Creating a common ground

At the two-week Crossings International Workshop in Johannesburg, dancers from around the world learned to pool their skills and personalize their talents.

dance group (photo credit: Courtesy)
dance group
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 Mali.
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 selected.
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 bodies.
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 theater.
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 place again.
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 direction.
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.
The 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 thoroughly.
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 conflict.
Every evening, regardless of whether the match was peaceful or not, the teams presented their piece, followed by a short question-and-answer session.
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.
In 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.
The 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.
On 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 showbiz goes.
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.