Interview with the South African Performer Sello Pesa in Berlin

What was the impulse for you to create the solo “After Tears“?

I got the idea because several people were dying. It becomes a normal thing. For me personally something changed. You know my cousin died. At that funeral his murderer came; he had to hold a speech. For one of my friends it happened that his sister died then his mother and afterwards his brother as well. After death it is necessary to practice the mourning. During such a funeral we are wrapped in traditional blankets. The carpet I used in that performance was replacing such a blanket that we normally use. The flowers are a symbol for life and beauty, and I destroy them to remind the recipients how fast a life can be destroyed. And it changes everything. The beer scene was inspired by the general celebrations after a funeral, where people gather and drink excessively to relieve their hurt after such a loss of a beloved one.

Photography by Val Adamson

Do you present on stage an improvisation around a topic with a specific structure or a detailed rehearsed dance piece?

It is well rehearsed before, but not in a way of rehearsing steps and dance combinations. Yes, it is in fact a structured improvisation on stage in so far that I know I will work with those objects.

How was the reaction of the South African audience to this kind of dance piece?

I never performed it in South Africa. I have just performed it outside of the country. Up to now it has been staged in Berlin, Amsterdam and Bangalore - India.

Could you tell me something about your performance “Time of Small Berries” in terms of the dramaturgy, the choreography, the concept and the collaboration with the controversial performing artist Peter van Heerden?

The piece “Time of Small Berries” deals with another ritual. In fact we do such transformative rituals every ten years to let the past go and to embrace a change in our lives. In that piece we are dealing with that kind of transformative power, but we put it into a wider context, mainly the context of the Apartheid system. My colleague, the performance artist Peter van Heerden, was specifically concerned about the new role conception as a white male South African. But my personal interest in it was straight; enforced through news shaking some of us in South Africa.

What were they about?

It happened in a university in Bloemfontein. It was a famous university preserved for whites only, like all higher education institutions during apartheid. They got used to see black people as their servants, cleaners or guards. In these rainbow times the number of black students increased. 2009 the following happened: white students forced a group of black workers to run, to creep, to eat wasted food. The Afrikaaner students took meat and peed on it; then they ordered the black workers to eat it. It was shocking for me when I was reading that in a newspaper, really. So I decided to work on this specific incident. In our performance “Time of Small Berries” we roasted meat. I personally peed on it and ate it afterwards. For me it was already quite tough, because I am a vegetarian, but my experience during that performance was just inconsiderable compared to what the workers experienced. They had to go through such abasement. So we wanted to apply the idea of a transformative ritual to those contexts, because things have to be changed.

(You find a detailed report about this racism scandal on:

I got the impression, that the idea of ritual is very central for your artistic work. The theorist Homi K. Bhabha was once criticizing on international relations that Europe is still functioning as the main central art forum. Do you see a danger in representing ritual elements on stage in front of a European audience?

I guess he is right. But for me those rituals are still central, because they are part of our daily experience. Additionally I find material in it, which appears quite contemporary to me. I do not want to perform such ritual elements with traditional costumes, masks, body paintings. In that case it could be easily limited as a kind of “traditional African art”. And what is known about that? I think there are so many misconceptions about African cultures. Besides, I use the ideas of used objects for rituals, but the material is different. Sometimes I abstract additionally the movements of such rituals. Anyway, I feel the need to alienate ritual elements; they mainly serve as an inspiration for me.

And, on the other side, what is the use of working only with western contemporary styles, techniques and concepts. I was trained in Leeds, but I do not want to apply such techniques like Ballet, Cunningham, Graham techniques to my dance pieces any longer. I want to choose my own artistic language. Therefore I use daily movements like in my piece “Same but Different”. It was dealing with day-to-day routines. In my piece “Totems” I used a completely other body language that was inspired by the historical strike and protest movements of South Africa. In such gatherings we used to dance like this (Sello Pesa demonstrates the dance style). I transfer such movement styles into another context. It is not any longer visible, where the material comes from. It gets its own aesthetic.

In 2006 you founded the Ntsoana Dance Company in Johannesburg. Which physical techniques do you train with your company members?

We are searching for natural and organic movement qualities. So we do such body work like you have done this morning in the professional dancer´s class with us. And I am mainly working with objects. So I try to search for movements stimulated by the use of different objects.

And where do you train or rehearse with your company?

Normally we train in my own studio. My wife and I have a small house and a cottage. We established our own studio there. In the morning time I am rehearsing in that studio. In the afternoon she gives dance classes for Ballet and Flamenco. Sometimes other dancers ask me if they can use that space, then I agree and they can also rehearse there.

Is it a kind of informal agreement or do you also rent rehearsal rooms to other performing artists?

No, we don´t have that capacity. But there is a lack of rehearsing space in Johannesburg, and if a friend or a colleague asks me for a favor, sure, I offer him that studio.

In which institutions of Johannesburg do performing artists find other workspace-options?

There are some, but the most of them are quite expensive. Therefore a lot of young dancers can´t afford to rent a studio in Johannesburg. For example there are the Moving into Dance, Vuyani Dance Theatre Studio (from Gregory Maqoma), Dance Factory, Civic Theatre, and the Dance Forums’s Dance Space. In the studio GoetheOnMain the conditions are different. There you get the chance of an artist-in-residence-program. So you can apply with a piece concept, then you might get financial and technical support as well as the workspace for some weeks. Therefore you have to prepare a public performance in the GoetheOnMain studio.

In fact we do need our own places to produce art. And there is a limitation of studios in Johannesburg. If we have to pay expensive renting costs, do not get a proper funding and have only limited options to perform, how can we live as artists? Part of the reason that I perform site specific works is due to the limitation of space. The theatre halls have to be rented. Who is able to pay that?

For which institutions do you apply then? Which organizations are funding productions of performing artists in South Africa?

There are some. I am not sure, whether I remember all of them right now. But the point is that you have to have advanced management skills, to write proper (proposals and reports), to know the exact application deadlines, to observe the whole process, standards and principles. Even for that work alone you would need a manager in your dance company. So there is the National Arts Council, which finances individual artists and small companies. That is really good. It was founded after the Apartheid. Besides, there are the National Lottery and the ACT (Art and Culture Trust), which also funds performing artists.

A fundamental problem is that they mostly just facilitate singular projects. They do not assist the establishment of new structures or provide the national theatre and dance scene with sustainable formations. You should keep in mind that the field of dance and performance was historically reserved for white citizens in South Africa. So there is still a continuity to observe in terms of certain positions, decision making persons, networks etc. In my own opinion performing artists in South Africa need much more dance venues and we need alternative structures.Photography by Val AdamsonPhotography by Val Adamson

And where do you find platforms to stage your productions?

All dancers perform mainly in festivals. The theatre halls are not interesting for them, because the stage rents are unaffordable. If the organizers from these few dance festivals commission your production, you can perform there. The most important once are the Dance Umbrella Festival, the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, the Arts Alive Festival and the New Dance Festival. In fact there is a tendency to appreciate guest plays. Additionally those organizers prefer more entertainment works instead of serious art productions. Another point is that in each jury only few black people are participating. So if you see just one black person in each jury you start to ask yourself whether this is meant just a sign of the equality policy. Those ones remain with no voice. Therefore they can´t influence the decision process. If someone suggests promoting productions of black artists the typical argument of the audience respond will be used, because quite often organizers still think, that black artists would gain less attention. In that way the pressure to fulfill all seats with recipients grows.

Often people from the upper class build an audience for dance productions in South Africa. Nowadays there is a slight shift. More artists from other sections and working fields get increasingly interested in the stage productions of movement, dance, body work, performance and physical theatre. There are also some other options to perform in and to collaborate artistically for example with foreign cultural institutions, mainly the Goethe-Institut, the Alliance Française, the British Council and Pro Helvetia.

You collaborated quite often with the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg. Among those projects was a site specific performance you realized with the conceptual artist Vaughn Sadie.

Yeah, that work was commissioned by GoetheOnMain. Ordinary people who live in that area do not feel comfortable to enter into a gallery or a performing space. They don´t feel free to watch such an art event. That was the reason why I decided to perform on the street, so that they don´t feel any barriers to participate or observe such performance.

That is interesting, because the Goethe-Institut established a new venue in that area to reach wider social groups, so far I know. For me it is not easy to understand why people feel such barriers to participate in an art event. Is it, because the art does not deal with their own realities or…

No. These are the actual consequences of such a history like we had in South Africa. People do not consider themselves as legal participants. If it comes to the field of art in established venues they often have a feeling of not belonging there, because it was conceptualized as a sphere of intellectuals, wealthy citizens and mainly white people for a very long time. I am not even sure, whether my own family would have entered a gallery once, if I did not became an artist.

Are some artists also working in the field of cultural or artistic education?

Yes. I myself did teach younger people for four or five years. You know, after completing their classes in school they often do not enter another educational institution. Many are jobless without a seriously challenging or satisfying task, even though all of us are hustling for daily life needs. I decided to give those youngsters physical training. Suddenly I stopped it. This time I am rethinking my program and ask myself what they really need to learn.

Normally I do such a work in collaboration with those few NGOs, which support artistic education programs. That is a kind of responsibility. But to be honest, it is also another kind of income. And that is not only for me. I do pay the dancers in my company. It is not a lot, but at least something. I mean, they can´t work unpaid, right. And I have to bring my children to school, to support my family financially. I also have to pay someone to record my performances etc.

Sello, it often seems that the dance and theatre scene in South Africa is extremely vital. I mean, among others Boyzie Cekwana, Robyn Orlin, Gregory Maqoma, Paul Grootboom, William Kentridge and Neliswe Xaba receive international recognition, fame and success. Who are the most interesting performing artists nowadays in South Africa for you?

That is difficult. Many left the country. They went abroad already. So they are not working any longer in South Africa. And I can only speak about the dance scene. For me personally Moeketsi Koene, Neliswe Xaba, Jay Pather and Mamela Nyamza are exciting and interesting artists. But all of us are working internationally. Therefore it happens that I meet Gregory (Maqoma) only three times a year.

Which wish do you have to improve the conditions of producing dance and theatre? And precisely what kind of endorsement do you demand from the foreign cultural institutions?

I think the art should be supported in a national way. It is necessary for all artists to get access to open announcements and application processes. For choreographers there is also a need of working continuously with professional light and sound technicians. The active promotion of foreign cultural institutions could be done in form of financial support, equipment, skills improving workshops, technicians, art studies support but also with sustainable collaborations and coproduction formats.

But it should be possible for African artists to choose their own issues and aesthetics, also if they get funds from European institutions. Therefore I appreciate the concept of the program “Art meets Africa”. It was established by the Goethe-Institut and enables African artists to create an inner-African network, to keep new debates and to focus on our own artistic issues. That is important.

Last but not least: what will be your next art project?

After Paul Grootboom saw a performance of ours earlier this year we were invited to perform at the Mzanzi Fela Festival. The performance will be in December 2011 in Pretoria.

That time I will be in Johannesburg. So we might meet there and I feel grateful to watch the result of your collaboration with Grootboom. Thank you for this detailed and intense conversation.

Thank you. And see you in Johannesburg next time.

by Grit Köppen
Palcos | 11 October 2011 | art, artists, cultural, dance, performance, preforming artists, sello pesa, south african, stage