My heart is pounding. The all-too-familiar feeling of anxiety and excitement at
having to speak in public makes my palms a little damp and my face flush red. I
am sitting in a room I have never been in before, surrounded by 35 strangers.
One by one, we introduce ourselves. First, the directors of this project we have
been invited to give a brief opening speech.
This is Crossings
International Workshop in Johannesburg. We are dancers, choreographers, lighting
designers and composers, and we are going to spend the next two weeks together
creating new dance pieces. As each artist presents a smattering of facts about
him/herself, I realize that this is the most diverse group of people I have ever
sat down with.
We represented South Africa, France, Egypt, Israel,
Canada, England, Spain, Poland, Austria, China, Holland, Angola and
I was invited to take part in Crossings in March. It was the first
event of its kind in South Africa. I had sent an application into the abyss of
online information months before and had almost completely forgotten that there
was a chance they would choose me to participate. To my surprise I, along with
Rachel Erdos, a choreographer I work with in Tel Aviv, was
Unlike other dance festivals, there was no audition. No video
material was requested of the dancers. The directors chose each individual based
solely on what he or she had written. I found this strange and very intriguing.
As a dancer, it is not often that we are judged based on our minds and not our
Flash forward two weeks: We have just completed our final showing
on stage at the Dance Factory. The house was packed. Four 15-minute pieces, one
by each choreographer, were presented to an audience of Johannesburg’s dance
lovers. Despite, or perhaps due to the fact that the dance presented on this
evening is completely different from what this crowd is used to seeing, the
response is positive.
A party breaks out in the lobby of the
The 35 artists hug and kiss. There is a sense of group
accomplishment unlike any I had ever felt before. As I look around at the
exhausted, joyful faces, I can’t believe that tomorrow we will all board planes
and go back to our separate lives. We had become a creative organism, quirky,
strange and fully functional, who will, most likely, never meet in the same
On the first day it was hard to imagine that we would be
able to find any common ground. When we first met, Kieron Jina, from
Johannesburg, explained that he was an activist and a dancer, completing his
bachelor’s at a local university (Jina will perform here this month in Dada
Masilo’s Carmen). For a moment, looking at the keffiyeh around his neck, I
wondered what he would have to say about where I come from.
On our second
day, the dancers and choreographers, piled into one of four studios in Newtown
Dance Corner, where we spent the better part of every day, six days a week. Each
day, like this day, we greeted the morning with a contemporary dance class,
taught by Crossings director Michel Kelemenis.
Kele flipped on a
particularly cheeky Prince track, and immediately the atmosphere lightened up.
For most of us, regardless of how we initially came to call it as such, the
dance studio is home. Regardless of what country I am visiting or where I live,
dancers are somehow the same everywhere.
Over the course of our first
week together, we were broken up into small groups and given daily tasks to
interpret. By the end of that week, almost every person in the project had
worked with everyone else. Each task began with one or two words, such as
“demarcation,” “spaces” or “ruptures.”
These words were jumping-off
points in and out of the studio for conversation.
Natalia Dinges and I
talked about where she lives in Poland and how far away it is from where my
grandparents were banished during the war. Ezzat Ismael Ezzat, from Egypt,
casually told us that his parents didn’t want him to do the project once they
saw that there were Israelis attending. Days later we were renegotiating the
borders of the Sinai Peninsula over scones and rooibos tea. It was perhaps naïve
to feel that we were making world peace or righting the miscommunications of
generations past, but it certainly felt like a step in the right
On the first day, the composers were separated from the
choreographers for the entire day and only met to share the fruits of their
labor on stage. During that presentation, each choreographer chose a name of two
composers out of a hat. Their dancers then took the stage and performed that
day’s material to two scores they had never heard before. We then exchanged
opinions about which musical track fit each dance best. The lesson in this
exercise was clear: Music has great influence on how we see dance.
first rehearsal session (out of three daily) began with a short discussion of
the given word. On one day, Mamela Nyamza, a choreographer from Cape Town,
immediately took us into the sound studio to record the 10 dancers screaming at
the top of our lungs. This was her interpretation of a rupture. Angie Mullens,
the composer working with her that day, wove our screams in with a complex set
of sounds. The result was maybe over the top, but we enjoyed it
As the week progressed, the composers and choreographers
paired off early in the day and collaborated fully. Sometimes the combination of
two artists rendered fabulous results, other times it caused
Every evening, regardless of whether the match was peaceful or
not, the teams presented their piece, followed by a short question-and-answer
On one particularly cold night, Nyamza and Chris Askfot conveyed
to the crowd how they had driven each other mad during the day. The beauty of
the speed-dating- paced collaborations during that week was that each person had
to forget what happened the day before and start fresh each morning.
the studio, we worked with a lot of improvisation.
Although the missions
given to us by each choreographer were different, each of the four attempted to
draw on their dancers’ skills to find the steps they would use.
resulting pieces were very diverse.
In many of our late-night talks, what
became clear was that each of us felt that our art form, be it dance, music or
lighting, had saved us from something. The something was different for each of
us. Sunnyboy Motau, a stunning dancer from Moving into Dance Mophatong in
Johannesburg, grew up in a township nearby.
Although his dream was to be
an accountant, his natural talent led him straight to the dance world, where he
found a way to earn a living that was safer and more respectable than that of
many of his neighbors.
One day Ali Karembe, in a combination of French
and English that I came to sort of understand, shared his story of sacrifice
with us. Raised in a staunchly religious home in Mali, he ran away from his
family and lived on the street at 14. His desire to dance was stronger than his
need for a proper education, and he never completed high school. He is now a
celebrated choreographer and performer who travels around the world.
Monday of our second week, each choreographer gave a short presentation about
the piece he wanted to create during that week. The dancers were then asked to
choose to which project we wanted to devote the next six days. Everyone worked
slightly differently. Nyamza’s group took long breaks, during which they huddled
up and had long conversations. Thabo Rapoo’s group skipped dinner to get a few
extra minutes in the studio.
Our mutual appreciation for the art form did
not mean that our time together was a picture of harmony. We laughed with
each other, drank cup after cup of coffee to keep ourselves going, and
occasionally had spats that ended in tears. The choreographers didn’t see eye to
eye with their assigned composers. The lighting designers felt that the dancers
didn’t appreciate the importance of their work in our performances. One dancer
opted to quit her group two days before the final show because of “lack of
inspiration” on her choreographer’s part. The amazing thing was that once we cut
to the chase and got to work, drama and all, it was business as usual as far as
Maybe dance cannot save anyone’s life. Maybe we are
narcissistic in our profession. But during those two weeks, we accomplished
something great. I still can’t put my finger on what that accomplishment was
exactly. Be it the communication we were able to find or the hours of hard work
or the final performance, it was an experience I feel endlessly proud to have
been a part of.