines Gregory Maqoma for generations to come? It’s a building that we can call our own. The Vuyani Dance Theatre building. Where dreams and legacies can be reshaped and made possible for new generations. We’re talking and strategising about it so it will happen.”
I don’t doubt that.
* Cion is at The Market Theatre in Newtown from May 25 to June 4. Book at Webtickets or at the box office.