Dance Umbrella 2017 at Wits Theatre

The South African Dance Umbrella is the most important contemporary dance festival in the sub-continent, if not the continent.

Georgina Thomson, CEO of the Dance Forum, puts it together faithfully year after year, recently without much of a budget to do either.  Funding comes from the Department of Arts and Culture, the Gauteng Province, the City of Johannesburg, the National Arts Council and some productions are funded by the Goethe, IFAS or ProHelvetica.  Some other sponsorships are important, inter alia the one with Wits University and Sunbury Guest House.

Wits University is the one I want to single out this year.  The theatre with its three performance venues (plus some others which fall under its auspices)  is over thirty years old now, and it is showing signs of needed a revamp, both a cosmetic one, and doubtless in some other spheres less visible to the public. I understand that one was scheduled, but the recent woes precipitated by #FeesMustFall have pushed this into the background again.  Pity.  It really does need to address these issues now.  However, having said this, Wits University is still a MAGNIFICENT venue for the Dance Umbrella.

Gita Pather, the director of the Wits Theatre, and her team work hard to make this theatre a happening place.  The 969 Festival after the National Arts Festival and the So Solo Festival are both highlights of the Johannesburg theatre calendar.  I hope that the Dance Umbrella continues to use Wits University for the Dance Umbrella.  Here is why:

  1.  Parking.  As a new writer on the arts scene, I was told by a veteran that parking is not part of a show and I have no business commenting on it.  As a patron of the arts I find that parking is the first thing I have to do at the theatre and it can be stressful.  Wits has plenty of parking for able bodied patrons in Senate House.  I would like to see the parking allocated to disabled patrons policed better for them so that able bodied people do not monopolise what has been set aside for people with mobility difficulties.  Perhaps some orange cones, together with a clamp owned and operated by the theatre front on house staff would do the trick.  Campus Security are not very user friendly.  However, there is plenty of undercover parking for able bodied patrons with a covered walkway from the parking to the theatre.
  2. Front of house staff.  Most theatres have fabulous front of house people.  These wonderful men and women attend to the safety and comfort of all visitors to the theatre.  Wits’ Front of House Manager, Yuhl Headman, is particularly on the ball.  Throughout the festival the media found prime seats reserved for them for every performance.  Photographers at the front, the rest of us where we like to sit. What a pleasure this has been for me (and I presume other members of the media.  It is a courtesy which goes beyond the call of duty
  3. Other hospitality.  The bar at Wits is always staffed and always friendly.  I do think that Wits needs to look at supplying a bigger selection of nibbles from the bar at festivals – some of the type of thing that has a reasonably long shelf life or is easy to produce at a relatively low cost – muffins with jam and butter, toasted sandwiches etc.  The decision made by Gita Pather when she took over to allow drinks and food into the theatres has proved to be a reasonably happy one and no one abused this during the times I have been in the theatre.  I understand that running a bar and food is not core business for any theatre, but it is part of the hospitality of a theatre, especially in view of the fact that Wits Theatre does not adjoin an area with restaurants. No one is expecting haute cuisine, but it is nice to be able to grab a sandwich or a mug of soup (in suitable weather).

Now I suppose I ought to say something about the dance programme itself.  As usual it was fascinating.

As (nearly) always I missed the presence of our own Joburg Ballet at the Dance Umbrella.  Cape Town Ballet found their way there with three short ballets, Silver and Gold (You & I), a world premiere; The Complexity of Belonging; and After Nine, all under the title of When they Leave.  I was particularly hoping that with the appointment of Esther Nasser to Joburg Ballet that they would find their way there.  Artistic Director Iain McDonald has shown his ability to choreograph new contemporary ballet works, and to encourage other artists under his care to do so.  I hope we do see them at Dance Umbrella in years to come.

Shorter than some, this festival worked well for me.  I often find I am exhausted and sick by the end of the programme.  This time it was doable, although even then I didn’t get to everything.  Not sure how this impacted the people who come from the USA, UK and Europe for the festival.  Ten days is enough for me.

The usual mix of relevant topics included gender issues, environmental issues and social issues.  Absent was the topic of HIV/AIDS.  This is a good sign that the programme of treatment implemented at government hospitals is having an impact at ground level.  There was surprisingly less overtly political comment than I expected.


Alan Parker. Detritus for One. Dance Umbrella 2017. Photograph by John Hogg

The absolute highlight of the Dance Umbrella 2017 for me was Alan Parker’s Detritus for One.  This work paid tribute to four works of the past. I saw three of these past works, two of them at Dance Umbrella (Dominque Boivin’s Transports Exceptionnels and Phia Menard’s L’Apres-Midi d’un Foehn) and one in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival (Mamela Nyamza’s 19 Born 76 Rebels).  The final work was Nicola Elliot’s Fragile, which I did not see. As Alan Parker explained his fascination with these works I nodded and grinned in recognition and delight.  When he came to the work I had not seen, I understood the essence and fascination.  He set out to explain the fascination of these performances and he succeeded.  What a charming piece!


Alan Parker. Detritus for One. Dance Umbrella 2017. Photograph by John Hogg

The fact that I don’t comment on the others doesn’t render them irrelevant.  I have written some comments.  I still plan to write others.  This is the briefest of overviews, meant more as a tribute to Georgina Thomson and her wonderful team (and Wits, of course) than to the individual works, without which there could be no festival.

All round this Wits Theatre space works exceptionally well for the Dance Umbrella. The main theatre has always been used for the Dance Umbrella Fringe Festival. Some venues have often been used in the past for various performance of the Dance Umbrella.  However, this is the first time where non site-specific performances have all been clustered at Wits Theatre. Long may this partnership endure.  Well done to everyone concerned, particularly Yuhl Headman.  Thank you!

It is my prayer that as Dance Umbrella goes into its 30th year with the 30th festival next year, it will do so with a more solid financial backing, and a rosy future for contemporary dance into the future.  In the church after such a request we say “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer”,  but in the arts world it is probably a corporate which will respond.  The prayer is equally heartfelt regardless of who hears it and responds.  What a privilege to be a name sponsor of such a fabulous event.

Once again, kudos to kudos to everyone.  Thank you again.



About moirads

Clergy person, theatre and music lover, avid reader, foodie. Basically, I write about what I do, where I go and things I love (or hate).
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