Johannesburg - Jay Pather is the choreographer for the new production of The Firebird. Here he chats to Theresa Smith about his best and worst travel memories.
First holiday memory?
In the 1970s, I managed to get a Eurail train pass and travelled through Munich, Amsterdam, Paris, Geneva, Rome, Venice and Pisa. It was an outstanding experience. Surviving on apples and cheese, sleeping in dormitories and youth hostels. My appetite for seeing a variety of places grew. The long train rides were in themselves adventures.
This inexpensive pass was a great way to travel when one had time, tolerance for discomfort, and a roving, manic curiosity.
Favourite place in SA?
Durban. Siwela Sonke, the dance theatre company I direct, is in Durban. I am there a lot for work. I have been seduced more and more by the city’s attractions, the beaches where you can swim and not simply pose on the sand! The unpretentious access to a lush, natural environment, unpretentious people, culture on the street and the mild, crisp winters make this city a clear favourite.
I seldom take holidays – they are appendages, a weekend after a conference or a few days after a production, for me. There is no one big favourite, but a few short ones – a post-production holiday in Zanzibar, strolling for hours on winding pathways around Stone Town, dining on delicious food. Another was Madrid, with its balmy late nights, siestas, food, architecture, endless possibilities for conversation, and the sheer colour and light. Riding on an open-top bus never made sense to me, but in Madrid it did – there was just so much to take in, and in a few days, it was a good, gentle way to convince myself that I “saw” Madrid.
What have you learnt from your travels?
That wherever I live and whatever I do it will always be the tiniest part of the universe. Travelling offers a simple lesson – there are much better ways of doing things than you have been doing all your life, there are better ideas, and everyone has done what you think is new and innovative. It inspires you to extend yourself more. From working in Luanda in the 1990s until I first landed in Shanghai or Muscat a few years ago, I was overwhelmed by the clichés fed through our media. Only when one has experienced the soft-spoken beauty of the people of Omman does one understand that everything one has learnt stands to be corrected.
Who is your ideal travelling companion?
My partner Andre Links, an anaesthetist… so besides getting good sleeping tabs for the long haul (joking), he is also a much better social operator than I. A master of other tongues, with the correct accent and oodles of charm. he opens doors. He is extremely adaptable and finds the pulse of a place quickly. This makes him a valuable fellow traveller. When I travel with him I simply switch off and let him lead me.
Beach bum, culture vulture, or an adrenalin junkie?
A culture vulture. I look out for good museums, small galleries, experimental performances, as well as works that may be traditional in a particular region. I also look out for South African artists who may be showing in foreign contexts – it’s a particular thrill.
What is your greatest travel luxury?
Being able to have a few hours of free roaming time. I travel a lot, but unfortunately almost always for work. A great luxury is having a few hours before a commitment – it’s great for grounding me.
I like fiction, which I can easily get stuck into. However, in the midst of travel, I am a great fan of magazines. In an aircraft I often like to forget that I am stuck in a tube without a sense of a vista, and magazines help me find a mushy mindset to go along with that. More than that and I strain to keep concentrating.
What place has really seduced you?
Shanghai and Berlin get kudos. Barcelona is a place that makes you understand romance. It was a place that seemed to know what you wanted and when, not too much and not too little – that is a good definition of romance for me. But the people of Thailand bring one closer to empathy and kindness, which is important to me.
Worst travel experience?
A trip to Sydney. The visit was not bad, but my bags were four days late and Qantas was rude and uncooperative. Travel comes with vulnerability. I am resilient enough to weather the vicissitudes that come with it. But the attitudes of airlines and hotels can be unsettling. All one wants is for an airline or hotel to be civil and pretend you are not just a source of profit to them. At my stopover in Thailand, the kindness of the hotel staff, the empathy they showed, helped me bounce back instantly.
The Langham in Auckland lived up to its reputation. Understated elegance, but not without some decadence, gourmet ice cream at breakfast, for example. For sheer deftness in style, comfort and sophisticated know-how in handling small spaces, the Ovolo in Hong Kong does it for me. I love the efficiency, the no-fuss, working environment. I liked the service – sharp, quick, minimal and unembellished. When I am in a guest house I am not familiar with, I often spend the first hours taking down paintings, and packing away place mats and knick-knacks that make it impossible for me to think.
Walk, swim, ride or drive?
I walk all the time; don’t drive, so it’s not really an option. I don’t do much swimming or riding. But walking has brought out the flâneur in me from my early days in Durban, roaming Warwick Avenue and the intricate arcades off Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street. Walking gives me an opportunity for instant pause or pass, a way to interact as one chooses – it allows one to get to know a society in its multiple forms, its people, objects, its things and stuff, its literature, patois, dialects and languages, sound, its colour and visual intelligence, its organisation and architecture, its receptivity to you as a human being. Is it easy to navigate at night? Does a city protect its most vulnerable at their most vulnerable? Walking puts you in touch with not just how a society organises its topography or its land, its pavements and streets, but quickly brings me to understand how it chooses to treat its people and its visitors, how humane it is.
Best meal abroad?
The food in New Orleans, Madrid and, of course, the vast variety of restaurants in New York have provided great moments. But Shanghai’s lure is in its combination of some exquisitely laid-out restaurants as well as the street food – unbelievably surprising tastes, sweet, sour, spicy.
For a range of reasons, I’d say Hong Kong.
Where to next?
I travel to Venice for a residency I am teaching and afterwards to the US with The Firebird. The production is directed by Janni Younge, and features a wonderful interdisciplinary experience of Stravinsky’s powerful and complex score, puppetry, dance and projected imagery. The work will be shown in six cities in the US and is accompanied by a live orchestra.
l Jay Pather is the choreographer for the new production of The Firebird. He is in Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival and then heads to the US.