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2. Interviews with African artists who performed at the Festival de Marseille (2014-2019)

Smangaliso Ngwenya and Sbusiso Shozi:
Working with Gregory Maqoma and creation as cultural cocktail

Interview by Sarah Andrieu (CTEL, Université Côte d’Azur) and Fanny Robles (AMU)

Texte intégral

1Created in 2017, Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero premiered in France at the Festival de Marseille’s 2019 edition, which it opened on June 14. It was South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma’s third time at the Festival, where he came in 2011 with Southern Bound Comfort (co-created with Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui), and again in 2013 with Kudu (co-created with French musician Erik Truffaz). Cion is a choreographed adaption of the novels Ways of Dying (1995) and Cion (2007), by South African writer Zakes Mda, himself an admirer of Maqoma’s work, claiming to have driven a day and a night to see Exit/Exists (2015), a powerful experience which in turn inspired his painting. In Cion, nine dancers from Maqoma’s Vuyani Dance Theatre are accompanied by four singers, to tell the story of professional mourner Toloki and his participation in the collective celebration of the dead.

2Among the artists on stage are Smangaliso Ngwenya and Sbusiso Shozi. Smangaliso Ngwenya is a former member of Vuyani Dance Theater, which he left in 2019 to complete his Masters in Cultural Policy and Management at the University of Witwatersrand. This dancer, performer, writer, choreographer, videographer and editor first trained as a dancer at the First Physical Theatre Dance Company, before joining Vuyani in 2017. Since then he has choreographed “Mask-your-linearity” (2017), “Dictated Democracy” (2018), Standard Bank Ovation Award winning screendance “Fragmented Scribbles” (2020), as well as screendances “Glare” (2020) and “Home?” (2020) for the world’s first WhatsApp Festival, My Body My Space 2021. He is the founder of Isifiso SakaGogo Performance Theatre. Sbusiso Shozi is a freelance singer, songwriter and actor based in Soweto. He is the director of Show Zee Productions and a vocal trainer at The Market Theatre Laboratory. His latest creation is Uhambo, Imizwa Nomsindo!, which he conceptualized and directed for The Centre for the Less Good Idea in Johannesburg (2021), and he was most recently seen in William Kentridge’s Sibyl (2021).

3This interview was conducted on June 15, 2019, right after the third performance of Cion in La Criée, Marseille’s National Theatre. Against the chatty background of the Grandes Tables, the theatre’s bar-restaurant, we put our questions to the two performers, later contacting them in December 2021 to ask for updates [inserted between brackets].

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre, Smangaliso

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre, Smangaliso

Ngwenya is seen kneeling on the left

© John Hogg

4Sarah Andrieu: I was really impressed by the technique of all the performers (the musicians, the singers, the dancers). What is your individual background? How did you become so skilled in dance, singing, and music? You are very multidisciplinary, in a way, and you master your discipline(s). How did you come to be so skilled in your art(s)?

5Smangaliso Ngwenya: We are various dancers from diverse backgrounds. Some of us went to tertiary institutions for it, some of us did not. In addition, some attained their first training from Vuyani Dance Theatre and some trained before joining Vuyani Dance Theatre. Thus, we all have had varied technical backgrounds and experiences. But one specific thing about Vuyani Dance Theatre is that the founder, Gregory Maqoma, has a unique approach to creating choreography and dance: a cultural cocktail. The cultural cocktail combines a lot of forms of dances into one. For example, in Cion he combined contemporary dance, Isicathamiya – a proudly South African dance form and music genre, and even tap! He and the entire team (rehearsal director, Otto Nhlapo, and musical director, Nhlanhla Mahlangu) made sure we were fully immersed in each and every one of them. He made sure we’d get ballet technical training amidst other techniques — to have a foundation of technique. In addition, the team ensured that we’d get the technical training for afrofusion, so we have a good understanding of the different levels of movement within (South) African dance because even in Cion there are different levels (how you do the movements can be up here [he shows with his hands], can be lower, can be lower), everything like that was essential. As performers we were given workshops: a young man came in to teach us Isicathamiya, he started from the beginning of Isicathamiya (history, context and background) until the end of putting together the music and dance. In addition, the musical director of Cion, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, is also fully immersed in the music genre of Isicathamiya as well as the dance form; he also gave us a historical background of where Isicathamiya comes from, who started it, how it began — it was a holistic experience for us. Holistic experience in terms of dance, historical and theoretical backgrounds of each dance form, and it was also a holistic experience of understanding the music, as well.

6Sbusiso Shozi: I’m a singer. As he’s just elaborated, there’s also the musicians’ side, where we come from different backgrounds, different academies, trainings. We just happened to meet on this piece of theatre, Cion. Now, when it comes to this piece, we had to find the nuances of the actual understanding of what the piece was dealing with, which is death. Death is a very sensitive issue in every community, every society. So, by understanding the piece itself, or the topic itself, it creates a mood, and that mood will transform into understanding the music that you are singing at that particular moment. For example, Smangaliso just talked about Isicathamiya. If I can just take you back through history, in the late 1800, this is what happened: when African communities went to the cities to look for jobs, they worked in the mines and in those mines they were not allowed to express themselves, in singing and in dance, you understand? In the evening there was a curfew, the lights were shut, you couldn’t make any noise, and everybody had to sleep. In Africa we like to sing, we like to express ourselves through movement. So they wondered: “How can we continue doing what we love without making a lot of noise? Let’s just sing very softly”. Isicathamiya is not loud music: they developed a technique of singing very softly and, instead of stamping the ground, it’s just a touch, the touch is so soft!

7So now, coming to Cion, we embody that kind of technique in applying it to this piece. Also musically we find that nuancing of delivering of the actual music: it goes along with the story because that was not a very nice or very happy state, whereby someone tells you you must not do what you want. It was painful but they found comfort in that: we definitely need to do this, it’s our culture. So in the story, as it talks about death, the beginning takes you through the emotions of death, the journey is going through the crosses (on stage), we touch base with the story of Isicathamiya, embody that, and then there’s a little bit about the slaves, the runaway slaves in America. These are not nice stories, they’re very sad. The lighting is not bright either as it’s not a happy moment. It had to be in that kind of mood of sadness, a combination of the voices, the storytelling through the movements.

Sbusiso Shozi in Joel Zuma’s Music in the Air

Sbusiso Shozi in Joel Zuma’s Music in the Air

© Vaal Adamson

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre

© John Hogg

8Fanny Robles: I have a question on working with Gregory Maqoma. You said that you came together for this project, but were you working with his company before? How long have you been working with Vuyani Dance Theatre?

9Smangaliso Ngwenya: It would be my 3rd year, I started in 2017, the 3rd of January [I worked with the company until 9 December 2019 and left to complete my Masters in Cultural Policy and Management with the University of Witwatersrand].

10Sbusiso Shozi: I’m just going to speak for all of the musicians. We, as musicians, are freelancers. We started in 2017 when Greg and Nhlanhla (the musical director) created this work. We all started from 2017 but, as freelancers, we do other works on the side. Fortunately, our schedules just always correspond whereby we’re all available when we do Cion.

11Smangaliso Ngwenya: I am grateful that I have been part of the process of creating Cion (May 2017) up until now and to see it grow over the years. It was created in 2017 — some dancers have come in, some have left. The cast has been changing according to the dancers available as well as the company members.

12Fanny Robles: You were saying that there is a sort of turn-over in the cast (people leaving, people joining): how much improvisation is allowed? How much does each dancer or each musician bring into Cion that makes it evolve? Or is it something that the director controls from end to end?

13Sbusiso Shozi: This show is a very sensitive one. There are specific songs in which there’s no room for improvisation. It had to be kept the same, the movement needs to be on exact point with the music, so with that we cannot compromise. But in other parts yes, there were some changes here and there, but not much. In terms of improvisation I’ll speak for singers: it’s a very tricky kind of piece because it’s only four of us: a beat boxer, a baritone, and just two voices (high voices), so if we improvise too much we’re making our chord width very thin, so we just need to keep that thing always going and just go a little bit and come back. Basically, I wouldn’t say there isn’t any room, but it is very limited.

14Smangaliso Ngwenya: In terms of the creation process, what Gregory Maqoma always does is that he puts his dancers in a space and allows them to move, for as long as he thinks they need to move. You lose yourself in the improvisation, you dance, you find different nuances in your body, you move in different ways that you haven’t moved before, while he observes. From that and through that, he’ll source multiple aspects of the work, like the choreography of the piece. And before the improvisation starts, he’ll tell you: “This is the theme of the piece, this is the concept we’re tackling … we’re tackling death, this is why we’re tackling death, this is how we are going to tackle death, but for now let’s just improvise.” We improvise fully, and from that he’ll source his choreography: from the unique bodies that he sees movement in, and from the unique bodies that he sees expressing themselves. From this experience he begins placing the cast and the characters in the work –“this person can be this character, that person can be that character”, but as soon as the choreography has been formed and created, it’s set with flexibility for improvement and growth – art is forever evolving. There are certain moments in the piece when we are allowed to improvise, but your responsibility as a dancer is to find yourself within the movement and within the choreography. So your improvisation is in you finding yourself within the choreography that you’ve been given to do, so, yes there’s improvisation, but there is a set structure under which the improvisation can be embodied.

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre

© John Hogg

15Sarah Andrieu: In my experience as a dance anthropologist in Burkina Faso, it is very difficult for the dancers I have been working with to make a living as dancers if they stay in Burkina. Can you make a living as a musician or a dancer if you stay in South Africa, or is it very difficult?

16Sbusiso Shozi: It works in two different ways. When you’re still new in the industry, I must say it becomes very difficult. You do earn a living, but not that much. Then when you are well-known and developed as an artist, yes you do make a living out of art in South Africa. I think art in South Africa is slowly and surely developing towards something better. Unlike previously, but now it’s starting to pick up. But obviously if you’re just starting it is more difficult, you need to establish yourself, you need to be known. So yes, it is hard, but sometimes it is doable. [The pandemic has caused a major setback in the entire art fraternity and many artists are financially struggling].

17Smangaliso Ngwenya: It’s exactly what he said but we, as the dancers of Vuyani Dance Theatre, are grateful to have a company to work under, so that way we get a constant salary every month [even during the pandemic, I had already left the company then]. There’s no “when am I going to get my next pay check from?”, “where am I going to get this and that from?” It’s great, it’s consistent, it helps you … and one thing I like about being at Vuyani is that it’s a great place to discover yourself as an artist, creative, dancer. In that space you discover your good qualities and your bad qualities. It is a place to discover yourself as a human being. And, in so doing, once you’ve left Vuyani, or once you decide to leave Vuyani, you know exactly what works for you and what doesn’t. You know that you’ve toured Marseille, Romania, Russia — these places, the people and experiences are not foreign to you — so in that way it’s a great springboard for you to become a successful dancer, even if you’ve left the company.

18And it’s a great springboard for you to also become a choreographer — it provides you with a space to choreograph. If it’s not your own solo, you choreograph on different minds and bodies, and it provides you with an opportunity to interact with Gregory Maqoma, and ask: “How do you do this? How do you do that? Where does this come from? Where does that go?” It also provides you with a learning platform where you get to learn everything that you would like to know about the art form, process and embodiment of choreography and dance. So Vuyani Dance Theatre is a great opportunity. The same thing applies outside: the longer you’ve been in the industry, the better it is for you, but there are likely artists who…

19Sbusiso Shozi: Who just start!

20Smangaliso Ngwenya: Yes, they just start and they boom. The same way that there are artists who take 10 years before they boom, it’s very unpredictable.

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre

© John Hogg

21Sarah Andrieu: I have a question regarding the audience. You had a standing ovation today and I have been told that you had one yesterday as well: have you performed elsewhere outside South Africa and, if so, how has the reception been so far?

22Smangaliso Ngwenya: Yes, ever since we started with this production we have been grateful to be receiving standing ovations on every performance in each and every country: Romania, Czech Republic and more. We hope for it to be the case in the future as well! We are really grateful!

23Fanny Robles: So you’re superstars now! [Laughter]

24Smangaliso Ngwenya: Yes! [Laughter]

25Sarah Andrieu: I’m assuming the South African audience has a better understanding of the story and languages (not all songs are translated in the leaflets the spectators are given here in Marseille)…

26Fanny Robles: Cion deals with death, which is a universal theme, but the lack of understanding of the words might take away the possibility of sharing the story on a universal level, losing the connectedness between the performance and the story, and thus running the risk of being “exoticized”, especially in a country like France…

27Smangaliso Ngwenya: We do understand the frustration that you have with not understanding the languages, but I think the piece also wants our audiences outside South Africa to delve deeper into what our languages are, what our languages mean, to have more of an interest in the depth of our cultures. That’s why we also made sure that we used our languages. So that we’re grateful to have you asking: “So, what is this? What is that and what does it mean?”

28Sbusiso Shozi: Yes, yes!

29Smangaliso Ngwenya: This is what we wanted to probe out of an audience member. We want an audience member to be like, “That song here, that song there, that song there: I did not understand it, but please can you explain it to me? What does it mean? Yes, it’s talking about death, but specifically why this movement? Why that song? Why this word?” So to have people like you is what we are pushing towards, to avoid the labels such as “exotic” and “other” descriptions, so people open their eyes to the depth of different cultures, the depth of different languages, the depth of words, as you, especially, might know, as an English teacher!

30Sbusiso Shozi: Just to add on to that, about using our language. You know Ravel’s Bolero: it’s very interesting when you hear something that you’re used to hearing being sung in a language that you don’t understand. Something clicks in your mind: “Wait a minute, isn’t that song familiar? isn’t that piece Ravel’s Bolero?”. It creates that interest as well. Because we’re just using our language and creating a sound, deconstructing it but keeping the original melody. It creates a curiosity if we are using our own language. You become curious.

31Smangaliso Ngwenya: And one thing that Gregory Maqoma did that was intelligent is that he used a South African-born author, Zakes Mda, who writes in English. So if someone from the audience is still wondering what is happening, the main character of the piece is based on Zakes Mda’s character in Cion and Ways of Dying: so if you want to get a full grasp of the piece, reading the novel would open up so many portals of understanding as well. Therefore, as much as he used our languages, he also allowed and accommodated other people of other languages and different cultures. Thus, even if you have your own questions or you’d like to understand certain things better, there’s also literature on which it’s based.

32In addition, when we started creating Cion Gregory Maqoma had a frustration with the media and journalistic depictions of the black body, and how the significance of the dead black body has not been recognized. For him the problem is that if, for instance, a prolific European figure were to pass away, there would be numerous articles everywhere. On the contrary, for example, if there were war or something in Africa, it would just be a “massacre”, or “12 000 people”, or “8000 people” – we would just be listed as a detached unnoticed statistic. For him that media representation of death, and mostly of the black body, was frustrating. So, through the piece, he wanted to bring to any person who sees it that death of a body, not even just the black body, the body is critical. This is built up by the ensuring the audience develops a relationship with the cast the entire piece only to witness the death of some. For example, I get killed at the end: you see me the entire piece, you get to connect with me, and then, at the end, I die. Hence, it’s also to bring to the audience’s mind the depth of death and what it really means. The main character is based on Zakes Mda’s book, he’s a professional mourner, that alone is a problem: to go to a funeral and just cry because you’re going to get paid. He based the production on that character, but it’s also to conscientize and humanize the depth of death to the audience.

33Sbusiso Shozi: Death is death. No matter the color of the skin, when somebody’s dead, the pain of each and every community will fill us in vain. No matter what color, the pain of death in a family or in a community is the same pain.

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre

© John Hogg

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre

Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre

© John Hogg

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Table des illustrations

Titre Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre, Smangaliso
Légende Ngwenya is seen kneeling on the left
Crédits © John Hogg
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/12820/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 296k
Titre Sbusiso Shozi in Joel Zuma’s Music in the Air
Crédits © Vaal Adamson
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/12820/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
Titre Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre
Crédits © John Hogg
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/12820/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 344k
Titre Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre
Crédits © John Hogg
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/12820/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 380k
Titre Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre
Crédits © John Hogg
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/12820/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 304k
Titre Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre
Crédits © John Hogg
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/12820/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,1M
Titre Cion, Vuyani Dance Theatre
Crédits © John Hogg
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/12820/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 752k
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« Smangaliso Ngwenya and Sbusiso Shozi:
Working with Gregory Maqoma and creation as cultural cocktail »
E-rea [En ligne], 19.1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/12820 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.12820

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