Dance the Body Politic

If racial reconciliation and social justice seem impossible in South Africa, related goals such as the recuperation of multiple voices and reconstruction of history are perhaps more realizable. These are the goals which motivate much of the compelling contemporary visual and performance art produced in South Africa. During the Apartheid regime, protest against the state was an obvious and necessary preoccupation for art. In the post-Apartheid era, the challenge is to move beyond resistance. This requires confronting subjects such as the self, national identity and the multiple forms of racial and socioeconomic domination and violence. Public debate and policies about representivity inevitably pressure the mostly white and privileged artistic community to, at minimum, situate themselves and, at maximum, promote a few black artists. After the successful cultural boycotts of the 1980s by international anti-Apartheid movements, a reintegration into the global art scene promises greater recognition. But much work needs to be done at home to nurture black artists, to develop audiences for art beyond its protest function and to create a sense of a national aesthetic vocabulary. In short, it is a time of not only political but of cultural and artistic transition.

In the domain of performance, black theater and music has long thrived in urban South Africa. Genres defined and named by their township origin portrayed the flip side of Apartheid's silences about the actuality of the oppression of Africans. Notably in the visual arts, young black artists have begun to move away from this social realism. Now the challenge is to blend the continuing use of arts to document the experience of oppression with its new role in building a national imagination that places South Africa in a global context. If contemporary Western art devalues didacticism and explicit messages, black South African artists still insist that artistic innovation must not neutralize political urgencies. Therefore, it is necessary to walk the lines between documentation, protest and experimentation.

These tensions about the methods and aims of art are embedded in the enduring dialectics that have framed, and also limited, South African art and culture. They include the dialectic of freedom and repression, white capital and black labor, national identity and racial difference, "the struggle" and "the self." Although Apartheid still holds a contemporary significance, as Bheki Peterson emphasizes, art, even life, cannot be reduced to Apartheid. Addressing love, individual aspirations and even pleasure is a challenge to clear political positions, and so to art whose primary objective is political protest against clear authorities.

Art has in fact been an object of cultural policy in the post-1994 declarations and programs. The White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage and policy documents assert the importance of art to education, regeneration and peaceful coexistence. Along with language and land, cultural expression is recognized as one of the "most emotive of issues," and a basic right which had been perversely manipulated and/or repressed under Apartheid. The policy seeks to restructure state sponsored performing arts councils, which have historically favored urban, elite institutions. A National Arts Council, funded by a parliamentary grant, has been established to channel funding. In a less formalized way, the African Renaissance Project of Vice-president (now President) Thabo Mbeki has put cultural identity on the national agenda. It remains a set of vague slogans about past glories of African civilizations and the time for African re-ascendance through new democracies and regional cooperation. In practical terms, this translates into an ideology of male, bourgeois African nationalism that accompanies South African business initiatives in the rest of the continent. If the African Renaissance does not address popular demands for socioeconomic justice, it does address the enduring, vexed question of the relationship of African culture to the making of South African national identity.

The question of national identity is crucial to not only the consolidation of democratic political culture but also to the negotiation of a path between non-racialism and the reality of racial inequality and white domination. Colonial and Apartheid strategies to divide and conquer are deep rooted and complex in South Africa. The colored and Indian communities have largely supported white political and racial hierarchies. Indians, most of whom were imported as indentured labor in the 19th century, have certainly been oppressed by the white ruling class. However, they have also enjoyed tremendous economic success and relative privilege under Apartheid compared to native black populations. As elsewhere in Africa, relations between the natives and immigrants of Indian descent are often characterized by mutual resentment and distrust. In politics, the arts and other professions, some Indians have made identity a search for a question rather than a question of origins. This motivates a search for identities, both Indian and national. Durban, the coastal city that is the center of the Indian community hosts a religious, linguistic and cultural diversity, which encompasses most of the subcontinent's regions. Until the relaxation of segregationist law and policies in the 1980s, Indian theater was performed for and by Indians and drew on Indian traditions. As in other cases of preservation, this reinforced Apartheid's separatist ideologies. The vernacular theater drew on religious, epic and cinematic inspirations. In university contexts, Indians also produced Western canonical theatre.

In the 1980s, however, multiracial groups and venues that presented local plays dealing with relevant social issues emerged. These are evidence of an Indian voice committed to multiracial dialogues and cultural production (see Muthal's "A Search for a Cultural Identity" in Theatre Journal, 49.1, 1997 for a personal view). With all these issues in mind, I situate the following interview with Jayesperi Moopen as one slice of a neglected but important perspective on nation-building. She is not an explicitly political artist. She insists on the grounding of her work and company building in the pleasure of audiences and in her own search for roots and connections -- both Indian and African. Yet, her modest aspirations constitute a break with entrenched alienations among South African blacks.

I met Jayesperi Moopen in Johannesburg in June 1999. I had interviewed a scholar of South African performance and her name arose as one of the few black women choreographers. Amidst the dominance of ballet and contemporary Western dance, she was described to me as a voice for "ethnic," "indigenous" (African) dance. Furthermore, she had pioneered fusions of African and Indian forms. Her company, Tribhangi Dance Theatre had won recognition and awards for its magisterial performances of Indian classical dance and its fusions of this with African dance forms.

Hudita: What kind of Indian classical dance is this?

Jayesperi: I was fascinated with my roots. I wanted to take it and make it even more creative. This is Bharata Natyam. I studied Bharata Natyam, a South Indian classical dance tradition, at the Kalakshetra College of Fine Arts in Madras, India for five years, receiving the diploma in 1984. Then I taught in London for three years. Bharata Natyam is the most popular outside of India, it is the base from which I explore movement. It's too easy to remain within the idiom of dance so I am always looking for new movements and sources.

Hudita: What are the aims of the school and company?

Jayesperi: I started teaching because Indian dance was not well done. Traditional forms are not supported in this country. The school was founded in 1988. The company in 1989. The school keeps classical Indian dance alive. It is in Benoni (a Johannesburg neighborhood) and classes are for all ages and levels The company is a mix of two cultures. Originally, it aimed to stimulate the Indian dance sector, to give the art a public profile and to make it accessible to a wider audience. The earlier productions stylized and modernized classical dance, but still using the costumes and music.... Ours was the first group, ten years ago, to think globally. Fusion is all over the world because it's a smaller place. We are moving away from our own roots, if we have any. Some of us are trying to find them.

Hudita: Is fusion a common thing in South Africa?

Jayesperi: Synthesis is unknown in South Africa. We are not exposed to much else [besides European culture in its South African version; there was an international cultural boycott against the country during the 1980s as an anti- Apartheid strategy; and of course, few black South Africans had the resources to travel or study abroad]. The custodians of culture say that it should not be done. But we dance for audiences. If they enjoy it, we do it. African dancers love it. They come and say teach us more.

Hudita: Is Indian dance known in the dance world?

Jayesperi: In festivals, a lot of groups use Indian dance. It is versatile in a movement context. The isolation of eye, neck, hand movements. They take whatever they think or want: costumes, make-up. It is used aggressively now. They've seen classical [European ballet] dance and now are out of classical. Now, Indians want to see something different. We see Spanish fusing with African [at the National Arts Festivals]. Rhythms -- from North Africa to China -- are a common ground.

Hudita: How did you start using African forms?

Jayesperi: I danced in 1990 with a Zulu dancer. I found that it was also earthy. A Nigerian group came here, Opening to the Spirit, I found so much in common between the African and Indian spirit. The use of live music -- the creation of music with dance. The different gods. We're always looking for an African connection, a connection between the African and Indian spirit. It makes more sense to have an African element [than a European]. I try to look at similarity rather than differences with traditional African forms.

Hudita: How do you fuse cultural forms?

Jayesperi: I am in the safe mode because customs are precious. We [Africans and Indians] are similar in our relation to our ancestors and so on [We remember and revere them]. Okay we Indians eat curry. But we are all trying to identify as South African. We don't want to be seen as eating curry and rice, pap and vleis (an African staple meal of corn porridge and meat). We have to look beyond and highlight similarities. At the end of the day, if you enjoy, the message is clear, it's there.

We can do so much with a base, then it's unknown territory. From a starting point, you feel your way. Not by imposing, but going subtly into what you know, what don't know. For instance, The boys (African male dancers) use Shiva's anklets. There are not many Indian male dancers. We do Bharata Natyam to African music. Amopondo music as well.

Hudita: How did you start and now survive?

Jayesperi: It's do or die, survival. I spend most time now applying for grants. The National Arts Council. I do corporate work, my own marketing. Arts gets 1% of the national budget. Most to ballet. In South Africa the ballet has more funding. Indigenous culture is not supported. We were too ahead. Others are now doing it [fusion]. And people take note. It's sad because we're losing opportunities. But if the audience likes it it's worthwhile. Otherwise, it's not rewarding.

Hudita: What does art have to bring to the transition, to politics? Some artists have suggested to me that the important task now is to rewrite the body after the violence of Apartheid.

Jayesperi: A lot of dancers are exploring the body, non-verbally. How powerful the body can be. But in multicultural societies, each culture uses the body in different ways. Body here was always repression, oppression, negativity. Black artists are trying to deal with this...It will be another forty years to undo what was done, to redo what was never allowed. To express the self. Protest theater was one thing. (There are) some things that you can't express verbally.

The government does not realize the importance of the non-verbal; even artists. How we have a powerful tool within our beings. In the political arena, we don't know how to cope with it. We have to go back to basics. Bypass other issues (day to day, family, where we come from). For instance, male dancers come from African families. If they dance they are called sissies. With a boy last year, father refused to let them perform because it was not African to dance. With Indian girls, it was hard to find girls whose families would let them perform also.

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