Tossie van Tonder aka Nobonke
1, 2, 3 July 2017 & 21, 22 September
@ Theatre Arts Admin Collective, Observatory, Cape Town
Performance 1: 1 July 2017
Performance 2: 2 July 2017
Performance 3: 3 July 2017
Performance for Cape Town Fringe Festival:
21 September 2017
There is a belief that only gross, empirical and dominating realities matter. In contrast, Powers of Lightness places emphasis on subtlety, inner sensation, empathic listening and observation - a body-mind experience. We all practice this daily. It frequently replaces judgement, comparison and exclusion of the self and others.
In Powers of Lightness the awareness of sensations in my body also generates affect and movement. This sensation gives the impulse for the dance. Being mindful of subtle body sensations brings freedom to feelings, often feelings without names. But they arise, as if longing for a surface; as if they want to live and be acknowledged. Perhaps they want movement to tame them, to mature them as enlivened consciousness.
The whole body with its roots and forces is also an idea of the mind. This is where it searches for interconnections with its parts, incessantly moving. At the core the body is looking for familiar impulses of an honest love. It yearns to heal, evolve and generate emergent selves, even virtual identities.
The body-mind has the authentic impulse to restore the powers of love for a place, perhaps a place with a name. Our sense of belonging makes us move in ways that calls, seeks, opens up and protects one of our deepest concerns, amongst others, that of survival.
In Powers of Lightness I am moved by sensations about the place called South Africa. The broad spectrum of senses can sometimes be named. But most are rather like undulating lives behind bodily-felt sensations. I recognise how much we hold concerns and love for South Africa close within our being. It is a soul function that also reflects a frailty. These often unexpected and unusual gestures make themselves known in the dance. It is easily evocative of deep emotions, sensations that calibrates with tone of muscle or a fine movement in the shaft called the spine. I am grateful for everything that South Africa has given me. Often I fathom South Africa as spirit to the core. I discover this when I dance in defense or praise of South Africa's best, on the side of good. These escalating states can also plunge into my body's reservoir of forces when I discover with muted vengeance that my country is at risk. Then I side with no forum, rhetoric, protest or laager. But I elect my self, my Body-Mind in service of South Africa.
Each of us will experience Powers of Lightness in a different way - you, the lighting operator, and me. For you it may evoke memories, images and even a narrative. This is the gift of performance as revelation more than entertainment.
"The hope for the liberation of hidden or forgotten energies, the hope for the ultimate reversal of visible and invisible powers, this hidden dream of the resurrection of being and of things - this is the anthropological and political foundation of classic Black art. At its center we find the body, what is fundamentally at stake in the movement of power, the privileged locus for the unveiling of power, and the ultimate symbol of the constitutional debt at the heart of all human community, the debt that we inherit without wanting to and that we can never fully discharge." Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason
Reflections on Dance Theatre in and on South Africa 2017
Powers of Lightness is a performance that marks an investigative version of affect-cleansing movement theatre in South Africa. This writing hopes to provide some background to the actual performances, films and images available on this website archive.
In Powers of Lightness the acts of witnessing, contemplation and engagement in theatre aim for a cleansing, a purification. This performance allows for an active spiritual, visceral and affective cleansing response to South African current affairs. It can therefore be said that the theory is the accelerative excesses of our country's transformation-in-process, crossed with movement creativity.
I have an interest in the unexplored depth of our social, economic and political struggles. Through works like this I hope to educate myself in the vicissitudes of these domains of our lives that would not generally attain attention such as witnessing my own admiration for Black people's increasing capacity for a polymorphism, of life in death and death in life; at White people's relentless and oversaturated neuroses of survival; the several envelopes of illusive power, that of poverty, of body, of spirit; the brutal neo-democratic rhythms of materiality and domination; desires to death; macabre displays of joys and their copulations with irreplaceable losses; iterations of endless re-kindlings and the true powers of evocations of the people we are. These are some aesthetic embodiments of this place.
Black ballet mats, diagonal to the spectators' view covered the stage. The specific of the stage placing was marked by a singular spot - a white taped cross. It resembled an election cross marking a spot on the floor. The cross is 'drawn' to elect myself, in this instance, electing my own affects as the response to the political environment. On this spot another dancer-technician calibrated this dance by lighting it as close to my affects as possible, with a handheld stage light. This elicited the most efficient aesthetic response as displayed between body, affect, and lighting.
The September performance included the application of a white clay mask.
What follows are thoughts on my artistic oeuvres in general and pertaining to Powers of Lightness specifically.
What is being cleansed?
What is being cleansed? The Dance
As artistic response Powers of Lightness omits gross movement (for the sake of display often) that would 'meet' the South African circumstance pedantically, with expected exchanges, most likely overtly political. It steers clear of the field and the familiar players present in current affairs. Rather, the affective honesty of a response to a current South Africa lies on levels unknown and often unfamiliar within the dancer and the dance.
In addition to familiar dance techniques, I chose to avoid socially and culturally acceptable and practiced gestures. The reason for this is that the pedestrian and often socio-emotionally conflicted movement vocabulary very rarely accommodates my capabilities to express deeper, more authentic facets of myself. I would risk undermining the autonomy and authenticity of the response if the unknown, until now unembodied subtleties of response, the affects, was overlooked, forfeited, sacrificed, forgone or abandoned. Following this, I would disallow the truths of the subtle body. Where the minute revelations of affect and soma meet is the crucible where new substances coagulated.
What is being cleansed? Identity
I remind the reader that my affective movements are in response to current political circumstances in my country. It searches for a response to the continuum of what it means to be South African, as a highly personalised signature also problematizing inter alia, a shifting White identity. The latter signifies a confluence of events, facts within the political milieu, and my own subtle responses to them. My dance aimed to embody this aesthetic.
As visible on images and film on this website, the expressions 'stops short' of a movement or emotion directed 'at' another. It applies a discipline to 'contain' the emotion within the body-mind. The affect and soma could then coagulate in the most authentic 'frequency' for the dancer's interior space to become known to herself. Thus, the movement is a strong, contained meditation of affects experienced as integrity of circumstantially-appropriate affect by the dancer.
Often this awareness identifies illuminations of the mind. This awareness of responses to a stimulus has many benefits of insight. The experiences have an authentic allowance and signature. One of these is the property of healing. The identification of 'truth' - its acknowledgement here, in dance - heals. The body-mind is experienced with greater relief and peace after the performance.
What is being cleansed? Affect
This work rested on affect, rather than feeling. Referring to affect, rather than feeling is an important distinction here. There is a reason why affect is more fundamental than feeling here. "Affect is a physiological event occurring involuntarily in the body as a response to stimulus. It results from activity in the limbic system of the brain and not the cerebral cortex, and it is mediated by the autonomic nervous system, not the voluntary motor pathways. That is to say, in psychological language, that the origin of affect is in the unconscious. It comes to us uninvited, and may be present whether we know it or not. Feeling, on the other hand, requires some self-consciousness and some reflection. "I feel ...", or "I have a feeling." Affect is automatic. To further complicate matters, the feeling function, in Jungian parlance, is an operation of the ego which forms differentiated feeling into judgement, manifest as approach/avoidance or as one's positive or negative attitude." (Schultz)
In its research and explorations, the subtle responses in movement is the aesthetic of the moving body. It aimed to recognise and show up for the affects, the subtleties of the responses my body calibrates during my witnessing the world. Within the vocabularies of affect and soma, in motion, I 'matched' these with as much congruency as possible.
What is being cleansed? South Africa
This performance took place during the strong public announcements on South Africa of 2017. It revealed how my country's leaders compromised the country's stability, economic survival and political integrity. I am a dance artist, and my task was through skill and imagination, to embody this catharsis with as much integrity possible. I did not wish to be in a crowd that revealed its broadest articulated emotions en mass. In the theatrical context I more willingly chose the subtleties of my own affects. These are the drivers that fed my anxiety and concerns for my country. They were the ones I notice in people when they would not notice these themselves. And these are the affects that remain in the unconscious, inaccessible, yet still the primary drivers of, mostly populist behavior. These emotions emerged as complex units of ambiguity, conflict, neuroses, guilt, fury, shame and disgrace, amongst more. For most witnesses of the performances, many of these emotional distinctions are not easy to be aware of, or dismantle consciously. The reason is that psychic mechanisms defend the congruent personhood against these emotions. As said, in public, the complex of emotions generally coagulated as a collective under one or more slogans. In performance I celebrate the vast array of subtleties of affect for my witnessing and perceptions. I resist reductionist modes of emotional intelligence. At best I would openly state, with muted vengeance: "Don't fuck with my country." This too is how politics and aesthetics cross over. I underwrite the attainment of the cleansing powers of anger/fury/rage/violence as expressions of vengeance. Or survival, meaning and as mental balance. This performance aimed to traverse the path of affects within me and which have risen in response to the capturing of the State by political leaders. I express these affects through authentic body movement aiming as far as possible to 'contain' the affects, to elect these to belong to my agency, without exteriorization and potential loss of appreciating of my capacities thereby. These honoured the subjective subtleties of my witnessing response.
I also deliver the artistic product to enhance spectators' experience of agency in this matter.
What is being cleansed? Interior Agency
I choose to place my body close to the affects that arise as an ongoing sentient phenomenon. In Powers of Lightness I aim to be receptive, open, listening and sensing what my body offered my awareness to be cleansed of the disgraces of destructive political maneuvering in my country. It is like a subtle observation of an 'evolution' through a most trying era of corruption and threat to political, economic and psycho-social stability. Whatever the affects, or those arising from this attunement, I desire too to open my responses to body, internal drives of feelings and their expressions, as movement, gesture, undulations of my spine, the degrees of tone in muscles all over my body, the stillness of attention, the welling up of tears, saliva, mucus, the reverberations of breaths in cohesion with affects, the allowing of all fluids, the guidance of movement ('to be moved'), that which was often without my direct control. My allowance for these move me into places I have not visited before.
I also invite faith to take me as far as needed for my ongoing inclusivity of a constant arrival - encounters of emptiness, losses of empathy, arrivals at the edge of tolerance of images of the neo-post-colonial erupting at cul-de-sacs - not knowing how much is still to come. I want room for everything, rather than 'having direction.'
What is being cleansed? Conscious Ageing
Within a performance a maturing capacity to 'home' my psycho-soma being is included. My accelerating invitation to my understanding of myself, my life of affects and my physique as the intelligent vessel, the personal domain of the spirit of and as performance, is being cleansed. Simultaneously my psychological shadow (disturbing complexes of images and feelings, incongruent responses and withdrawals) is being renewed and excavated with every footfall. At 62 years of age, and performing the force of body-mind, no holds barred and ever more capable and willing than before, is the grace and gift of being alive. In the performance I aim to 'cleanse' myself from the socialization and acculturation of much of the vicissitudes of a social being in a country of great complexity especially one under duress. I am also the ongoing flow of plant life, the air that inhabits me, the salt of separation and the healing of time, and space. In performance I experience pure energy and often hallucinations.
What is being cleansed? Mindlessness
I resist the compulsion of accelerated release of responses without their fuller body of affects and spirit. Slowness of movement allows for more information, memory, visions to surface, to become aware of and integrate as somatic experiences. Movements are processors of sentience and consciousness. These are aesthetic renditions of subtle subjectivities in my experiences on stage. Within performance I fully embrace that in myself which is despised, disgraced, disallowed, silenced, blamed, shamed, suffered, darkened, falsified, traumatized, re-seen, tolerated, forgiven, imaged in hate, all, re-emerged in body-mind. Body as temple: moment to moment movement through the template of my changing identity. Never leaving my Body behind is a Mindful act.
What is being cleansed? Logos by Eros
My response to this question entails some conclusions I attempt to express in words, with assistance. Yet, "when it comes to the term 'Africa,' everything stems from the extraordinary difficulty in producing a true image that can be associated with a word that is also true. ...It is not necessary for the name to correspond to the thing, or for the thing to respond to its name." [Mbembe]. Like many contemporary dancers over decades, I could also state that I dance because words would not tell you (me) what I experience. Yet, what follows are some worded conclusions in my awareness during and after a performance. I list them in the hope to reveal their manifestations and experiences for your better comprehension.
- New powers of humanization.
- Body-mind memory and awakening more than amnesia due to political trauma.
- Replacing a body clogged with emotions with a body of power over the course of the performance.
- The calibration of self-care on all levels while exerting affect to physique in risky balancing acts, psychologically.
- The quest for justice, to be seen in the full spectrum of being human.
- The release of grief in any authentic and integrated way.
- Touching original injuries.
- Feeling suffering in the presence of witnesses until I experience a sense of home - the warmth of accepting the fullness of my being, in a public space.
- Interior calibration of consolability and inconsolability.
- The inner child always present - with or without a sense of emotional protection.
- The experience of rage, bone-deep under safe and framed conditions.
- Access to vulnerability in the presence of my own warmth and kindness.
- The inner witness present and this practice to maintain and transfer as life skill for spectators.The restoration of integrity of an unstable and fluctuating identity.Tracing the origins of madness in the body and giving it air.The relevance of instability embodying a country.Refusal of political correctness and its abuses.Beholding the presence of fascism, tyranny and abuse and holding these in body-mind. Getting to know these in muscle and consciousness.Allowing helplessness, the sagging of soma and unstable mind. And allowing it to sense gravity's integrity.To hold conflict within, in delicate balance.Externalizing each inner figure for full recognition.Self-destructive impulses: giving leash and reining in at the will of the spirit, as required.Humanise the full available spectrum of personal consciousness and experience.Recognise the sub-atomic impulse to psychically divide.Witness the impulse to separate aspects from that which belongs.Love is volcanic, titanic.Instincts are fast and instantaneous.Joining the self under turmoil is within my control.Ask what is being cared for under all circumstances.Give the soul its space, and its objects, and its language, and its movement.Consider all problems solved and work from there.Make peace.Keep the world's loves and hates in view under all circumstances.Self-repression is uncivil.It is humane to provide safe spaces to bring repressed instincts into full view.Protect innocence.Let conflict take me deeper, and not wider.Healing is soft, infinite, thorough, still, silent, receding, submitting to warmth of all forms, as much as a fierce gesture.Nonexclusion, unfoldment and enactment as one.We are all traumatized.Concealed revelations of survivals at all cost, shame and restoration of grief as much as celebrations of a past, over, at all cost, no longer hermetically sealed - White.Body sensations have an integral logic.When lightness comes, the task is over, momentarily.What is being cleansed? Soul and spirit.My intention is to tell
of bodies changed
to different forms.
The heavens and all below them,
Earth and her creatures,
And we, part of creation,
Also must suffer change.
OVID - Metamorphoses
Much calls for change in our world. Yet the transcendent can be found in everything and everywhere. We have the powers of the mind and our affect to change matter or our body, and vice versa. But we may change more than just ourselves. Let me relay a story from a performance of POPPE done in 2006 at The Little Theatre, UCT.
A couple sat in a full audience of about 70 seats. The next day I received a call to meet with them in response to my performance. At the meeting I learned that the pair was in facilitation practice of matters metaphysical. They reported to me that when they entered the theatre there were about 50 souls 'hanging' over the stage area, awaiting 'soul release.' In their experience, the length of the performance was the length of time it took for all the souls to be released. Allegedly, at the end of the performance the stage was clear of souls.
I appreciated this report. It provided another perspective on the body-mind intentions I experience in the unstructured performances I do. The affective, soulful emanations in my work has a particular vitality, ecstasy and luminosity which I contain in my body-mind until it is released. It might also be present in comments after Powers of Lightness by spectators such as:"I came away from your recent performance (Powers of Lightness) deeply moved and having changed something of my inner being. So it worked (on me, at least). (Is that not the purpose of any art, to make a difference, to bring about a change?)
Prior to experiencing your performance (I cannot just say 'watching' your performance for you did not allow mere watching, thankfully) I had not yet read your program notes. My wife had arranged the outing and all I understood in advance was that it would be something to do with your relationship with South Africa and (I thought) the current state of the country. Having previously witnessed your dance skill and your depth of approach to performance I was excited in anticipation! The current state of South Africa is of deep concern to me.
Having now read your program notes (after the performance) I realize that my expectations may have been somewhat off the mark and trite, not at all appreciative of your actual approach ('...in defense or praise of South Africa's best...'; '...I elect myself, my Body-Mind in service of South Africa.').
Nevertheless, what I wish to convey is that it didn't matter! In fact, it probably would not have mattered how wrong I had been, how off-the-mark my preconceptions might have been, because what you did, regardless of what images you carried in your body and mind during the performance, took us all the way to, and for fleeting moments dangerously beyond, the threshold between life and death! I was thus empowered by you to take my own relationship with South Africa along with me and to experience my own profound catharsis.
How, I asked myself, did you do what you did? I experienced fearlessness! Unbelievable fearlessness! I wondered if you are not afraid of the unknown, of utter nakedness of being, of what our ancestors might have called the devil? And I realize that for you to be able to test your own limits to such dangerous extremes you must have developed huge inner faith and conviction in life itself, and THAT is what we, the audience, experienced. That is what makes you so special.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
Another spectator recounted the event as:There was my life before Powers of Lightness and then there was a different life thereafter.
The imagination of the mind is ubiquitous at all times. But when it moves into a physical emanation where affect merges with movement its aesthetic, metanormal cognitions and physical manifestations are beyond the person's direct control. At the same time, it loses its sole anchor in the immediate time-space coordinates and it is no doubt that it affects present spectators and the invisible world in various ways.
This practice is one where I make sure there is a breakdown as much as a buildup (psychic or physical), making sure I do not injure myself as I develop new capacities as is the case with each performance of this kind. Such negotiation can be difficult, of course, and often seems impossible, but it is sometimes assisted by mysterious agencies that seem to originate beyond the ordinary self. I experience these as an answer to my call for a greater life and it confirms my aspirations for it. I suspect spectators benefit from this applied care to the work.
As might be evident in the film and images for the reader, the specificity with which my body can be shaped by emotionally laden mental pictures are accompanied by strong conscious or unconscious content. Highly charged images can shape somatic processes. I describe my performances as an 'aesthetic, cathartic and creative trance.' My focused intention, as catharsis and the acceptance (or re-owning) of dissociated functioning (within the turmoil of a political milieu) facilitates healing and growth. I address Who am I? and What is my role in the world? in visceral terms at once. It helps to restructure the ruling attitudes I gather by providing access to repressed or previously unnoticed psychological processes, by facilitating skillful rehearsal and by mediating awareness of my movements as an aesthetic. The performance can therefore be looked upon as an integration of my fragmented volitions, so that I act with more strength and decisiveness, feel with more depth, think with greater clarity and precision. These volitions would not necessarily rise into consciousness in ordinary life. Most certainly they are not easily accessible within the domains of political debate or everyday life.
Performance easily heightens experiential awareness to metaphysical dimensions. The economy of such work no doubt has its spin-offs in meta-physical domains beyond my immediate time-space dimension especially with regards to the interior-exterior materiality of this practice.
These ego-surpassing experiences, often integral to my creative practice, is seldom noticed in the regular reception of theatre or by its critics. Once the gross, cognitive, the 'sensible' and 'understandable', 'worldly' dimensions are relaxed, the subtleties of our interconnected realities become felt encounters. Even familiarities which the subject cannot ignore as having profound influences on the way of our being in the world, emerge. I call this the World-soul, an energetic entity in correspondence with variations in the attitude of our own minds. It is part of what I do, and in another sense it is not. My performances have a mystical or supernatural region that belongs to my most intimate sense of myself and at once, the unseen World. It is worth not willing this facility too deliberately, protecting it against an egoic 'hardening' of spiritual forces. My following the work of Michael Murphy assists in broadening this understanding.
What is cleansed, and enhanced in this sense, is the integration of my psychological and somatic functioning while the World-soul, the Unseen - the supernormal and subnormal dimensions of my existence - facilitates a balanced growth of my greater capacities.
These are some conclusions during the performance of Powers of Lightness.
During the rehearsals of Powers of Lightness, I also conducted various workshops with students interested this field. I gladly offer this research to New Dance Lab in South Africa who supported this work.
SourcesShame. James M. Shultz, M.D., Jungian analyst, Austin, Texas.
Critique of Black Reason. Achille Mbembe 2017. p 51
The Future of the Body: Explorations into the Further Evolution Of Human Nature. Michael Murphy. 1993.
I wish to extend my gratitude to:
Theatre Arts Admin Collective, in particular Caroline Calburn and Jessica Hewson for supporting alternative performance practice.
Thalia Laric and Kristina Johnstone for seasoned curiosity, intellectual interest and generosity of artistic spirit.
Frans Zunguze for technical support.
Richard Latham for cinematography and Christopher Lombo at first assistant camera.
Dex Goodman as videographer
Robert Rich for ambient music.
Diana Spiegel for her care and wisdom of touch.
Stefan Coetzee for website design of this performance.
Tossie van Tonder aka Nobonke
Tossie van Tonder aka Nobonke is a veteran South African dance theatre performer. She is also a clinical psychologist, mentor, human experience facilitator for transformation programs and writer of My African Heart. Her performance career spans from 1980 during which time she investigated themes of Africanity, the complex and embattled psyche embodied in South African identity, motherhood, ecological themes, and the dancer's archive. Amongst other courses she runs Conscious Ageing, a course to those 45+ as a signature experience of intergenerational empowerment, one that enhances fuller definitions of identity as elder. Her daily practice entails body-mind explorations on the dance floor and as ceremony. She also trains in the gym, swims, practices yoga and meditation.