Thirteen Days in Durban

*Note: This piece appears in the JOMBA! Khuluma Digital, a magazine summarizing the 20th annual JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience. Five students at the University of Kwazulu-Natal participated in a Dance Writing Residency, engaging with dance writing and criticism in conjunction with the festival. Re-published with permission.

DURBAN, KZN, SOUTH AFRICA — …and so begins my journey home.

It’s hard to articulate what it’s meant to me to come and participate in the 2018 JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience. I will forever feel gratitude for the generosity of Durban’s wonderful dance community, and particularity that of Lliane Loots, Wesley Maherry and Clare Craighead, who’s been my excellent collaborative partner in facilitating the JOMBA! writing residency these past two weeks.

There were big shoes to fill. The valuable work Adrienne Sichel has done in creating and managing this residency for the past seven years has put into motion a vibrant network of dance writers from all over South Africa, who engage in criticism not out of any obligation, but through a sense of urgency toward documenting what goes on here at JOMBA!, and more broadly, South African dance. Adrienne has committed her life and career to this work, blazing a trail for contemporary dance criticism in a way that is thoughtful and attentive toward journalistic ethics and integrity. Yet, she refused be beholden to antiquated and potentially destructive view of what makes dance “good,” valuing and giving voice to a dance aesthetic that is wholly, unequivocally, South African. Memorialized in her new book, “Body Politics: Fingerprinting South African Contemporary Dance,” we’re reminded that history and legacy are as much about the present as they are about the past. I was privileged to attend Adrienne’s book launch during the festival, and had the pleasure of speaking with her from time to time after the shows over a sherry.

“There’s not very many of us,” she said on the first day we met. Indeed, there’s a kinship among critics due, in part, to the sheer numbers of people who choose to write about dance for a living. And while we share much in common with our fellow critics in theater, music or visual art, dance critics are our own species, and in many ways must follow our own set of rules.

Putting dance into words is a tall order, further complicated by the cultural context of the place a dance is made, and the politics of bodies on stage. In Chicago we grapple with our own set of socio-political complexities, and these two weeks have taught me to face those, head on, as many contemporary dance artists do.

This year’s JOMBA!, umbrella-ed under the title of “Legacy,” often wrestled with personal and political histories, and how culture and tradition shape our identities and expressions of self. Anita Ratnam placed the Hindu ancient legend of Sita into a modern context, letting Sita be the heroine of her own story. In JOMBA! Fringe and On the Edge, Mlonde Ngubane and Kristi-Leigh Gresse negotiated a modern world which still devalues women, as did Jabu Siphika and Zinhle Nzama, who literally bound themselves with rope in “Locked,” a work shown at JOMBA! @ DAG which challenges traditional views requiring young girls to marry strangers, sold off as property in order to provide for their families.

Musa Hlatshwayo played with the past and the present, channeling a vision of his late father as a point of entry for “Udodano,” a wide-ranging work that touches on family, masculinity, and the land rights movement. JC Zondi looked at identity, too, and how clothes do or don’t “make the man,” in “Classi_filed.” JOMBA! Fringe artists Sizwe Hlophe and Sabelo Cele took up the topic of masculinity, too, though from opposite ends of the spectrum. Hlophe, who was also part of our dance writing initiative, acknowledged tradition and spirituality, while Cele dropped jaws with a provocative take on gender expression and sexuality.

In “Aslama,” Yaseen Manuel of Capetown’s Unmute Dance Company collaborated with Durban’s Flatfoot Dance Company to tap into his identity as a South African Muslim man through a lens of the Syrian war. And Aïda Colmenero Dïaz and Thulisile Binda, who was selected as the 2018 “Pick of the Fringe,” also blended personal histories with distinct cultural and political contexts.

And on and on. It’s impossible to overstate the overlapping of themes, but to Adrienne’s point, context is the most important thing. And this diverse offering of works was a potent reminder that we all see the world through a particular lens. As the critic, I have the privilege of seeing the world through others’ eyes, and while there is never enough funding or venues to go around, more art is always better.

Having been to my fair share of dance festivals, I can safely say that JOMBA! stands among my favorites. As I board the first of three planes on the journey home, I hope our cities will remain connected through dance and dancers – I trust that they will.

Header image: Sussera Olyn performs in Khutjo Green’s “The Women Who Fell From The Moon” on opening night of JOMBA! 2018. Photography by Val Adamson.

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.