The Queen of Choreography: Neliswe Xaba

South Africa became famous for its varied theatre, dance and performance art history with the likes of John Kani, Winston Ntsona, Zakes Mda, Athol Fugard, Maishe Maponya, Matsemela Manaka, Bloke Modisane, Gibson Kente, Workshop 71, Mannie Manom, Simon Barney, Brett Bailey, Robyn Orlin, Aubrey Sekhaby, Fatima Dike, William Kentridge, Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom etc. There is a very large decentralized theater infrastructure, which is visible in different spots and different sized theater halls especially in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria. Intensive experiments have been done with different genres such as minimalist theater, absurd theatre, physical theater, dance theatre, pantomime, musical, melodrama, tragedy, comedy, ballet narrative dance, contemporary dance etc.

South Africa´s theatre gains international recognition for its performance arts productions due to applying diverse aesthetics and the search of new stage approaches by many different artists. In addition, regularly scheduled national and international dance, performance art and theater festivals are organized like Invecting the City in Cape Town, Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg, and National Arts Festival in Grahams Town etc. 

When I came to Johannesburg I immediately remembered the outstanding dancer and the queen of choreography, Neliswe Xaba, whose works left a deep impression in my heart and spirit. Under bizarre circumstances we met each other accidently and completely unforeseeable in a coffee house on a late afternoon. Here are some excerpts of the later conversation between Neliswe Xaba and me during the running rehearsals for “Uncles and Angels” in Johannesburg:

Could you please describe your artistic career in terms of training and performing?

I think I started when I was about 17 years old. I auditioned for Inspect Dance Foundation. It was a school that was opened here in the late 1980s. We were almost the first students in that school. It was a school in Johannesburg to teach mainly young Black people dancing. That was where I went for four years. The training was a typical dance school program – Ballet, Graham Technique, Horton Technique, Jazz, Gymnastic and whatever. You know these were probably the most famous techniques at that time. Then I went to America for two years. When I came back to South Africa I auditioned for Ballet Rambert – a dance school in England. And then I got in. In 1996 I was in London and studied dance there. Before that I was doing what every teenager does. Additionally I was with a couple of friends together here in Johannesburg Soweto and at some point we were practicing yoga for quite a while actually. And we did Aerobics. Much earlier I practiced Karate. I guess based on that histredge (historical heritage, writers note) I always liked to do something with my body. I always liked to practice physically. That was how it started.

In which dance technique did you specify in London?

It was quite the same except Jazz. There I studied a couple of Ballet Techniques, at least four or five, I can´t remember exactly. It was not favorable for me, because when I went to London I was a majored student. Even if I wanted to, there was no way for me to be accepted in a ballet compagnie. So to have a variety of ballet classes seemed as a waste of time under these circumstances. I preferred to have other dance techniques. Graham was important for me. They had really limited classes for Contemporary Dance. It sounds negative - especially if someone paid for your grant to be there, you are supposed to appreciate and so on, ya….. For me the school was almost the same school that I was in before here in Johannesburg. In London I really didn´t learn anything I needed to learn, you know. 

And when did you start to perform?

Actually when I went to London I have been performed already. I went to America with that other group, but it didn´t work out. So I was in America for two years doing this and that. This is why I said, when I went to London I was already a majored student, because I had toured. I had been to a dance school and actually to that time point I was ready to go to a professional dance compagnie. But at that time there was a limited access to professional companies in this country. There were probably one or two professional contemporary dance companies. There was another one only working on commercial basis. We worked mainly on project base, whether it was commercial or not. In Johannesburg there were only two dance companies, there was probably one in Durban as well, but in Cape Town there was no contemporary dance compagnie.

But probably going to London was my way coming back into dance, because when I was in America I thought: `Do I really need to dance? What does it mean for me? Can I really go anywhere with it?´ I spent a whole year here at home questioning myself. You know, I was in a process of asking myself `should I or shouldn´t I´. Going to London was - in a positive way - getting back to dance for me. Honestly I didn´t like to run around for work, to audition endlessly, to run for some video productions and other commercial jobs and all that. To find work as a dancer was like that in this country during that time. To work in a theatre and to be independent was very very difficult. Or it did not even exist. People who were doing that were probably Robyn Orlin or …… I don´t know.

When did you decided to create solo performances?

Probably ten years ago. It started slowly. Everything was gradual. I never said to myself `ok, it is time to work solo now´. All these decisions were always based on circumstances. I decided not to work commercially and there was no compagnie I could join for enough reasons – either I was too tall or too small, had too much or too less technique, or whatever….. For me to continue to be in this performing arts industry I had to find ways of doing what I actually wanted to do. The first time I created my solo it was a five minute piece for the Dance Umbrella Festival. The next one was around fifteen minutes. So it was a gradual process. 

I remember 2008 I saw the choreography “Correspondences” created by you and Kettly Noël. Did you cooperate with other choreographers or dancers as well?

In fact, I do collaborate. The most of my works are collaborative ones. I have to say that production with Kettly was hell for both of us. I mean, we grew a lot inside that performance. We felt much confident. It is an old piece. Probably at that time we came to Berlin for performing it was a rich piece already. But to create that piece was really hard. That piece was a French production. They offered us a space in Aix-en-Provence in Pavilion Noire. They gave us an artist-in-residency. They launched us to be there and probably the paid us a per diem. I can´t remember. Then we went somewhere to the north of France. That was a co-production. We had there a residency again and continued to create that piece. Then we went to Paris to an International Choreography Festival. So it was mainly French money in a sense, but the creation was done by me and Kettly mainly. It was not easy, because there was no exterior person. I mean we had two friends who maybe came for once a week for two hours for having a look onto it. If I start to make concrete choreography I need someone for looking at it and for knowing how it works. 

How do you start a choreographic process normally?

Maybe I speak about the process of the current piece, which is called “Uncles and Angels”. It is very video-interactive. I mean, the performance space is probably about a meter and a half before the screen. So this is all the space that I will use. There is only one video artist, Mocke J (van Veuren, writers note), who you met already. The first idea I had was to work with video and with multiplication of my body. That was the point from where the main idea for this piece came. There is still the question, how I gonna link it to dance: there is a traditional dance in the north of South Africa. It is performed in Limpopo, or, no, I think it is in Wenda. That one is called Domba Dance, it is like a snake dance, where girls are standing behind each other and holding and just moving their arms. Basically their hands are just going like this. It looks like a snake, if all of them are dancing it together. So I wanted to create it alone and with technology, cause these days I have to think about finances. I mean, I also do solo work, because it´s cheaper and less trouble. That kind of work is affordable. I don´t have a co-production in my back right now. So if I would have three more dancers on stage, I can´t afford to pay them. But the basic idea for that dance piece was multiplication. 

What was your basic idea for the creation of the dance piece “They look at me and that is all they think”?

The idea was …. I guess I was inspired by the story of Sarah Baatman. It is also about my journey coming from America travelling and performing in Europe etc. It came from there. I knew that it gonna be a solo. I think I wanted to produce a video of me going to the hair salon. I wanted to work around the hair topic. At the end I didn´t do a video. But there was a guy, Lukasz Pater, he made an animation based on what I wanted to express around the hair topic. He made the animation. But besides all of that the costume is the main point in this piece. I approached a fashion designer, Carlo Gibson, whom I work with quite a lot for my costumes including “Black!Whites?”, which you saw at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. He produced a skirt that at some point in the piece …. I didn´t know, the piece was not even done completely before the skirt came …. So I wanted a skirt which I can open so that it becomes a screen. He made that costume. When the skirt was made, we started to set up the piece. For me this piece is mostly about being an immigrant. You know, you arrive somewhere, you promised the world and when you arrive you realize all those promises were actually false promises. This is not a typical African story, this happens with East European girls today, who are still coming to Western Europe, taking silly jobs, become probably prostitutes or domestic workers. For me it´s more on that line rather than saying `all Black people are suffering´. It was definitely more on a feministic approach than on a racial approach. But for me, the struggle is the same.

How would you describe or specify your piece productions in terms of applied aesthetics?

I don´t know. I don´t know, because I love to imagine that I work minimalistic with what I deal with. I really use things on stage because I need them, not for decoration. My ideas are never linked to deco, even though in the end decoration becomes really evident. But it´s never the first point. Let´s take for instance “They look at me”: I knew that I needed the skirt, but I didn´t know at that time point, what the skirt is used for, how it would help me, even how I gonna use it on stage. And maybe I gonna used it just as a skirt which I can open. But when Carlo arrived with that skirt, it was amazing, because the skirt had so much possibilities and it is such a fantastic prop to play with, so I couldn´t stop to work with it.

Which stage elements do you prefer to focus on? 

I love music. So sound is important in my pieces, but it is not my starting point. Yeah, sound is usually not my starting point. In my pieces, which I did after “They look at me”, in some of them costume was not the main focus. Even though costume can be elaborate, it didn´t become a partner in the piece. You know, in “They look at me” definitely the dress is my partner on stage. I had to communicate with it in some ways. In my new piece “Uncles and Angels” the projections are relevant. I can show you some bites. But right now it´s just a screen. 

How long do you rehearse a new piece normally?

The rehearsals for this one started last month in December 2011. We are working full days. But sometimes you can get as much in a half day then in a full day. At the beginning we really tried to get material. So we were playing around, finding ideas and testing them to see whether it works or not. We reflect on it how we use the idea in the piece. So now we have to make that piece. We almost put the puzzle together. Rehearsal times differ. Sometimes I have just two weeks. Sometimes I have six weeks. It depends. 

And usually money dictates. If the Wits School of the Arts wouldn´t have donated this space to us we would have been doomed. You know, it´s always the question, where are we going to work. It´s difficult to find a place for working in Johannesburg, which is affordable and available for people like me to experiment. Even though there are enough spaces, people who are running the venues prefer to close them instead of opening them for the artists. Thanks God, in this case, we have space. 

How do you finance your stage productions?

For the piece entitled as “Black! White?” it was mostly French money again. But it traumatized me. (Laughing) You know, afterwards it becomes business …. what is probably important. If it becomes business, the producers wait for you to produce something and it must be something what will please them. I was traumatized with that. So I didn´t raise money, because I can´t do it. And arrogantly I thought I could afford it, but actually it´s very expensive to produce a stage work. One cannot afford to produce oneself, unless you are William Kentridge. He is selling art works for hundred thousand. I mean, then you can afford to produce yourself. But I cannot. My arrogance went too far. But at the same time I needed to do this piece.

Do you and other performing artists apply for the National Arts Council?

Ach, that is too bureaucratic. It has too much administration. And you have to introduce yourself as if you would be sixteen years old. Those people are really not interested in culture; they are just running an institution. It is the same for the theatres in this country. They act supposedly as cultural institutions, but they are just full of administrators. You wonder what they are administrating. I mean, there are more administrators then artists in theatres here. 

Nelly, if you perform here in Johannesburg in which theatres or dance spaces do you stage your works?

Yeah, for the past I have used three times the Market Theatre. The first time, I just approached them and said naively again: `I have two solos, they are ready. I don´t need to remake them. There are already stage products readymade´. And I just thought I can rent the theatre for about 2000 Rand or whatever and probably do some publicity. But you know I lost money with that. So …….

You have to rent the theatre houses for staging?

Yes, even though at the end they gave me the space for free or for half price …. I can´t remember the specific deal exactly. Maybe I didn´t pay the full amount or didn´t pay the venue, but we were sharing the door. They did some publicity of sort. But they didn´t produce posters or flyers; they are very expensive. Such posters are important for advertising your show. They did probably electronic announcements and some interviews here and there. That is their standard. Sometimes that is not enough. There are people who do not listen to radio or watch TV, so you have to reach them physically. The theatre didn´t pay for that, so I had to pay for it. In the end I lost money. When I lost money, I was thinking: `Why? What for? Why do I do this?´. You know, but then I performed again at the Market Theatre my piece “Black! White?”. That time it was for the Dance Umbrella Festival. But you know, even then money was a problem. Money is always a problem - negotiating and so on. That piece was a trio. Besides me there are at least three or four artists who have to be paid. Imagine, even though the piece is ready, there is still money to be paid for performing artists on stage and others. Probably the Market Theatre is a bid friendly with me. But still friendliness doesn´t pay my bills. (Laughing) They are kind, but …… huuuuuh.

You mentioned the challenges of venue access and finances already. What are other challenges for performing artists in South Africa?

Imagine how it is for young artists, when they start it. Where do they go? I don´t know. Let´s say for someone who is coming out of college, let´s say being around 23 or 24 years old. They start to work. Obviously you have to be super lucky to be able to ask for funding and getting it. They will ask straight: `Who are you?´. For enough reasons, for worse or better reasons, they will ask. I think the most people start teaching. And I mean, I am always questioning that teaching. Teaching whom? Teaching what for? What can the students do with it later? Where to go with such skills? Even the Wits University has a big school. But I don´t know whom they are teaching, to go where, when, how.

Do you collaborate sometimes for your stage productions with foreign cultural institutions?

In the past the French Institute has given me support in terms of money. They were part of the co-production of “Black! White?”. But this time I didn´t ask anyone. And I am sure, if I would have asked them they would have given me at least 2000 Euro or whatever. At least then I could have bought this screen or a new laptop. My piece “Black! White?” was mostly performed in France and other European places. They were not involved in bringing the piece to Johannesburg and to make sure, that it is performed here as well. Initially to produce the piece they were involved. 

Do you prefer to stage in South Africa or in Europe?

In terms of business, it is better to perform in Europe. But what I am talking about on stage is so relevant or at least it’s a current topic here at home, so it is really a shame if I would never perform here at home. At the same time, I can´t pay it here. If you produce your own work, you almost pay people to come to the theatre watching your piece. It´s almost like that. I am going to produce a piece and then guys have to come to watch it for free. Basically I am paying them for coming to see it. For other performing artists there are worst situations. There are people who have to produce four pieces a year. In a positive way, it means then they can afford to do that. But it also means, that the productions don´t have life, you know. It means, you are just producing, producing, producing. You become a kind of China, you know. And for whose consumption is it? Maybe you perform for Dance Umbrella or for Wits University here, whatever, and then you go back to the studio to create the next piece. Anyway, I am very fortunate, not to rely too much on the economy here at home. 

Which artists have been influential for your artistic work?

Mmmh. Nobody actually. I don´t think that there is one person, who covers all aspects, so that I say: `wow, that´s it´. I had not many role models, because there were no dance festivals in …. I don´t want to say Black culture …..  mmmh. I mean, there are some people who would kill me if I say this, because, you know the stereotypes, `ah, Africa had always its culture´. But in fact there is no culture of paying for culture. So when you are an artist, you are a mad guy or mad women somewhere at the corner. So there is no value for art or for dance in particular. 

Probably in my generation we started to set a career out of Contemporary Dance. So I can easily say we had no role models. Probably our role models were in America like Alvin Ailey. And probably what inspired us a lot – I say us, because there was a group of us including Boyze Cekwana, who was my neighbor, we grew up together, our dancing pasts are almost the same, we started together. And it was the time of “Fame”. I don´t know, whether you remember that series. Our role models were far, they were not here. You know if your role model is far, somehow you can easily think, `I will never achieve that´, because you have no concept of their daily life and so on. They are always at the screen but they are not sharing your reality. They become far. But in “Fame” were many Black people participating. In silly ways, we thought `wow, if Black people somewhere else can do that, we can try to do it.´ But of course, the circumstances were very very different. So there were enough of us, who started and stopped. Because you hear that all the time: `What are you going to do with it? There is no future´. And sadly, it would be difficult for me to convince a young person and say to him `oh, there is future in my career´. I don´t think I could open my mouth and say `go for it´, because especially for Contemporary Dance or theatre ….. it costs so much money to produce. It´s not like painting. I am not saying that it is not expensive to produce a painting, but you can paint at the wall, you can take any paper and draw. And then after a while, that style gets sophisticated. Someone can say `you could dance on the streets´, but I cannot earn money dancing on the streets. 

Yeah, I think another point is that some artists are producing material art works, but the performing artists produce something in time and space, which is immaterial. That is tricky business wise.

Yeah, so you rely on institutions or persons to give you money. And they have to provide you with money for something, they are not sure about. They don´t know beforehand what it will be. They just give you money, because they trust you …. or whatever. And there are less and less of those people giving money for the performing arts. In the end it becomes something, you really can´t do. 

Mmmh, who was influential for me? I didn´t know Pina Bausch when I started to dance. But when I started to travel abroad, I heard about her. I watched two or three of her pieces. There was a point when I was going to Europe quite a lot. Coincidently in Paris she was at the Théâtre de la Ville and I could manage to see her. At some point when I worked with Robyn Orlin, we got invited to a festival in Wuppertal. Somehow it inspired me, because it is dance and theatre, what I actually do. Movement has not to come from what we know, the body can do. I can find movements just from texts or from gestures. Yeah, I think she inspired me enough with that. (…) In South Africa, it is difficult. I mean, I collaborate a lot, but there is enough work, which doesn´t convince me. (…) 

What do you think about the dynamics of the Johannesburg dance scene?

There is no culture of watching each other´s works. The dance community doesn´t watch my work. No, they are not watching my work. I was in Cape Town, it is the same thing. I don´t say, they don´t know me, but …. It was my first time to go to Cape Town to perform my own work. The last show there was more than fifteen years ago – a collaboration with Rodney Place. He is a visual artist. We did something together but on stage I performed solo the first time. So the dance community is not supportive here. Happily my work interests enough people, students, visual artists, media people, but dancers, no. Probably young dancers are watching it as well. 

Does that mean that the dance scene and the theatre scene are quite separate arenas?

Yes. Dancers often do not watch theatre productions. And theatre goers do not know the dance productions. My work crosses genres, because there is a bit theatre in it. So it makes me lucky, because I don´t have to rely on the dance community here. The community is a tiny one. They have the need to protect in fact that what they don´t have. (Laughing) At the beginning of last year, some dance colleagues and I of the same generation tried to set up a committee and started a dialogue to discuss issues that affect all of us. But to gather people for committing to that committee was a nightmare. And it just fell apart. 

What kind of issues did you discuss there?

I think, December 2010 was a crucial time, because the Dance Umbrella had lost sponsorship. It meant, it wasn´t to happen. (…) It was highly threatened. We needed to talk about what happens, if this platform disappears. It is still an important platform. Sometimes it is not interesting, but it is important, because it is the only one here. As an artist you don´t have to pay, you can be invited and you don´t even have to rent the space. Somehow it is cheaper for the people like us instead of doing the whole production thing yourself. You know there is marketing and there are enough things that we take for granted that someone is paying in the festival. If a platform like this dies, somewhere is the end. Sadly, it is the end. So, we were concerned. And there are enough politics in it. So we were discussing that monopoly. We asked ourselves, how transparent this festival itself is. But our group fell apart. So there is no dialogue anymore. 

Are there other important festivals or performing arts platforms in South Africa?

There is one in Durban, I don´t know. I don´t know, who they are inviting. All of them are full of politics. For all of these festivals, you don´t know, how they invite whom, when, why. It´s not open. Everyone runs these festivals as they would run their own little shops in their houses. This day festivals are not intended to become global. Even inside South Africa, it´s not intended that people would discuss issues of dance, how to share resources. No, no, they are fighting with each other instead of sharing. So it is a problem for us as artists.     (….) 

What would you say changed after Apartheid in the dance scene of Johannesburg?

It has not changed. That is the problem. That is the problem especially in dance or in culture. Probably in the ANC there are enough Black people. But there are enough politics around for the decision how these Black people are chosen to take those positions. It is not the case that a position is advertised and you hear `there is a new artistic director position´ or whatever. You never hear that there is a position that needs to be filled or that anyone who thinks having qualifications for it can apply for. Some organizers in the field of dance are in their positions for too long. (…..) And it is not the case that they are growing. You know if they would grow and the performing arts industry would be so bubbling, ok. I am talking about Johannesburg. That industry is dying here. That means it needs change. For me, it doesn´t need to be about color - whether it is a Black person, who takes over or another women, or a man or a gay (…) , whatever. It needs to change, you know. That is why we vote every four years or every five years, because we can´t have someone running stuff for twenty years(…). But it is amazing, how this is happening in the culture sector. (…)

I remember when we were trying to have that collective of thoughts, it was strange, how suddenly we were split racially and who was protecting whom. (Laughing) There is no rainbow nation here, you know. People are protecting their own spheres. (….) But I would say the audience changed. In the beginning the audience was definitely white. Now there is enough Black audience. I am not sure, whether it is growing or not. I was amazed of Gregory Maqoma. I went to a show of him and I was amazed of the amount of Black people, who were probably 90 % or 95 % of his audience. In terms of audience it also depends on the performing artist. In terms of performers, there are probably more Black people on stage now, but it doesn´t mean that there are not enough white choreographers or white theatre directors around. But especially in dance there are more young Black choreographers coming up. In terms of artists and audience it changed, but in terms of organizers and structures it didn´t change a lot. (…)

by Grit Köppen
Palcos | 7 March 2012 | dance, Neliswe Xaba, performance, South Africa