When an arts festival enters its 42nd year, it clearly has a relevant voice. The Grahamstown National Arts Festival has launched the careers of many local artists and an important part of the festival is the Standard Bank Young Artist (SBYA) award. In place since 1984, the SBYA, which has acknowledged 144 artists over the years, including the likes of William Kentridge, Sibongile Khumalo, Dada Masilo and Mmakgabo Sebidi, lauds the talents of emerging artists across genres, giving the winners not only a cash prize and support for participating in the festival, but also a spot in the Main Programme, still considered the most important part of the rambling monster that is the South Africa’s biggest and oldest arts festival to date.
Selected by a senior panel of experts, the winners – who must be under the age of 40 to be considered – have several months to create a new work which will be staged for the first time ever, at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival.
One of the winners, dancer/choreographer Themba Mbuli, who tells tales through dance, spoke to us about inspiration, fear and breaking borders in society.
When were you first exposed to contemporary dance?
I was 19 when I first went to watch a graduation ceremony of Moving Into Dance trainees – it's one of South Africa’s most important contemporary dance companies. I remember seeing those dancers flying on stage and telling stories with their bodies so expressively – I knew I wanted to do this.
Tell us about your association with Moving into Dance (MID).
I started as a student in 2007, became a trainee in 2009, then in 2010 I started dancing and choreographing. MID has built my foundation not just as a dancer or choreographer but as an activist. I’ve had the privilege of being taught and mentored by great storytellers like Sylvia Glasser [who started the company in 1978], Gerard Bester, Gregory Maqoma, Luyanda Sidiya and Thabo Rapoo.
What was your first performance? How did that affect you?
My first performance ever was in a school play. I was 13. I remember the audience was cheering and clapping, it felt so good to be heard and appreciated. This is probably one of the reasons I started writing and directing my own plays: I wanted to share stories and be heard.
How does it feel to perform in front of an audience?
It’s very frightening. I can’t believe after 16 years of performing I still get stage fright. But when I get on stage, I have to cut my ego and accept I’m a messenger.
You choreographed Dark City, which then went on to win the Pick of the Fringe Award in 2010. Tell us about this piece.
In 2007 I was part of a play (Radio Freedom) which performed at Constitution Hill in Hillbrow. It was created and directed by my Swedish mentor Kent Ekberg. Radio Freedom was inspired by the lives of political prisoners during apartheid. In researching the work, I was amazed at how little I knew about my own history. This inspired me to adapt the play into dance, which led to the birth of Dark City, and which enabled me to share this history.
Dark City led to Dark Cell which has been performed internationally. Was this expected?
In some ways it was and in some ways it wasn’t. I started creating Dark Cell when I had just become a freelancer and I had to work extra hard and do admin, producing, promoting, designing... everything. At the end 2012, I sent at least 70 applications to different festivals and venues, trying to sell the work even before I had finished making it. When the work started touring, I knew the behind-the-scenes hard work had paid off.
Tell us about the projects you’ve cofounded and are involved in, such as Broken Borders Arts Project and Unmute Dance Company. What is the vision behind them?
There isn’t much collaboration between African-based artists. Broken Borders created a platform for African artists to start artistic conversations beyond borders. South Africa lags behind in integrating people with disabilities into mainstream society; one of the major obstacles for disabled people is accessibility. There can be no integration if there is no access for people living with disability to live independently in society. Unmute aims to transform public and private spaces and make them accessible for people to talk about disability and integration.
What can audiences expect when your new work debuts in July?
They can expect to be provoked, entertained, challenged and amazed.
Tell me how you feel about being picked as one of the Standard Bank Young Artist winners.
It’s really an honour to be recognised with such a significant accolade. I've witnessed a lot of young people who are currently doing amazing artistic works throughout the country.
Catch Mbuli and his fellow Standard Bank Young Artists in action at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, June 30 to July 10.
For more information, visit: www.nationalartsfestival.co.za or www.standardbank.co.za/standardbank/About-Us/Sponsorships/Young-Artist-Awards
This year’s winners are:
• Visual artist Mohau Modisakeng;
• Playwright, director and designer Jade Bowers;
• Dancer/choreographer Themba Mbuli;
• Classical violinist Avigail Bushakevitz; and
• Jazz trombonist Siyavuya Makuzeni.