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African storytelling at its very richest

IN THE GROOVE: Andile Vellem moves to the beat.

IN THE GROOVE: Andile Vellem moves to the beat.

Published Feb 18, 2011

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ANDILE VELLEM is a member of the Remix Dance Company, and is taking part in Neo Muyanga’s play Memory of how it feels at the Baxter. Although he is deaf, it has not stopped him from pursuing a career in dance, which has taken him to London, New York and Ghana.

Tell us about your role in Memory of how it feels.

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I do more physical theatre than pure dance. This is actually quite new to me, and I find it very exciting because in order to do it well, my dance training and experience helps tremendously.

The piece uses a chamber orchestra, is inspired by Zulu love beads, and uses elements of myth and folklore from Uganda, Egypt and ancient Sumeria. It sounds very rich – is this so?

The story really fascinates me and I was immediately interested when I read the script. I have worked with Neo Muyanga on many occasions, and his work is always of a very high standard. He is very well known as a composer and musician, and now with this production he makes his debut as an author as well. This is African storytelling at its best, combined with music and dance. The music is also very interesting. The seven-piece chamber orchestra is tuned to assimilate the modes, harmonies and patterns of a Zulu love letter and this way a fresh vocabulary for how we can look and play new classical music in South Africa today is defined.

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You’ve been a member of Remix Dance Company since 2005. How did this come about?

Malcolm Black, the artistic director of Remix, visited St Martins School for the Deaf many years ago to do a workshop and I was teaching at the school. After participating in the workshop, Nicola Visser – the artistic director at the time – asked me to join the company. I have always loved dancing and started at a very young age when I discovered that one could feel the vibrations of music if it is loud enough. My parents also love to dance and they started teaching me ballroom when I was only six years old.

As a deaf dancer I am sure many readers will be interested to know how you work. How do you follow the musical score – and what are the challenges you face?

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This production is made up of three small, gentle stories which are strung together through narration, dance and chamber music.

In preparing for my role of dancer and narrator I had to make sure that I knew and understood the script really well. I tell the story through movement and because I cannot hear the music, I have to be very sensitive to the energy coming from the musicians.

In terms of the music, even though I cannot hear it, I feel it.

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I pick up from the musicians the energy, mood and pace when they are playing in the room during rehearsals or on stage, so this helps me to understand and follow the music. And of course I depend on the vibrations as well.

Is there any training being offered for deaf dancers here in South Africa? Is it quite a specialised career?

Anybody can dance if they really want to.

There is no formal training in South Africa for what is known as integrated dance – when able-bodied dancers and dancers with disabilities perform together. Remix Dance Company offers open classes at our studio in Rondebosch and we also run workshops and residencies at schools.In the long term we would like to make integrated dance more sustainable in South Africa.

I have participated in many workshops and courses, including some by Adam Benjamin who is an international pioneer in integrated dance.

Are you involved in choreographing or workshopping pieces with Remix?

We are constantly working on developing our choreographic skills so we take turns in creating new pieces, even if they are short.

I am also very involved in the residencies that we do with schools. We hold workshops and choreograph small performances with the learners from the various schools. I will be choreographing a piece for the Baxter Dance Festival later this year.

What do you do to relax?

I really do work most of the time – it’s my life and I love it. I am so lucky that way. Even when I am not physically working, I am still thinking about work. I also enjoy socialising with my friends – we braai and watch sport quite a bit.

l Memory of how it feels is on at the Baxter until March 10. Bookings at 021 680 3989.

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