Developing art with soul
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Durban - One of the highlights of this year’s virtual Jomba! is the exhibition 21 years of Jomba! through the lens by award-winning photographer Val Adamson.
Adamson has carved a name for herself through her insightful and creative photographic work capturing theatre, music, dance and the visual arts.
“I was at the very first Jomba! and have been there ever since,” Adamson says. “My favourite thing of the whole year is shooting Jomba! You get all the international guys coming and see so many different dance styles. You get to chat to them and get feedback from people you don’t know.”
She said when she first started shooting dance, it was “terrifying” because you’ve got “one chance to get it right”.
“In the early days, shooting with film, your success rate was low. You don’t have a lot of time to do lighting and it’s often quite dark and it’s a big challenge because you only shoot the actual performance. So I can’t move around. You can never say ‘stop, can you do that again?’
“You also can’t take too many pictures because of the noise of the shutter. My worst nightmare is shooting a really quiet piece. And what happens when the film runs out?" (She soon learnt to have a second camera.) "So, you have to make every shot count.
“Then you’d go home and wait anxiously to develop your own film to see what you’ve got,” she said.
Adamson was born in Kenya, studied in Scotland and came to South Africa in 1985, joining the Performing Arts Council of Transvaal as an assistant photographer.
She tells me she “fell into the theatre by accident”. “Now that I’ve been involved, I would like to have been a dancer. But I was brought up riding horses in Kenya, so ballet was not in my orbit.” Arriving in South Africa she went for the PACT (Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) interview but was really hoping for a press job. “I got the job and then was bitten by the bug. And it’s been so much fun.”
In 1988. she was invited by the Playhouse Company in Durban to run their photographic department and has been in the city since, freelancing since 1993.
She’s had six photographic exhibitions, including Love Dance in 2013.
She tells how when she first started filming classical ballet, directors and choreographers would be really strict and not let a picture out if it was “not technically perfect or I had not captured the leap or turn at its most flattering”.
“So I had to hone my skills and focus my eye on exactly how the dancer’s body would move, and almost anticipate what they would be doing to capture that moment.
"I was working on film and printing images myself, so I had to be so careful not to shoot willy-nilly – it was an expensive exercise.”
Today Adamson uses a Nikon with 2.8 “very fast lenses so you can shoot in low light”.
“Festival director Leanne Loots tells me I move my body as I follow the dancer. You have to anticipate as it all happens so quickly. I can see when the dancers are gathering themselves to do something. I’ve developed an instinct.”
She is fascinated by dancers and what they can do with their bodies and believes they don’t get enough accolades for the hard work getting their bodies into that condition.
“So much goes into it. And the discipline … what dancers are able to do with their bodies, many sportsmen wouldn’t be able to do. Dancers are athletes,” she says.
One of the highlights of Jomba! every year has been the “kids”, says Adamson. “Some are tiny – about 6 or 7 – and they’re out there doing their best and having fun, there’s our future dancers. The concentration is so intense. You can see them looking at each other to make sure they’ve got the right timing. They’re so cute.”
And then watching them develop into adult dancers, gracing the Jomba! stage years later.
She remembers shooting top South African dancer Vincent Mantsoe in 2001 and again last year. “He is still looking amazing and going strong.”
She will miss shooting a live festival this year.
“When lockdown kicked in, 80% of my world fell way,” she says. “Apart from dance and theatre, I also do conferences, but I’ve continued with portraiture so I can’t complain, I have some work.”
She is devastated for the theatre technicians, especially the lighting people. “Lighting is so important. Without them I couldn’t get all these wonderful pictures,” she says of her involvement in the recent Light Durban Red campaign.
“I’m so sad I’m missing it but I look forward to it next year. It’s nothing compared to having a live dancer in front of you.”
But she encourages people to tune into the virtual festival. “It’s so important for people to see and be exposed to dance and in this time of misery, it’s so uplifting. I hope people will watch. It may be an opportunity to grow a new audience.”
The exhibition will be mounted as a slide show, which people can browse through at their leisure, or will be broken into three video presentations with context and commentary.
Catch it on the Jomba! website jomba.ukzn.ac.za until September 6.
The Independent on Saturday