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10th Drama for Life Conference 2018

Keynote Speech

Main Theatre, Witwatersrand University

Keynote speech by Tossie van Tonder

*Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 'Movement and Mirror Neurons: A Challenging and Choice Conversation, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences.11:3. p.6.

'Anytime we care to pay attention to it, there it is'*:
Auto-ethnography as vital materialism. Self-interest as political guide.

Drama For Life 2018
This was in 1983. There has been a development since this photograph was taken.

To speak of your life and art in transformation - especially in South Africa and the larger African context - is filled with complexities. I say this with the hope that you all recognise and appreciate your artistic and life passions and to give form to an immanent and even divine force in yourselves. This, on the spectrum from being artists to healers, and beyond.

What a great honour to speak to you today - and on the 10th birthday of Drama For Life! With a feast of a program! What a Drama For Life! Thank you so much for the invitation. And it is great to share the stage with you Zimitri, Sibongile and Shelley.

I have a recurring dream that I dreamed again on the 15th of this month. I dream I dance for a small group of people under very informal circumstances. This time a few of my close friends stood in a loose circle around the dance area, almost like sentinels.

Now in this dream-dance I float in the air most of the time, coming down to the floor at my own aesthetic desire. I stay in the air in any position and don't find the witnesses at all surprised by this heavenly feature in my dance.

It is the only dream that I dream vividly, being aware that I dream... while fully being in the dream.

Then, in my dream, out of nowhere a group of youngsters were busy rehearsing the Cape Minstrel in their satin costumes and frills, marching with a brass instrument in somewhat of a loose choreographic jouissance.

And while I am dreaming I remember a real life story of a school in Mitchells Plain. This school showed remarkable success against the onslaught of gangs on the school grounds and surrounds.

Drama For Life 2018

The children participated in the art of drilling, creative drilling, marching, which they practiced during the break. I was astounded at the power and beauty of this new art form. A young girl was asked how it was to be a part of such a marching practice. These were her words: 'I talk to people differently now. And my mother is very happy.'

I will return to this dream-story later.

And I know that certain contexts are not always home for your work. But I know that Drama For Life's quest is to make sure that you feel at home with your impulse to create, inspire, heal, build, learn and share yourselves freely.

In my history as performer, this photograph on the left could apply any time from 2006 to now.

What happened in 35 years between 1983 and now? And if there is a trajectory, where on earth could this lead to?

Let me take you to the field of auto-ethnography:


Graphy=writing/recording/noticing/finding interesting/producing knowledge/heal the world

Auto-ethnography is the field where you find yourself - within any context - interesting enough to research as vital materialism.

I will explain.

First a word on interest.

What does it mean to radiate interest in something or somebody... or in the self?

Drama For Life 2018
"This word 'interest' expresses something that in the moral sense is extremely significant. It is much more important to bear in mind the moral significance of pure interest than to devote oneself to a multitude of moral axioms. [...] Our moral impulses are never guided better than when we take proper interest in things and beings. When we extend our interest, when we find opportunity to enter with understanding into the objects and beings of the world, our inner forces are called forth."

Linda Thomas. Why Cleaning Has Meaning. p. 147.

This is remarkable. That pure interest lies at the heart of the potential for moral development.

Drama For Life 2018

What is your experience when you take interest in persons with widely different temperaments and personalities, racial and national characteristics, religious and philosophical views?

What if it happens to you? That you are being found to be interesting? And what more could be said of you when you claim strong interest in yourself such as your particular form of lurking racism, your unique self-righteousness, your own highly personalised practice of conscious sexuality. Are you interested in your shadows?

And when something or somebody is not interesting to you, here is a hint: go for the detail.

What is the difference between writing about Shakespeare or writing yourself? The difference is simple: Shakespeare will never be able to keep up with you. And your genre is changing by the day. Today you write a short story, tomorrow you create a dance, the next day you do counselling with a colleague, then you write a ground-breaking play, then you work on the street amidst a protest action! All very naturally!

The greatest excitement for a critic and followers of your work as artist-healer would be that nothing could be compared to what you created before.

Auto-ethnography is a response to the crisis of representation in the Humanities which began in the '70s and '80s, where personal narratives of the self, reveal, critique and transform wider cultural trends of thought and practice.

May I dare say that you are all auto-ethnographers. Effectively you always produce new theory. This theory becomes the basis for new culture. We have a whole conference to prove that. And for that reason, not long from now, we will study your life, your work, your struggles, your joys, ecstasies as much as your devastations, and what you have come to deliver at this conference.

In addition, from a futurist point of view, and many people talk about that nowadays, looking at yourself from the future, being a scholar in the arts and healing professions with the right scope of body intelligence, philosophical, social, political and ecological infusion into your learning is probably the best education you can give yourself today. As long as it does not meddle with your instincts and your intuition (note the Body!), because we have no idea what the future will ask of us.

In my understanding, Drama For Life stands for this focus and platform of development.

Anything you are giving your attention to is an invitation to the essence of it. Why not give it to yourself? For me it has been an explosion of information that reaches into understanding myself as dancer-psychologist, teacher, mother, political being, Africanist, as woman, and as elder.

The explosion never ceased to thrust me into fields such as post-coloniality, post-dramatic studies, gender studies and the often unseen explosions of maternal studies, philosophy, feminism, masculinities, race theory, African studies, political studies, sexuality studies,

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body studies such as developmental movement patterns that I teach to revisit our body's history which often helps to readjust our perspective on the world and ourselves at the heart of thought.
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Sacred geometry connects us with the cosmos and our sense of infinity, as reality and... as ego-organizational support for mental health.

I also include art processes and form drawing

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to navigate external and internal transformations, neurological balancing, so that we continue to grow with an inherent sense of integrity of being.

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Touch, is the art of consent, and it is a visceral learning curve.

Often times these activities, whether for adults or youth bring transformative results living in the etheric body, the life force and lingers there as buffer against dysfunction and disconnection with the self, the other beings and the world at large.

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My work links strongly with my life.

Nothing stands alone or separate from the rest of my life and being.

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Challenges that are physical, psychological, relational, political,

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maternal, artistic and existential are all processes within the span of myself as artist-healer.

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My book My African Heart gives words to the first 7 months of pregnancy, a conversation between my becoming-mother and emerging-child, strongly African, with a partner from the territories of Umkhotho we Sizwe and Robben Island imprisonment.

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I can truly say that when one is in the presence of witnesses (audience/spectators) the personal transformation that happens - shape-shifting in the true sense of the word - as a result of the convergence of physique, bones, heat, flesh, affect, imaginary, locality, energetics, soul forces and spirit, is profoundly transformative.

Conscious Ageing - the most transformative medicine.

By the way, this sensibility of being, practiced during life is probably the most useful method to guide your being during the later years. Remember, you are always in the Drama... For Life. Ageing, Conscious Ageing, holds the most transformative medicine for which one has to allow, courageously.

Drama For Life 2018

While the body-mind, which never really splits while you are alive, slowly drifts apart, I can tell you that daily artistic and healing practices can give you the tools to accompany yourself into old age right to the last moment. Dedication to our field marks a particular aesthetic that is always undergirded by spiritual values such as gratitude and blessing.


Drama For Life 2018 Drama For Life 2018 Drama For Life 2018

In 2015 I used footage of the surgical procedure, during a period of treatment for cancer, for a performance, to celebrate my archive of 35 years. I suspect it was the first time that doctors who treated me, had a patient who wanted footage of the cancer as potential inspiration for performance.

I found the subtlety of this inner-performance-gesture - my most-internal-theatre, thus far - profoundly political.

Extreme Subjectivities

With Thalia Laric and Kristina Johnson

Extreme Subjectivities is on-going work.

Here our bodies research a growing relational body-mind, connecting in the moment. There is touch, intimacy, affect, abjection, convulsion, emersion, emerging from warmth of bodies, intensities and densities of physical contact, emotional release, surrender and often psychological eruptions. To be responsive to your fellow performers is a real technique of energetic respect that also allows you to cataclysmic excavations of the self within the safety of the group. Repressed areas are unearthed and lived out, consciousness creeps and pushes to the grounds of energetics, the most sensitive moments of registering joyful lust are opened to consciousness.

These are some of our notes.

This is catharsis therapy exploited aesthetically on a platform of extreme humanism.

Looking at the images reminds me of Edward Said's quote:

"But what has really been lost is a sense of the density and interdependence of human life, which can neither be reduced to a formula nor be brushed aside as irrelevant."

Edward Said, Orientalism

'What is the Human in the Humanities Today?'
Rosi Braidotti, posthumanist.

This question is being asked by Prof Rosi Braidotti, a strong post-humanist at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. As a proponent of the post-humanism myself I teach, and perform this question as

What is a person?
Knowing very well that as a human race

we are no longer those we were;
and what we are about to become, is unknown to us.

Drama For Life 2018

Understanding the world as seen from the human eye is no longer good enough. The non-human enfolds our consciousness as climate change, pollution, droughts, floods, bacteria and viruses permeating our bodies with a new integrity, and without a doubt bringing us a consciousness that we are no longer those we were.

What philosophers and scientists are grappling with are the convergence of all these fields which include our humanity AND the qualitative and subjective leaps it forces us into, is what interests me.

Bringing the self,

empathically into performance and the healing arts,

as praxis-in-complexity,

operates as vital materialism,


"a broader 'critical act of deep ontological impact.'"

Look at extracts from footage of a 2014 performance of

What does the earth think it is? 2014

Auto-ethnography covers any ground where one finds oneself, to investigate what kind of knowing-feeling subjects are we in the process of becoming and which discourses underscore the process. It stretches into geo-political landscapes and all the way back into footage of our bodies and biological existence.

Drama For Life 2018

Do not forget that we are here for a 10th birthday celebration.

DFL is 10 years old.

Some of my favourite teacher friends told me that there were certain characteristics of the 10-year old child. I hope you can see where I am going with this.

The lightness that we observe in the 10-year old body has the joy of 'beingness' before the weight of teenage settles in. The word often used is élan, meaning flair, stylishness, elegance, grace, gracefulness, taste... smartness.

The 10-year old is said to be in the middle of childhood, also termed the golden years, a time that will never again be experienced but holding an undergird that would feed your being for the rest of your life.

And sometimes the élan of the 10 year old, that is still in our adult bodies, pops... into... your... dreams... and... lets ... us... float. I refer to my dream I told you about earlier on, the one in which I am floating.

The 10-year-old gives birth to grace and gracefulness.

Those are the moments later inserted in us where things turn, magical things happen between you and others, between you and God, between you and life, moments of inspiration. The 10-year old personifies this physically. As a blessing, this is what they bring to the world, albeit unconsciously, perfectly poised between heaven and earth.

I would like to bring this blessing of being, the secret garden where we are discovering what growth is, and how to live in that mystery, fully permeated, to the 10-year old, Drama... For... Life.

Now I will dance for you. The music-video has a story.

Drama For Life 2018

It was during the year of my son's initiation into manhood in the Eastern Cape where I was most fortunate to attend an annual competition that took place around the districts of Mount Frere, Mount Ayliff, Tsolo and Matatiele.

Tossie van Tonder Ends her Presentation with a Dance

School choirs competed with songs pertaining to their age groups. I ended up making videos of each and every choir as they simply got better throughout the day, which stretched into the midnight hours. Here is one of the songs sung in Afrikaans, a verse from the Bible:

'Kom na my toe, almal wat vermoeid en belas is, en Ek sal jul rus gee.' It was beautiful! By the time the 10th choir tried to sing it even more beautiful than the previous ones, with their most-worthy teachers, I was finished. Forgive the quality of the recording from my phone.

With this I wish to thank you all for listening to me, and may your 10 days of feisty interchanges, collaborations and sharing be blessed.

Drama For Life 2018