25/09/2012. Bafana Matea of the Battery Dance Company is teaching local students as part of their Connect to Dance programme. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi


A New York dance company is spending the week at the State Theatre nurturing young adults from Youth in Trust, a local NGO that trains those who are artistically inclined but don’t have the means for further studies.

The week’s work will culminate with a show at Pretoria’s Breytenbach Theatre tomorrow evening showcasing local and the US dancers before they move on to similar workshops in Cape Town next week.

US company founder and artistic director Jonathan Hollander started the Battery Dance Company 37 years ago in New York’s financial district, not known for its artistic endeavours.

That was a precursor of what this unusual choreographer wanted to do with his life.

On the surface, he established a dance company so that he could choreograph, but he immediately connected to the idea that he had to find a way for a dance company to function in the real world.

Almost 40 years ago, this was not the kind of thinking on people’s minds. That’s probably why this has become a company that’s not only about excellence but also about social relevance.

Into this world leapt a dancer all the way from Mamelodi, Bafana Mateo.

His was also a circuitous route. Bafana’s mom, Anna, worked at the State Theatre, and she was instrumental in getting her son interested in the arts. “She’s a progressive woman,” says her son.

He tried singing opera like his mom, who was part of the opera chorus, but that was not his thing. She enrolled him for ballet classes and he hopped on board because he was keen to learn to split so he could boast to his friends.

When the dancing bug bit, Anna sent him to Pretoria’s Pro Arte School of the Performing Arts.

There he met dance teacher Joy Cooper, who backed him all the way.

“It was a tough school because suddenly I was being taught all my subjects in English as well as being put through the basics of dancing so that I could catch up.”

He was determined and so was his teacher. “I could not have done it without her support,” he says.

That led to an Alvin Aily dance bursary a few years later. Once in New York, Bafana’s desire to experience this amazing city for more than a year kept him dancing.

He went from one dance company to another until someone introduced him to the Battery Dance Company.

Jonathan describes Bafana as one of the most generous, spirited people he knows and a consummate dancer. “He exudes the sun,” he says.

Bafana has become an integral part of a project that aims to introduce art into every child’s life.

When he returns to his home country one day with his wife, an English lass, and also a dancer, he hopes to establish a similar art experience that will benefit as many children as it did him.

The project, dubbed Dancing to Connect, has become an award-winning initiative that engages the youth in creativity and team-building through dance.

The company’s world-class performers bring influences from various countries.

Through workshops, they connect with local youth, and together create a dance performance through a week’s cultural exchange experience in Pretoria and Joburg this week and next week in Cape Town.

“We didn’t want to shrink-wrap our dancers,” explains Jonathan, which is why they are so much a part of the education arm of the company.

It’s as much about education as it is about craft and consistency, and many of the students gravitate to the company because of its interaction with society.

“We’re simply a catalyst for the creative processes to emerge,” is how Jonathan explains the process.

It was as a teenager that Bafana really switched on to the arts and when it started impacting on his life.

He is a product of how it changes and impacts an individual life. That’s why he wants to engage specifically with teenagers. “I want them to know that it’s never too late,” he says.

In the past seven years as a member of the company, Bafana has travelled to 30 countries and experienced the world. “It reminds you where you come from,” he says.

Discovering his roots only happened once he had left the continent.

“We think we know who we are, but we often don’t,” he says.

“To truly grow and reach out, we have to get to know ourselves and one another.

“Then perhaps we can really become that rainbow nation,” he says.

The SA tour is backed by the US embassy. A performance is scheduled at the Breytenbach Theatre, Gerhard Moerdyk Street, at 5pm tomorrow.

The Cape Town workshops will be held until Thursday with a performance at 7pm on Friday, October 6, at the Magnet Theatre in Woodstock.