Mamela Nyamza’s constant reinvention

After seeing several of Mamela Nyamza’s performances and installations both at the Baxter Dance Festival a few years back and at the Grahamstown Arts Festival recently, I had always been a bit in awe of her presence and power, developing (what my peers and I call) quite an ‘art-crush’ on her. I know I’m not the only person to consider her one of the most important choreographers and dance artists in South Africa today. Her work is profoundly unique and genuine, somehow managing to be both expansive and intimate. It is constantly evolving and adapting to engage with the broad range of audiences who get to witness her art. She is currently in Washington, USA participating in a residency at the University of Maryland where she will be performing at Next Now Festival and at 651 Arts in New York City. She is also working on De-APART-HATE, which she will be performing at the Cape Town Fringe this September. YOU SHOULD GO WATCH IT. In the meantime, she answered a few of my questions about herself and her work.


Most people who read your Wikipedia page will get a certain idea into who are and your career as an artist and dancer. But how do you think would introduce yourself to a younger you?  

As an artist I have certainly evolved (and certainly my Wikipedia should be updated a bit). I started as a raw and naïve dance student at Zama Dance School and at Tshwane University of Technology (formally known as Pretoria Technikon), thinking that the foundation and principle of ballet dancing I got from Ms. Westergaard would be enhanced and further nurtured at the university level. I was totally wrong and confused at the same time. I did learn a lot at Technikon, even though I was not happy with how I was taught, but I met interesting lecturers such as Robyn Orlin, Vincent Mantsoe, David Matamela, Sonya Mayor, Vicki Karras etc. My body, physique and my weight were rebuked as “not suitable for ballet” and I was always cast as an “understudy” – thus never made it as a fully fleshed ballerina (even though I passed the diploma). Even though I beat all the other supposedly “good bodied” ballerinas when I passed the audition and was awarded to go study at the Alvin Alley School of Dance in New York, USA.

So, to the younger generation who still get inspired by me as a dancer, I would introduce myself a “DE-APART-HATE DANCER” (trademarked concept) who continuously defies the normative of dance; and intends to define a dancer like me as a performing artist that refuses to be confined in a box, yet allows people to critique my body movement as per their confinement. I regard my performances both as conceptual and physical art that convey topical meaning rather than mere entertainment. The body movement becomes the vocal cord without uttering a word. I use simple body/physical techniques to create sound. To the critics who claim I don’t dance, they must know that I define my existence as a dancer on the phenomenal words of Martha Graham (a famed choreographer) who once said: “Dance is the hidden language of the soul”. This means, dance goes beyond the extremes of physically demanding activities such as training, rehearsals and performances, to education on concepts and ideas to initiate change for the better.

In an interview about your performance with Mojisola AdebayoI Stand Corrected, you speak about when you started pursuing your own artistic path in 2007/2008. You mention that during this time, when you first discovered your voice, you started creating work about women and women’s issues. What kind of work would you say you are creating now?

As a choreographer/creator, I do use my body’s natural abilities and formal training in dance to create movements, which might then be interpreted by critics as conceptual and not physical. I think it’s both. But whether critiqued as conceptual and less physical, the main aspect of my creativity is based on contemporary: I select my concept that will always best demonstrate that I am a capable performer based both on my training and practitioner as a dancer. I pay respect to both the change and the classics; and that is why I have this love/hate relationship with ballet. In this instance, every audience member is entitled to their interpretation of my work. But I would be happy if the audience and critics alike would also interact with it. Because, those who do both (interpret and interact) would always come back for the second time and would grasp it more than the previous day. It is a fact that, with repeated viewing/reading, messages do sink in. Therefore when I create I always have goals informed by my past, current and future experiences. These goals are never fixed but they are always focused. Goals always remain useful as road map, but they must remain flexible for innovation. This allows me to always re-evaluate and start again, if desired results did not yield to my expectations.

Earlier this year British choreographer Akram Khan made quite a controversial statement about not needing more women choreographers for the ‘sake of having more women choreographers’. What are your thoughts about being a women and negotiating the performing arts world? Do you think the playing level has essentially been ‘leveled’ or is there still a strong need for female voices to be expressed, encouraged and funded artistically?

There can never be any leveling of playing field, for Black women choreographers in particular, if this field is not rectified at tertiary levels at academies and institutions of dance. Take South Africa for instance, not a single Black woman is a LEAD BALLERINA in these formal institutions of dance; black men are always preferred and cast as lead dancers instead of their female counterparts. If Black women do not get such exposure, how would they be able to create? And, with those who are at these institutions of dance, they get misled and misguided and are not properly nurtured and groomed steadily from being a solid dancer to a substantial creator of dance pieces. Black women dancers are always put at mediocre levels of dance performances, even at institutions. We need strong women to educate the next generation in order to have strong female choreographers, but when we are denied access to these institutions how are we going to at least groom the next generation of women artists? The classical pessimists must do away with institutional racism in the art form. Rank and race must be done away with in ballet in particular and in dance in general. A professional career as a dancer must become a choice for Black dancers and not something that is a long shot for them. We must fight for quality access to quality opportunities for quality product, and NOT for a number.

You mentioned that the piece I Stand Corrected is different every time you perform it. How much of choreography do you see as ‘process’? Do you ever feel ‘done’ with a performance in the way a painting or sculpture is ‘finished’? What draws you to performance, specifically dance, as your creative medium?

As I have said before, my work is always inspired by the contemporary. Therefore it will always evolve as experiences change. For instance, my autobiographical work Hatched is also constantly evolving. Performed in many places already (Africa, Singapore, Europe and now going to the USA), Hatched involves my son Amkele Mandla who joins me on stage most of the time as a part of the performance. When the piece was first performed – at the New Dance Festival in Johannesburg – Amkele was 8 years old. He is now 16, and I must always reinvent and adapt my choreography accordingly. Unfortunately, my son is not joining me in the USA due to school commitments, therefore I will be forced yet again to reinvent and adapt to his absence. My work is never done. I like to surprise myself and my audience to keep it alive and fresh. Even now I have many questions about Hatched, how will it be at 40 as I am no longer a 30 year old woman, so I have grown, and so has the work…it must also evolve.

One could describe you as a solo artist, yet you also seem to create very collaboratively. You also incorporate many elements into your choreography like objects, light and shadows, so that a solo work almost becomes like a duet/trio/group. How do you feel about collaboration as an artist?

I regard myself as a performing artist who sometimes performs alone on stage and at times performs with other artists as either co-performers with me (The Meal and 19-Born 76-Rebels), co-directors with me (Hatched 2015), or co-creators with me (I Stand Corrected and The Last Attitude). Collaboration is fundamental to any serious artist who would like to enhance her/his artistry in any genre of art. All my collaborative works have one thing in common: an art work that is an agreed upon disharmony of emotional urges/drives whose zeal derives from the cross-fertilization of diverse artists at work. Yes, I love props as one other element that I collaborate with, so that I do not bore myself with dancing only from the beginning till the end.

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