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Transforming dancescapes

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TO Mzanzi 20 - Rocking Art

Turning 21 signifies coming of age. That’s why Moving into Dance Mophatong’s 2012 season celebrates two decades of dance training which has produced significant dancers, choreographers, teachers and administrators.

At the Dance Factory tomorrow night 21 opens with Robyn Orlin’s commissioned Beauty Remained for just a moment then returned gently to her starting position… followed by MIDM founder Sylvia Glasser’s iconic Tranceformations (November 29-December 2).

Glasser reflects on her own educational origins and inspirations.

AS: What was your first memory of dancing?

SG: A tap class in Pietersberg with Thelma Wilson. I was four years old. I had pigeon toes and my mother was told to take me. When I was eight I started ballet with Moira Maudsley. I also took modern, Spanish and tap. When we visited our family in (then) Rhodesia I did a class with Elaine Archibald who made the mistake of telling my mother I was very talented.

Why did you study at the London College of Dance and Drama when you were 18?

When I could not take my elementary exam because I had pneumonia, I had to go to London in 1961 because the examiners only came to South Africa every two years. My father wanted me to be a book keeper, my teachers wanted me to be a lawyer, but I always wanted to teach – something.

At the college I studied ballet (Royal Academy of Dancing and Cecchetti), ISTD modern, the Graham technique, national dancing (which I loved the most) from all over the world except Africa, natural movement, anatomy, physiology, teaching methodology, history of dancing and ballroom dancing.

I was a qualified ballroom dance teacher and on my return to South Africa in 1963 I taught it at Redhill School as well as ballet and creative movement at End Street Convent.

I started the Sylvia Glasser Contemporary Dance Group in1971 and first taught contemporary dance at the Nugget Street Moth Hall in 1964.

Your educational background fed into your developing an Afrocentric blueprint for vocational dance training in 1992. What was your prime motivation for doing this?

I had been trying to teach this way since 1963. I wanted to do something in Johannesburg in accordance with the combination of choreographic, technique and performance training which I had experienced in London. Also, I had been teaching at the University of South Wales in Sydney and I saw what an impact I had made there for six months. I was offered an opportunity to stay on.

Secondly, in 1990, before I left for Australia, I had met some school principals and teachers who knew I was teaching 30 kids in Braam- fontein on Saturdays: “What about the thousands of other kids in Soweto?” They asked. I realised I needed to have a full time course to train teachers.

Lastly, our Schweppes Training Course in the Braamfontein Recreation Centre in 1990 was run by Bev Elgie. There were so many talented people like Vincent Mantsoe, Gregory Maqoma, Eric Lehana, Pule Kgaratsi and Portia Mashigo. Nine months later – what was going to happen to them?

What is it you did not want to teach in the inaugural Community Dance Teachers Training Course (CDTTC)?

I didn’t want to replicate the Eurocentric training. That is why I banished ballet from the curriculum because it took me five years to retrain ballet dancers and it took me 10 years to be “untrained”.

I had started experimenting with Afro-fusion in 1977 on sabbatical doing my MA in Houston. I was working with African music and improvisation.

Tranceformations is rooted in your social anthropology studies at Wits University from 1987 to 1989, the year your lecturer Dr David Webster was assassinated by the security police.

Yes. David Webster encouraged me in my dance work. Professor David Hammond-Tooke introduced me to Prof David Lewis-Williams who in 1987 gave me all the papers and recommended several books to read on San rock art and ritual. I waited for three years before I was ready to do a dance work.

Tranceformations, based on the belief systems of the ! Xam, was first performed in October 1991 (the original cast included Greg, Vincent, Moeketsi, Pule, Eric and Portia), in Grahamstown in 1992, Holland in 1993, 1994, 1998, 2003 and Finland in 2004.

The process of restaging it means going back to look at each image of rock art which inspired me and ensuring that every dancer knows what the image means and the importance of the complex spiritual belief system. They have to understand and respect that.

How do you teach trance?

You don’t. No one was more surprised than me when the first cast went into trance.

Having said that, the choreography was consciously repetitive, rhythmic, mesmerizing, and just the way real trance dance is performed. I’d seen all this embodied in images and actual trance.

I’ve always said: my task is to show what the ancient shamans saw, what they felt and what they did, physically and spiritually. I had to find a choreographic language into the realm of rock art. I had been searching for this spirituality in my work since 1965.

You were 51 years old when you started the CDTCC, which is now the accredited Professional Arts Training Course. You are now almost 72, is retirement on the cards?

I’ve always said I don’t want to stay past my sell-by date.


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