What is 27-year-old Bongani Mthombeni’s dream? “I want to build and run the Mamelodi Theatre in which work such as my own will be staged, enriching my community, showing my people that art is alive and part of us all,” he says.
With the present theatre climate in which opportunities for dancers and choreographers are few and far between, Mthombeni refuses to surrender to apathy.
“I will continue to cast myself in my own work and pursue what I believe I was called to do. I will continue to follow my purpose in creating art that is meaningful to me and the people around me,” he says.
For Mthombeni art is pragmatic. He believes that the purpose of theatre is to elicit an awareness of real life issues and provide solutions to real life problems. “Theatre is a way of fixing ourselves,” he says. “It provides another eye through which to see ourselves.”
Mthombeni experiences a strong sense of responsibility towards his community. However, within his community, he believes that art is not yet appreciated for the profound potential it has. His foremost priority is to create an awareness of the significance of theatre and the impact it can have on a society.
As yet there is no Mamelodi Theatre. There is only the Beerhall in Mamelodi West, which Mthombeni has converted into a performance space. It is here that he stages his one-man shows and presents dance and choreography workshops.
Mthombeni studied dance in the South African State Theatre’s Youth in Trust Programme under the mentorship of September Mathabela.
He says that Mathabela quickly recognised his keen interest in and passion for dance, allowing him ample opportunities to develop his talent and steer his determination in making a career for himself.
Working with choreographers such as Ayanda Sithebe and Mdu Nhlapo stimulated Mthombeni’s own choreographic creativity.
He says that his role model is Vincent Mantsoe, who developed his own unique style within the Afrofusion genre and, in so doing, made an international career for himself.
Mthombeni believes that he has something unique to offer African contemporary dance. He prefers movement that is not “too clean and devoid of true expression” and with his characteristic merging of dance movement, functional movement and spoken word, he believes that he is sculpting a medium that lends itself to communicating with pointed articulacy.
Mthombeni’s company, Picture Art, recently produced his latest one man production, Umbizo - The Calling.
The work sets out to encourage others to follow their callings, and to demonstrate to budding artists that, with enough vision and determination, it is indeed possible to make a career for oneself. This work will again be performed at the Beerhall from April 24 to 28.
On April 14, Mthombeni will be presenting the first in a series of African dance and Afrofusion workshops, which is open to anyone in his community. Judging from the content of the workshop, Mthombeni will be presenting cutting-edge developments within the African contemporary genre.
The workshop will also be held at the Beerhall in Mamelodi West.
Bearing in mind the present dance industry in which opportunities for dancers are sparse, this level of entrepreneurship, fuelled by insatiable determination, clear vision and devout dedication, should be supported and nurtured at all costs.
It seems that there is a new generation of dance pioneers emerging, artists who are adamant to have their voices heard. Despite frequent dissuasion and discouragement from many, Mthombeni is set on reaching his goals. “I have no back-up plan,” he says. “This is it.”