Dancers from Unmute Dance Company MyBody My Space 2016, Ebhudlweni Centre, Mapumalang Picture: Christo Doherty

Theatre often is at the forefront of social change. It is more than mere entertainment or solely being an object of art.  It educates, celebrates, and counsels.  It interrogates and protests.  It confronts and provokes.  It transforms and heals. 

Even though theatre has many faces, its underlying purpose appears to be its capacity to enlighten its audience, and give them an experience that extends beyond their present appreciation for and understanding of the human condition.  

Theatre involves and furthers its audience’s view of the world in which they live. 

For dance practitioner and social activist, PJ Sabbagha, theatre’s capacity to transform the world around it, and its potential to improve people’s lives, has been a calling all along.   

It all started when he, as part of the anti-conscription campaign in the eighties and early nineties, opted to go to university.  He studied Drama under theatre greats Gary Gordon, Reza de Wet and Andrew Buckland at Rhodes University. 

Here the notion of social responsibility became central in his appreciation of the arts.  What followed has been a prolific career, creating and producing dance theatre, consistently addressing matters of personal, social and political concern. 

In 1995 Sabbagha founded the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative (FATC) which has been dedicated to the creation of innovative and provocative South African dance theatre and the probing of critical personal and social issues. In this way the organisation has emerged as a leading voice within a new wave of South African ‘protest’ or ‘issue-based’ dance theatre. 

In 2015 FATC relocated its operations to the rural area of Emakhazeni, Mpumalanga, and established the Ebhudlweni Arts Centre. With this move FATC has been able to deliver on its objective to facilitate, develop and advance the role of South African artists, arts organizations, NGOs and community based organizations as progressive and dynamic agents of personal development and societal transformation. 

Fana Tshabalala & Thulani Chauke, Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative MyBody My Space 2016. Picture: Christo Doherty

FATC is strongly committed to mobilizing the arts as a vehicle for personal and social transformation. This commitment, emerging from its long history of arts activism, lies at the heart of each project within FATC’s extensive artistic and development programmes.

From the Ebhudlweni Arts Centre, the organisation is able to serve its immediate rural community through arts training programmes and arts experiences, as well as the national and international dance industry through residency programmes, the creation, performance and touring of its artistic programmes, and large-scale arts interventions such as the My Body My Space: Public Arts Festival.

Funded by the Department of Arts and Culture and initiated by Sabbagha four years ago, My Body My Space is an annual festival of public performances and exhibitions that take place in public spaces throughout the Emakhazeni local municipality. 

This unique rural public arts festival brings together the diverse rural citizenry of Emakhazeni by disrupting the familiar ways in which people move through shared social spaces. 

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The audience is guided on foot through an array of happenings, performances, installations and exhibitions that are held in various public sites such as school-playgrounds, empty houses, street corners and abandoned buildings. Curated works are selected based on their resonance with the festival’s thematic drive of socio-political activism, as well as a focus on works that allow for a re-imagining of familiar sites in Emakhazeni.

The festival is strongly committed to stimulating the local Emakhazeni economy, growing job creation opportunities and developing a vibrant arts and culture tourism sector in the region.

FATC’s mission is to carry out the facilitation, development and advancement of a progressive and dynamic socially responsible contemporary theatre, dance and arts culture in both the South African professional and community-based arts industry, as well as the formal and informal education and training sectors.

FATC aspires to serve individuals (irrespective of background) and the communities they represent; work towards a greater sense of compassion and understanding of all individuals and their roles in society; empower individuals with the ability, skills and capacity to create their own opportunities and develop a sense of purpose; and nurture positive, dynamic and productive interactions with those around us.

FATC’s development programmes include the Local Outreach Programme, the Youth in Arts Leadership Programme and the Community-Builders Dance Training Programme.

What makes Sabbagha and FATC to be pioneers in transformation though the arts, is that they are not simply another upliftment programme that parachutes in and disappears two weeks later, leaving little more than mistrust in its wake.  This is the real deal, bringing about genuine and continued change.

Having moved away from the often narcissistic climate of city theatre, Sabbagha found a niche for his calling in rural Mpumalanga, where he and his colleagues continue to have a significant impact on a wide community through the power and magic of dance and theatre.