Fifteen years ago, Gregory Maqoma was picking up scrappy cardboard boxes which became the set for his Vuyani Dance Theatre Project’s debut choreographic work, Rhythm 1.2.3.
Six years ago, Soweto-trained violinist Isaac Molelekoa was playing in the South African National Youth Orchestra.
Fast-forward to 2014 and Maqoma is staging his lavishly designed Full Moon on The Mandela at the Joburg Theatre and Molelekoa, a regular Vuyani Dance Theatre collaborator, has composed the original score to be played by the very orchestra in which he partly cut his professional classical teeth. Quite an achievement all round before a step is danced or a note is played.
This production is littered with a string of historic benchmarks and firsts. Fifteen years may not sound impressive, but for a South African contemporary dance company to survive the funding storms – and flourish – for that long is remarkable. Fifty years of operation for a South African orchestra, given a similar economic and political climate, is equally admirable.
In celebration of its achievements, with an eye to being around for the foreseeable future, the National Lottery-funded Vuyani, now a formally registered company, has repositioned itself as Vuyani Dance Company. Maqoma made this announcement at a recent media launch. He prefaced this news with a heartfelt appeal to lobby for the Dance Umbrella festival’s continued existence.
“I launched my career and the company on this platform, which must not be allowed to die,” Maqoma said.
The motivation for the rebranding and company restructuring? “We used the opportunity of our 15th year of existence to do some soul-searching during a strategy weekend.
“Ultimately, we resolved that in order for our company to survive and thrive in this competitive industry, we needed to diversify our funding stream. This meant operating our labour of love as a business and treating the skilled people at our disposal as valuable and marketable assets – while still, naturally, adhering to the highest standards of artistic integrity.”
VDC will be an “income-generating machine” while continuing its training and development strategies and pursuit of artistic innovation. Luyanda Sidiya, the Vuyani dancer- choreographer who has been care-taking the company during Maqoma’s prolific international touring and other commitments, has been appointed artistic director.
Maqoma is Vuyani’s executive director.
With a high-powered board and three high-profile and hands-on patrons – Justice Edwin Cameron, Sibongile Khumalo and advocate Nomvula Mokhatla – Vuyani is determined to continue its mission of art-making linked to education and human development.
The by-invitation gala performance in The Mandela tonight aims to secure buy-in from individuals and corporates to perpetuate VDC’s legacy of sustainable employment.
Maqoma is excited about having 100 artists on the stage. The production, “which takes me to the moon in my sleep”, delves into the mystical celestial world partly inspired by prophet Credo Mutwa’s African cosmology. As usual, collaboration is to the fore. The futuristic costumes, which are integrated into the choreographic vision, are created by fashion luminary Jacques van der Watt and the Black Coffee team.
“I avoid trend with dance,” Maqoma explained at the launch. “With dance you are playing with mood. These are incredible bodies you get to clothe. You can let your imagination go. If you don’t embrace the movement through costume then why bother? It could just be a leotard.”
To achieve that innate understanding of motion he has spent hours watching unglamorous creation rehearsals in the Newtown studio. The first Vuyani/Black Coffee collaboration was that stylish white mini dress for Maqoma’s groundbreaking solo, Miss Thandi, at the 2002 FNB Dance Umbrella.
On the musical front, youth orchestra managing director Sophia Welz is ecstatic that the ensemble is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a bold new step.
“It is the first time that the National Youth Orchestra will be performing in a contemporary dance production, and we’re doing it with a bang because it is the biggest contemporary dance production to hit South Africa, ever. What an exciting start to our performances in 2014.”
Joining distinguished Vuyani principal dancer and rehearsal director Lulu Mlangeni, who is cast as Alpha of Mother Earth, are guest artists Thoriso Magongwa (formerly of Ballet Theatre Afrikan) dancing Omega of Planet Earth and former world, European and French aerobic gymnastics champion Gregory Alcan portraying the evil spirit from out of space.
Reaching for the stars indeed.
• Full Moon runs in The Mandela from April 30 to May 11 at 8pm and 3pm on Sundays. Booking: www.joburgtheatre.com, or call 0861 670 670.