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Social inequality aggravated by global economic fluctuation isn’t exactly the sexiest subject for dance theatre.
That didn’t deter South Africa’s Baxter Theatre Centre or Sweden’s Scenkonst Sörmland (Performing Arts of Sörmland) from creating a three-year exchange programme which generates artistic production around the complexities of economic growth.
Baxter Theatre Centre chief executive and artistic director, Lara Foot, and Scenkonst director Maria Weisby took the first step with I Hit the Ground Running which addresses how the economy affects unemployed youth, and particularly young artists, in both countries.
After pre-artistic creation research began last November with a reference group in Eskilstuna, then in Cape Town, this high-quality production premiered at the Baxter Flipside for a week till September 7 then toured Sweden (including the Stockholms stadsteater).
According to associate producer Nicolette Moses, the reception of the six performances in four cities was “overwhelming. They connected in a profound way with the piece which deals with issues, such as unemployment, which South Africans deal with on a daily basis. They are facing that now.”
Apart from the social research component, what distinguishes this ongoing initiative from other cross-continental exchanges is the inclusion of an original score played live by a chamber orchestra.
Both Cape Town choreographer Ananda Fuchs and Swedish composer Tebogo Monnakgotla worked off the research material. They communicated on Skype and shared the developing musical score on Drop Box. Involved in the five-week creation process at the Baxter were five experienced Swedish musicians: Åsa Karlberg (flute), Johannes Thorell (saxophone), Camilla Arvidsson (violin), Hanna Dahlkvist (cello) and Jonny Axelsson (percussion and musical direction).
The five Cape Town dancers were ex-Jazzarters Grant van Ster and Shaun Oelf; ex-Remix Dance Company’s Andile Vellem; Leilah Kirsten and Bernice Valentine.
The danger with any issue-based theatre is that it can be dry and didactic. Thankfully the co-creators, performers and designers Marcel Meyer (production) and Benever Arendse (lighting), are too creative to fall into that trap.
The opening sequence blows in business people dressed in their designer corporate wear. This could be New York, Stockholm, London or Cape Town. Gradually, their materialistic personae are stripped away in a brooding theatrical landscape of pared-down imagery and salient symbolism.
The bodies do the talking as a nuanced narrative about the socially marginalised and “the other” unfolds out of a layering of light and projected footage of the choreography (on white umbrellas) in response to the complexly dynamic, dissonant, music.
Van Ster’s long-limbed dialects of distress, Oelf’s dramatic vulnerability, Vellem’s passionately embodied sign language in tandem with Kirsten and Valentine’s emotional physicality drive 45 minutes of power punch contemporary dance.
One of the heroes in this ingeniously developmental scenario is the Swedish Arts Council.
Co-incidentally, this funding body also backed another North-South exchange project at Dance Umbrella.
The first leg of exChange South Africa-Sweden/sHe: Khulisa ran between September 2 and 9.
The leaders of this project for intercultural dialogue and artistic practice with a focus on global consciousness were Vuyani Dance Theatre’s Lulu Mlangeni and Dansens Hus/Stockholm’s Katja Seitajoki.
For eight days they were joined by freelance dancer-choreographers Thoko Sidiya, Liyabuya Gongo, Phindile Kula and their Swedish counterparts, Disa Krosness, Niki Tsappos, My Nilsson and Josefine Olin.
Through conversations, improvisations, sharing experiences, writing a daily blog, interactions with Athena Mazarakis and Nelisiwe Xaba and attending performances, the participants explored their strengths and needs as female artists.
At the final session they outlined three major questions which can inform their survival and practice as independent artists. These questions target how to develop strategies to receive more support – not only financial; how to retain creative freedom and how to access resources.
The second step of this enterprising exchange happens at the inaugural Dans ª Stockholm Festival which runs from December 1 to 7. Visit http://exchange-za-se-she-khulisa.tumblr.com/ for more information.
Not since the Nordic Shuttle ’99 has there been such sustained, meaningful, artistic engagement between Sweden and South Africa. Long may it last.