Phillip Stein, who died in July 2010, aged 83, was no run-of-the-mill cultural activist.
The highly entrepreneurial, immaculately dressed businessman, who founded the CNA Literary Award in the 1960s and Vita Promotions (which ran the Vita theatre awards and Vita Art Prize) during the height of apartheid, ingeniously used sponsorship to champion the role of the artist to connect culturally diverse and politically divided South Africans.
One of the awards Stein added to the long-defunct Vita stable has an enduring legacy. The inaugural contemporary dance choreographer of the year award, won by Robyn Orlin in 1984, gathered momentum. Three years later Stein told two of the dance award judges (The Citizen’s Marilyn Jenkins and myself at The Star Tonight) that he had some extra money. A festival – a free democratic platform for all forms of new South African choreography – was suggested.
The Wits Theatre, which was untainted by government subsidy, was identified as the ideal venue where dancers and choreographers – whether from Sandton or Sebokeng – could safely perform without political backlash.
The source of funding was also important. The Performing Arts Administration’s Michael Hobson (and chairman of Friends of the Ballet), became the co-ordinator and sent out a call for choreographers.
The participants, who would have to provide their own transport, would be provided with publicity and technical requirements, and share the box office.
The first festival, named Dance Umbrella – with a Programme A and B – was scheduled for February 14 to 18, 1989. Dancing Dilemmas, a stormy panel discussion chaired by Professor Ian Steadman, was held before the Friday performance.
At the height of the build-up Michael Hobson became gravely ill. His Performing Arts Administration colleagues Robert Sharman and Conrad Haikes stepped up and made this adventurous event a reality. Such was the risk involved, that the sponsors AA Life, who provided the R3 000 budget, wished to remain anonymous.
The affected dancer-choreographers had to be assured that the funders didn’t have any political or unacceptable strings attached.
The 15 choreographic entries were a microcosm of styles and forms, ranging from Eric Bouvron’s physical mime solo Touch of Pantsula to Soweto contemporary dance pioneer Carly Dibakwane’s Waiting, subtitled “Waiting for new Africa, waiting for black and white to come together, waiting for Mandela, waiting for everything that can bring peace to RSA”.
Sharing the stage on programme B was Wendy Quarmby’s Roses – Reflections of Five Women’s Love for One Man, from Pretoria, Jeannette Ginslov’s Dark Room Clichés and Grayham Davies’s Picasso Conversations for Johannesburg Dance Theatre.
Programme A showcased Bernice Lloyd’s Movement for Beverly, a solo for ballerina Beverly Bagg, Sylvia Glasser’s Man is an Island for her Moving Into Dance Company and Robyn Orlin’s Alive and ½ Dead (or How to Have your Chicken and eat it) with the City Theatre and Dance Group.
Tertiary training institutions were represented by Jill Waterman and Wits movement students (including Mickey, Gerard Bester, Tale Motsepe and Kim Thackwray) and Dina Erasmus from the Pretoria Technikon Dance Department with Op die weg Terug.
The first Umbrella generated an incredible spirit of volunteerism as well as dissension about whom or what belongs on the South African dance stage. Answer? Everybody. The 1990 AA Vita Dance Umbrella received 69 applications. This festival, administered by Vita’s Nicola Danby, who was succeeded by Georgina Thomson, was then briefly funded by IGI Life and developed national satellites under the long-term title sponsor FNB, who withdrew in 2010.
Twenty-five years on Dance Umbrella, driven by artistic director Thomson and Dance Forum, is now part of Arts Alive in September.
But in honour of that historic Valentine’s Day in 1989, and the memory of Phillip Stein, a “Special Anniversary Season” is being held at The Wits Theatre from February 14 to 16. Among the featured works are Gregory Maqoma’s updated Beautiful Us (February 14) plus Alfred Hinkel and Byron Klassen’s I don’t, I can’t, I won’t and SA Mzansi Ballet with two excerpts (February 16).
Also on opening night are veteran choreographer Dibakwane and evolving choreographer Sonia Radebe from Moving into Dance Mophatong.
The illustrious Radebe made her stage debut as a 10-year-old on Dance Umbrella’s Stepping Stones with Arco Griffiths Matlala’s Arco Dance Theatre from White City. A living legacy indeed.
• Dance Umbrella, 25 Years On: A Special Anniversary Season: The Wits Theatre, February 14 at 7.30pm (mixed bill); February 15 at 7.30pm (mixed bill) and 9pm (Athena Mazarakis’s Standing By); February 16, 6pm (Sello Pesa’s Displacement Powerlines) and 7.30pm. Tickets, R80. Book for all programmes and pay R40 a performance. Students, pensioners, Friends of Dance and group bookings R40. Call Karlen at 011 492 2033.Visit www.artslink.co.za/arts