The front of the newly built Soweto Theater in Jabulani, Soweto. 160512 Picture: Boxer Ngwenya


long-awaited Soweto Theatre opens on Friday – built on remarkable legacies of music, theatre and dance.

The complex had its sod-turning ceremony in Jabulani on February 10, 2009, and is built on a legacy created in the South Western Township from the 1960s, in halls, classrooms, churches, courtyards, Gibson Kente’s famous garage drama school in Dube, Funda Centre in Diepkloof and even the Orlando swimming pool.

In its building and programming will the Soweto Theatre reflect, for instance, the courageous creativity and ingenious cultural activism of artists and educators of the calibre of Professor Khabi Mngoma, who established the Ionian Music Society in 1960 (along with Soweto’s first orchestra) at the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre (DOCC).

His two children, cellist Lindumuzi and his sister, violinist Sibongile (the now celebrated Sibongile Khumalo), were members of the Youth Orchestra founded in 1969.

Kente and Mngoma (who was honoured with an inaugural memorial lecture and exhibition at Wits University’s recent WALE festival) would have celebrated their 80th and 90th birthdays respectively this year.

These are excellent reasons for the Soweto Theatre to have exhibitions, lectures and performances remembering and honouring these and legions of other Sowetans (such as tap maestro Nathaniel Blangwe), who poured their lifeblood into empowering young people and adults with the ability to use their voices, bodies and imaginations as expressive weapons of survival.

Also contained in the foundations, bricks and mortar are the dreams and achievements, against terrifying socio-political odds, of dramatist, visual artist, intellectual and arts visionary Matsemela Manaka who, with the Soyikwa Institute of African Theatre team at Funda Centre put Soweto theatre on the national and international map.

And let’s not forget Peter Ngwenya whose Soweto Youth Drama Society spearheaded drama education and playmaking in White City.

The theatre list goes on and on, with inextricable ties with Dorkay House and later The Market Theatre, Pact Drama and Windybrow.

Soweto’s magnificent multi-faceted theatre dance history has a very high international profile. This is mainly due to a handful of dancer-teacher-choreographers who, in the 1980s, began accessing and experimenting with breakdance, American modern dance and forms of indigenous and west African modern dance.

Carly Dibakwane and the late Jackie Mbuyiselwa Semela who co-founded the Soweto Dance Theatre (at the DOCC and Bapedi Hall, in Meadowlands) and Soyikwa’s Nomsa Kupi Manaka (and her Pan African Dance Project) take pride of place in the pioneering stakes. Soyikwa alumnus Tebby Ramasike is based with his TeBogO Dance in Amsterdam.

As is the case with Soweto theatre, dance has strong links to “town”. That’s where Boyzie Ntsikelelo Cekwana, Nelisiwe Xaba, Vincent Mantsoe, Gregory Maqoma and Melody Putu went to the Johannesburg Dance Foundation, Moving into Dance or Johannesburg Youth Ballet to gain skills.

These dance makers are now feted internationally as performers and choreographers.

Talents like David Matamela and the late Themba Twala took another route. They went to the Orlando swimming pool where they were drilled in jazz, ballet and African dance by ex-Sun City Extravaganza dancer Isabelle Doll and Peter Ngcobo for Street Beat Dance Company, which relocated to Atlanta in the US.

Soweto-raised Andile Ndlovu, 23, trained at Ballet Theatre Afrikan (BTA) and is dancing principal roles with the Washington Ballet.

Another BTA prodigy, virtuoso homeboy Thoriso Magongwa, is dancing in European ballet galas and another BTA star, Kitty Phetla, who lived in Soweto until she was five, continues to be a versatile role model in a tutu with Mzansi Productions. She recently returned from dancing in 25 Russian cities.

Apart from current outstanding Soweto-bred dancer-choreographers Dada Masilo and Sonia Radebe, SA’s contemporary dance lineage is populated with trailblazers the calibre of Ellington Mazibuko, Lucky Diale, Arco Griffiths Matlala, Sello Pesa, Moeketsi Koena, Andrew Makhaya (Thabisong Youth Club) and George Khumalo.

On the continent, SA has staked its claim by winning first prize at the African dance choreographic dance platforms, now the Danse l’Afrique Danse Biennale. The competition laureates – Vincent Mantsoe (Angola, 1996), Boyzie Cekwana (Madagascar, 1999), Sello Pesa/Moeketsi Koena (2001), Thabiso Pule/Thami Manekehla (2008) – are all Sowetans.

Robyn Orlin, third prize winner in 1999, has old Soweto ties particularly with the Fuba (Federated Union of Black Artists) Dance Company founded in 1983 with Diale and Dibakwane among the dancers. The short-lived ensemble performed upstairs at The Market Theatre and Mofolo’s Eyethu Cinema.

This dance chapter comes full circle from September 28 when the Danse L’Afrique Danse comes to the Soweto Theatre and Joburg venues. A special homecoming.