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Dans Mandela, Dans!

2020

Dans Mandela, Dans!

Dans Mandela, Dans! was a dance performance to the recorded speeches, interviews and conversations with Nelson Mandela. It was created to reaffirm the value of a specific past, belonging to all who participated in escaping a political and racial 'bloodbath' — South African White / Black, and Black / Black. The period 1970's-1994 was still deeply embedded in my Body. It was more than memory. It was an embodiment of a threat of carnage and equally so, of what we were capable of when we transcended our differences to transmit our immense humanity as South Africans.

Along with my partner, Sandi Sijake, who shared 15 years of imprisonment with Mandela and whose life story I place alongside my own as our cultural history, I celebrate those who take large or minute personal or political actions to do the work of the world.

While preparing for Dans Mandela Dans! during 2019-20, I was aware of Whiteness increasingly appearing to be a way of being that is being judged, by justice itself. Politically, historically this was not totally unjustified. Rhetorically, it had a vitriolic power to inflame embers, racial embers. The tensions between the past and all of our incalculable greatness to overcome a racial division, were again being foregrounded.

As a person who would be seen as 'White' historically, but also 'White' as 'unbelonging to Africa', played out in 2019, it felt as if the wheel of struggle to belong had to be invented yet again. With it, it brought new challenges of artistic and ontological choices. My ancestral history of 320 years did not count. Any political, personal or artistic work I have done in my 65 years would be viewed as superfluous. What remained was variations of sacrifice. Here we look at having to 'pay a price' for being the person one was. Conceptually, I would place my Body in Dans Mandela, Dans! as an artistic source of sacrifice.

The performance at Theatre Arts, Cape Town in March 2020, was to be an examination of how the case of historical Whiteness — in which Mandela played a role — was still, if at all, relevant, and if so, what was its aesthetic? perhaps a critique of sacrificed reason? The 'verdict' was not in and may never be from a point of justice. And, might the outcome of these conundrums be the performance itself?

First, it would be a question of aesthetics, undergirded by the state of Whiteness — upon a soundtrack of political liberation as represented by Mandela — I embodied. Or perhaps none of that, rather a trope that is 'aspirational belonging,' fantastical, phantasmagorical. Reflectively, and critically I might have 'considered the results' of this performance to ascertain my 'belonging' to, in Africa. This depended largely on the aesthetic that would emerge dancing — being moved — on the Mandela words. This would be done as woman, White, mature and vulnerable to my own complex identity 'calculations,' not as additions or subtractions, but as political abstractions of existential justice. The least legitimate state would be to parachute in an ardently positivistic claim of identity and representation, an open-ended ontology. With many more facets to this work the performance, was to be embodied, as formless.

Amongst the multiplicities of receptions there would of course also have been the possibility of a 'protest.' How would I substantiate my choice as a White person to dance to the words of Mandela? How dare I? This was a possibility as much as any other that impacted on White activism, or simply choices of social interaction, especially if this had been coined as 'transgressive,' which Dans Mandela, Dans! (DMD!) had the potential to be.

DMD! was a latent revolution per se. As dancer I know the transformative impulse of movement with its concomitant mental and political contents and ramifications. Life force is powerfully regulated and released by the choice of movement — and that of the mind and its thoughts — as the dance. The politically charged Body is a powerful force. It is wise to know what it is that you dance with, for, about and what you are willing to become. Or — and this is the part of protest which asks that artistic endeavours remain in the realm of the mystery — one's becoming is unknown. This reminded me of the danger of political objectors' work in the 1980's, when a number of White struggle activists were killed in custody, or disappeared mysteriously. These memories as still entrenched within.

The deconstruction of Whiteness was one of several core drivers of the performance. Another was the creation of a space within which I could celebrate a life lived in the volumes of our era into democracy, inter alia, as spoken of by Nelson Mandela. The relief of being a contemporary democracy and the health it had brought into our lives has been witnessed by me for over 27 years, as I write. I have much to be grateful for. I have lived through one of the world's most oppressive regimes and I have taken close note of my witnessing this hyper event, the era of apartheid, for the largest part of my life. As psychologist and as dance artist this transformation into an inclusive social and political existence did not only leave me ontologically revived, but it was a rebirth of much more significance in my life as a professional in the world of social transformation.

What was more was that at the end of 1993 I became a mother. I could not help embodying the impulse of the serendipity of motherhood as well as the birth of a life without institutionalized oppression. It so happened that Mandela and FW De Klerk together shared the Nobel Prize for Peace the day before the birth of our son. Prebirth hormones playing havoc no doubt, I have compassion for my assessments of the pinnacle of the era I embodied. The joy, the 'vooruitsig!', looking forward to a new life was what I was embedding myself in. In DMD! I would again find this rapture accompanying some of the words of Mandela's speeches. Now, at the end of 2020, I still feel this event viscerally, strongly in my being.

During my rehearsals I broke down regularly. It was a purging ordeal. As reflexive, journaling researcher I had lengthy conversations with myself. What more lies behind my emotional ruptures were renditions of my love. Here, the vicissitudes of love under threat, as loss, as healing surge, unifying gesture of peace, as infinitude of forgiveness, as sacrifice and as surrendering space bolstered my catharses. The words of Mandela carrying declarations of freedom and a future of unity in my country, were concepts that I could embody artistically: my love for my child and my love for my country sprang from the same source. The inverse of love here, was death. The trajectory of sacrifice in the ceremonial space of performance was evoking death. My principle to protect life was something I related to without question. And, as life was also ensconced in the possibilities of threat, loss, healing, peace, forgiveness, sacrifice and surrender, these ontologies also evoked death. Here are the final words of Mandela's speech in court, facing death for his principles, possibly to be hanged. 'I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against White domination and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons would live together in harmony and equal opportunities. It is an idea for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die.' He was sent to Robben Island Prison for a 27-year sentence.

At the site of all my post-dramatic enquiries, Theatre Arts, Cape Town, I would put myself to the test of the possibility of a truly inclusive collective soul-in-healing, yet a test for my artistic survival. This I investigated with sound artist, Jacques Van Zyl along with the lighting artist, Frans Mandilakhe. I would not imply that they, as artists and technicians, would be responsible, either as artists or as citizens, for the way I deconstructed Whiteness. Each of these artists was and is self-authored — in whatever they did they operated from sense to reason, from reason to sense, with exceptional autonomy, yet serving the performance. Their participation in DMD! at this event, would not make them artistically or philosophically complicitous.

"When does passing stop being passing and become being?"
Kai M Green

Now I would like to offer some thoughts on artistic decoloniality, the embodied arts and how this play out in the construction of an event whereby I would embody the words of Mandela. I am inspired by a dance researcher Ben Spatz, in Notes for Decolonising Embodiment (2016), the decolonising of the Body. (I use Body with a capital in order to centralise its position as physical entity as much as other dimensions of the human ontology.)

As you may have gathered above, I had certain sentiments, questions and critique surrounding the coloniality of DMD!. Here are some initial investigations I explored as research into the making of this work: how many of the theatrical devices I appropriate contributed to the colonial view of my work? What would be the role of the audience / spectators / witnesses in how this work would be viewed, internalised, literally radiating into the world after the event? How would my Body express a decoloniality by being constructed White while in a racially divided country, and while embodying the words of Mandela? How would I view the possibility of transformation of witnesses and whether this was indeed a concern and prerogative of my work if this event was a transformative one?

First, Spatz makes a difference between performance and embodied arts. His notion of dance, drama, music and text as being demarcated categories of performance is that of an expression of historical coloniality. In DMD! the (English) text was not written by myself; however, its effect on me had transformative potential. This point may well be a discussion for another time. Ultimately, the continuous breakdowns and reembodied iterations of movement to the words have potentially coagulated the 'overlap' between the Body-as-dancing and the Body-as-speaking, into a constellation of transcendence of both White-female-Body and Mandela's Black-male-voice. This manifested within a politico-cultural context expressive of an ontology that is potentially transgressive and liberating.

Spatz underlines that he uses the term 'body' as 'proliferating multiple bodies in place of a singular body.' (p 14). I too, see the effects of my performances not reaching an end with those who attended the event but as a continuum of realisations in people's lives. I also see many 'Bodies' represented in this context, possibly White, female, as much as constellations of diverse Bodies that may want to dance to Mandela's words, as a healing gesture for times past, straight through to the deep future of social liberation. These Bodies may include Bodies beyond this singular construction as White and female. Indeed, Spatz sees embodiment as having 'the potential to initiate or reinvent an ethics and politics in which life, survival, vulnerability, and ecology would be key terms.' (p 10)

As does Spatz, I stand humble before the phenomenon of decoloniality and decolonisation and its emergence from coloniality, capitalism, forms of Whiteness and patriarchy. Grappling with the vicissitudes of DMD!, I had hoped to have illuminated the avenues, or even the im/possibility of embodiment as such. For Spatz, the 'embodied arts as a concept has both decolonial and neo-colonial potential, depending on how it is understood.' (p 10) I acknowledge my efforts to portray and embody a celebration of national democracy and deconstructed Whiteness. Decolonised White, female embodiment and a transcended duality towards socio-political unity is nothing more than a life attainment, and joy. However, a neo-colonial casting through movement, gesture, posture, breath, reach, contraction, rise, fall, twirl, collapse, crisis and breakdown was not ruled out at all. I concur with Spatz who defines embodied arts as 'concrete ways of grappling with, getting a grip upon, and coming to know the materiality of human embodiment through processes of direct and detailed material negotiation.' (p 11)

I asked myself what would be a radical implication of embodying a struggle hero's — indeed a global leader for the liberation of humanity — words, and, as my dance? This was where a further deconstruction of the product of embodiment might be helpful. During this work other boundaries have also been crossed. The political dimension played out in the ever rising subtleties of gender, age, culture, artistic potential, its praxis, spirituality and the economy of care ('self-care is also warfare' - Audre Lorde). These pertained to the larger political context as much as the locality of immediate relationships; also, these contained the declarations that hidden voices be heard, hidden movements be made visible — and visceral — towards a re-inclusion of fragmented and oppressed facets of the communal and individual person. This individual constantly navigated shifting power relations. They had to keep a vigilant eye on what were the missing, unexplored, unearthed pre-set identity demarcations. These disrupted stabilising notions of what a White-Black fe-male, artist-politician would and could be. One needed to be vigilant of injustices as 'wrong,' unwelcome, illegitimate, not suited or politically correct, and, the ongoing floundering, and often interrupted and bypassed reflective discourses on all these matters.

Once these matters (and my list is by no means complete) were articulated, visible and embodied, an ardent excavation of the artistic product could be embarked upon as a praxis of endless undertakings. That it had to find its way into the public sphere prevented the work remaining static as self-reflection and therefore a withdrawal from politics. And, as if social construction was not sufficient, Spatz says: "embodiment [can] be counted among the techniques that might dismantle the house of 'the body.'" (p 8)

"Any movement away from an explicitly political contestation of nationhood and sovereignty and toward a decolonial engagement with knowledge, spirituality, or embodiment carries the risk of inadvertently diluting revolutionary decolonization." Spatz (p 13)

The ongoing efforts to decolonise the Body could become a system of violence towards the self. A fine balance between the discourses and embodiment of decolonisation within a regime of self-care (against the 'warfare' of patriarchy) 'involve(s) the embodied arts at every level,' according to Spatz. Quoting Mignolo, Spatz reminds us that 'body' is not exclusively a human item. Plants, fish, ... fruit, mountains ... have bodies too. 'Body for Mignolo means living organisms [...] which "deontologize the entity body [...] and restore it to the irreducible processes in the praxis of living."' (p 17)

Subsequent to the lockdown brought about by Covid-19, the performance of DMD! was cancelled. This writing was done sufficiently distanced from the event and the circumstances leading to DMD!'s absence. This era-marked lockdown status commencing in March 2020 also emphasised the violent increases in my racialised society of gatherings by groups of the same cultural background and race. These were met with violent clashes between police, White farmers protesting farm killings, leftist populist groups flaming hatred amongst racial groups, schools being occupied by vandalising protestors, vitriolic racist claims by public officials, fury at government officials not being brought to book for atrocious corruption cases implying the lockdown, and a slow 'grinding down' (such a South African term!) of the economy. The reader may consider this scenario being the backdrop to continued decolonisation of the arts, the voice, the Body.

Spatz looks wider at the decolonial project. 'On the other hand, decolonial thought and writing, if it does not find ways to radicalize at the level of method, risks articulating a critical program without a sufficiently developed program for institutional change.' Spatz (p 23) Challenging my method, choice of Body and Voice — an aspiring deconstructing movement vocabulary to a constructed voice — may not necessarily prepare the ground for a case for institutional change in performance studies in South Africa. 'Tracing the notion of decoloniality through indigenous, black, and critical white studies, [...] embodied arts are crucial arts of survival, arts of living on a damaged planet, arts of the past and future, and arts of the earth as well as arts of the body.' Spatz (p 22)

Soon after lockdown, critique towards Nelson Mandela as a 'sell-out' to 'White capitalists' was rampant, and still is as I write. An currency of publications on his negotiating years with leaders of the SA National Party during the 1980-1990's now elicits questionable decisions from his fellow comrades, and the new left. The neo-liberal contingent hijacking of the democratic past, along with academic and journalistic renditions of the past, prove indeed that the past is changing all the time. 'The decolonization of bodies, which relies on stable identity categories to define the distribution of power, and the decoloniality of embodiment, which fundamentally deconstructs those categories, go together. Neither can be accomplished without the other.' Spatz (p 13). This platform for transformation of the self as much as the institution requires the radical, responsible and empathic participation of scholars of diverse identity formations and leanings ideologically, across race, gender, politics, embodiment, history, ecology and ability. Transgressive and embodied praxis 'catharise' and consolidate a fluency of art making that may create an onto-epistemology that remakes history in a folding and an unfolding of being human. 'The challenge to decolonize academia demands a reconsideration of the place and role of bodies — including white bodies — in its spaces.' Spatz (p 22). '...as a home for transformative embodied praxis [...] the place of the critical scholar in that space, like the place of the white body, is not comfortable.' (p 23)

Dans Mandela, Dans! could be seen as a research case study in how precarious the embodied arts have become, true to the dystopian epoch, only living in theory, in the third industrial revolution, the era of information and data, the internet, the website, the humbled bowing out of public territory. The role of the arts as political charter of freedom, if not their very existence, is breathlessly being reinvented.

"...what does it mean to partake of human existence? Who is a human being and who is not, and by what authority is such a distinction made? If one is not a human being, what is one? And what is the relationship human beings should or can have with that on which it has not been possible to confer the attribute of humanity, or to which it has been denied? Finally, how do these matters relate to the birth of the subject, and the relation between freedom and bondage?" Achille Mbembe, On The Postcolony (p 174).

Sources

  • Achille Mbembe, On The Postcolony 2001. University of California Press.

  • Ben Spatz, Notes for Decolonizing Embodiment, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Volume 33, Number 2, Spring 2019, pp. 9-22 (Article), Published by Department of Theatre, University of Kansas. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/dtc.2019.0001

This sound track contains a selection of audio events of former president Nelson Mandela's speeches, interviews and conversations. This forms the 'back bone' of the sound track for Dans, Mandela Dans! with ambient insertions removed for your listening.