- Johannesburg Dance Umbrella: Thirty Years On
Everyone at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Johannesburg Dance Umbrella knew that its theme, Thirty Years On, marked three decades of the festival’s prolific existence. However, few knew that this year would also be the festival’s last. Unthinkably, the Umbrella was closing. Georgina Thomson, tireless producer of Dance Umbrella for much of its history, announced in a dramatic pre-show speech that after thirty years on, the festival was going off.
“Dance Umbrella Sadly Unable to Keep Out the Rain,” ran the headline in the Cape Times. The underlying story was all too familiar: unreliable and dwindling funding had brought things to an unsustainable tipping point. Also unsustainable, Thomson reported somewhat bitterly, is what she sees as the atomized current climate among artists that financial scarcity has produced. Others expressed (in social media, in lobby conversations) dismay at the lack of a leadership succession plan for an organization that had become a recognized international brand and a dance-industry fulcrum. Some spoke of the festival’s history of tempestuous and aborted producing apprenticeships. Producers as well as artists may suffer from isolation, and isolation—combined with financial precarity—tends more to collapse than endurance.
Dance Umbrella first opened in circumstances far more austere than the present. Launched in 1989 during one of the apartheid government’s final states of emergency, dance journalists Adrienne Sichel and Marilyn Jenkins designed Dance Umbrella as a free and open platform welcome to all races and dance forms. The political turmoil and violence of the late 1980s made the festival unlikely. So too did limited state arts funding, which was predominantly dedicated at that time to whites-only companies producing ballet, opera, and symphonies.
Dance Umbrella defiantly erected a temporary shelter where artists of all races and backgrounds, working in all movement genres and styles, could gather, show new work, get feedback, connect to audiences, and be seen. As the Umbrella grew, so also did its reach and impact, extending from urban to rural areas and beyond South Africa as well. When the country was being welcomed back into the international community fold in the wake of the cultural boycott and with the 1994 elections, delegations of international presenters began attending the Umbrella. This in turn helped propel into international visibility South African artists such as Robyn Orlin, Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe, Steven Cohen, Boyzie Cekwana, Gregory Vuyani Maqoma, Jay Pather, Dada Masilo, Nelisiwe Xaba, Sello Pesa, and Mamela Nyamza. While these prominent names indicate the festival’s global reach, its full impact was vaster. A pamphlet published to honor the festival’s twentieth anniversary listed the names of no less than 945 choreographers, nearly all of them South African, who had presented work during Dance Umbrella’s first two decades. For the thirtieth anniversary booklet (yet to be published), hundreds of additional choreographers’ names will no doubt be added to that list.
Individual private funding from Philip Stein enabled the Umbrella’s inception. This eventually morphed into post-apartheid corporate funding, with FNB as lead sponsor and the Institute Français and Goethe Institut as loyal partners. More recently, the National Lotteries Commission has served as benefactor, although clearly not sufficiently so. “If talent were wealth,” an advertisement on the back cover of a 2007 FNB Dance Umbrella brochure said, “we would be an economic powerhouse.” No one doubts the fecundity of the South African arts scene; however, the formula for leveraging wealth from its abundant talent has eluded the dance world, it seems.
While not a retrospective, the 2018 Dance Umbrella program presented works that reached back [End Page 539] in time, such as a revival of the now-classic work Stone Cast Ritual, created by Sylvia Glasser (the “Mother of Afrofusion”) and her Moving into Dance Mophatong (MIDM). This legendary piece that first premiered in 1994 still resonates powerfully today, with its hypnotic accretion of patterns and hand-held stones tapped at points of contact between dancers in close, synchronized coordination. Through MIDM, one can trace genealogical lines to...