THE IMITATION GAME

AN INTERVIEW WITH NELISIWE XABA

This could be my last dance, says South African dancer, choreographer and performance artist Nelisiwe Xaba on her latest collaborative dance project with fellow dancer Mamela Myamza called the “The last Attitude” which will be headlining  this year’s contemporary dance festival,  the Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg from the 23rd of February to the 6th of March. “I thought about making this my last performance on stage, but decided against it” she said without a hint of irony.   It was during the process of coming up with a title for the collaborative piece with Myamza that Xaba decided not to do the proverbial final curtain call on her illustrious, 20 year career as a dancer, choreographer and in more recent years performer.

The piece initially titled “Corps de Ballet” is a comment on the militant and opulent nature of classical ballet which both dancers were trained in at the start of their dancing careers. In Last Attitude, both Xaba and Mamela take on the male lead roles amid a troupe of white dancers. The change in the political landscape both on stage and in the world at large formed the backdrop of our conversation with Xaba at the Dhelia Restaurant in Braamfontein, downtown Johannesburg.   Xaba’s militant feminism and commentary on racist ideology and its political and cultural manifestations forms the bed rock of her repertoire. The Last Attitude, is no different. It is perhaps a final curtain call to a particular, binary way of thinking. She is no longer interested in cracking the Eurocentric code or affirming masculine ideas of black consciousness. Here she and Mamela Myamza tackle gender roles – an imitation game which has softened her harsh attitude towards male dancers.

INTERVIEW: HOW DIFFERENT IS THE LAST ATTITUDE FROM DADA MASILO’S SIMILAR “DECONSTRUCTION” OF THE CLASSICAL BALLET PIECE, SWAN LAKE IN 2010?

XABA: ‘Our point was never to deconstruct ballet or to Africanize it. We were not interested in making Eurocentric art-forms, African.  That is so 80’s; mixing ballet with African dance (such as the panstula dance in Dada’ Masilo’s remixing of Swan Lake) was done in the 80’s. There’s nothing new there. With “The last Attitude “we’re taking on the male role in classical ballet and its Euro-centricity. Originally when ballet started there were no male performers included. They were gradually introduced as porters, to lift and carry women on stage, their job was to make the principal ballerina shine. The move to include men in prominent roles in Ballet  with the Russian male dancers, who pushed hard for male dancers to take on leading roles in  ballet pieces. Which were heralded by the likes of Mikhail Nikolayevich Baryshnikov – the famed, Latvian principal dancer choreographer for New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. Today men and increasingly black, gay men have taken over the art form which was originally intended for women. Ballet is a very conservative art form which has clearly defined roles for female and male dancers. Our aim is not to change this, but to comment on it and how hard it is, to actually be a male dancer in a ballet company.”

INTERVIEW: WHY DID YOU WANT TO TAKE ON THE MALE ROLE?

XABA: “I have always been envious of boys or male dancers on stage.  They were strong and could lift girls, and for this reason they always had a place in a dance company – particularly in South Africa. As a black female dancer I had to overcome a number of barriers, first the racial-colour bar and then the gender barriers. I started dancing very late for a woman in Ballet at 16, so I had a lot of catching up to do with my white contemporaries, whereas with boys (including black males) age was not a major limitation.  I left ballet many years ago but, you can never fully abandon your roots.  In many ways  Ballet is such a global art form that you think you can get into any  company around the world and do well  but I this is not always so.  In doing this piece I always knew that it was going to be hard, so  I started taking  ballet classes for two years before – to remain fit an maintain the technique. In 2015 I started taking professional dance classes with the Jozi Ballet Company. I took nine classes a week which is more than the 6 classes that their professional dancers taking. It made for rigorous training and suddenly after so many years I was confronted with the politics of the ballerina the aesthetic of beauty and youth. Your brain remembers but your body can’t do it anymore.

INTERVIEW: HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE CONFRONTED WITH YOUR OWN MORTALITY AS A DANCER AND HUMAN.

XABA: “The realization is always hard. I mean, we all have things we don’t like about our bodies – but in dance it is a daily and acute awareness. I am 45 now, you’d be hard pressed to find a principal ballet dancer who is 45 years anywhere in the world. Happily the contemporary dance stage has no age restrictions.  When we created “The Last Attitude” we were not trying to prove that we can still dance ‘en Pointe’. After a 20 year career in the field I expect more than a simple label of “the black dancer”.

End.

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THE SILENCE OF NKOSAZANA DLAMINI ZUMA: IS SHE OUR HILLARY CLINTON?

I have been a long distance admirer of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the current chairperson of the African Union (AU) commission. I have admired in particular her resilience and yes, her  acute silence over the years. Someone once wrote a flattering opinion piece about her in the City Press. A formidable character made even larger by an unshakable cloak of mystery which seemed to consistently shield her from any controversy. We don’t know much about this woman who some of us had hoped would one day take over the leadership of the country and become South Africa’s first female president.  But then again, perhaps we do know a lot about her.   A trained medical doctor from KwaZulu Natal  she met the current president Jacob Zuma  while working at a government hospital in Swaziland together they had  four children one boy and  three daughters one of whom, Gugulethu  graced our screens as Lesego Moloi in the once popular local soap Isidingo. Their 16 year long marriage ended in 1998.

Faction Before Blood

Before she is the president’s former wife however she has held her own in the political corridors of South Africa, becoming an active  underground member of the ANC and deputy president of the South African Students Organization in the 70’s, then she became the  minister of health during  the first  non-racial democratically elected government of South Africa under Nelson Mandela’s presidency in 1994  which would later put her right in the eye of the HIV/AIDS awareness storm, in which the public protector called her out on irregularities in the financing of the play, Sarafina II. Then former president Thabo Mbeki removed this hot potato from her burnt  fingers  when he took office and handed it over to the late health minister Manto Shabalala Msimang who held on to it until her death on December 16th in 2009.

Hands free and still a little soft Thabo Mbeki moved her to head up the then ministry of Foreign Affairs (International Relations and Corporation), a position which seemed to fit her like a glove – and where she showed her mettle as a formidable leader and negotiator, helping Mbeki launch his African Renaissance dream in the form of the New Partnership for Africa’s development (NEPAD) which put him at logger heads with former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wades’ OMEGA,plan for African Development. Wade conceded  defeat and elected to erect on his own behalf  a towering statue in the same name (The African Renaissance Monument) before being unceremoniously deposed from power in 2012 by his former ally, confidant and protégé, Macky Sall.

After President Jacob Zuma did a “Macky Sall” on President Mbeki, he ironically moved his former wife “back home” to head up the department of home affairs (domestic affairs) in 2009, I had a chance to meet her. At a conference at Gallagher estate in Midrand. I was the only reporter I knew on the story and I needed a quick interview with someone big.  Our paths had never met until that moment and I was quite surprised to find that she was much more demure and  much more petit that this towering figure of strength which I had so often seen projected on my Television screen each time I watched the news.

Human Nature

She was also quite soft-spoken in person and much kinder and gentler than I had ever imagined she would be. I was as always terrified of asking (her) for an interview, but since I was quite desperate for a sound bite I bit my fear and did the job. I can’t remember what the interview was about but I do remember being struck by her, I wished she had more time in that moment for a relaxed conversation about life. But as always she was in a hurry and I had to graciously make way.

I was struck by her stature, she was so cute I could hug her.

I had long been curious about her and the African National Congress Women’s league – but my fascination with her as an individual grew even larger after our brief encounter. I started to think about her more than I’d care to think about any politician. I wondered a lot about her person, her relationship with the President. Her silence on issues which were important for women – the nation.

I became so curious I decided the only way to learn about who Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma really is would be to write about her, to study her life. Which I thought while salivating would make for a riveting read. After years of thinking about her, I finally decided to make a call to her media person, at a time when her name was a strong contender for the upcoming presidential elections. I called the man and he asked if the book I wanted to write was going to say she must be president, I said no. I want to write a book about who she is and not an ANC campaign. He said I was joking. And I thought I might as well be, I was indeed an innocent in a den of hyenas.  Soon after, a vociferous campaign for her to take up the African Union Chairmanship made Ethiopia so inviting.  I wondered how I could get through the cruel chains which the Ethiopian government had woven against independent journalists (bloggers) in that country. Some are still serving life sentences for treason.  Without some institutional support my ambitions however noble could end in tears behind bars. So I watched her disappear into the thin horizon of the Promised Land. I kissed her and all the money I could have made with her goodbye!

Today I find myself thinking of her again. From a very different context – there’s something very interesting that’s happening, something curious. She’s still silent. And her silence has permeated the soil of rural KZN so much so that mini volcanoes are threatening to erupt on women’s faces, right there on their foreheads. They are tired of the deafening silences.

So if you are reading this Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and you think it’s time to talk about life, my memory of  words that were never uttered or spoken is still in excellent, peak condition. You can always deny everything since you will not have uttered a single word. But you and I will both know that the truth about who you are and what it takes to be you will be out there releasing a million more tongues from chains of mental and physical oppression, in  languages we are yet to conceive. I am almost certain that like our once beloved unofficial first lady of a free and democratic South Africa Winnie Madikizela Mandela, no one will judge you for it. Whatever it, is.

WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF: WILL YOUR SILENCE PROTECT YOU?

When  City Press editor Ferial Hafajee said in an interview with Ruda Landman that she teaches female journalists under her employ that they can speak up, nothing will happen to them. My heart skipped a beat. I replayed the tape and listened again and again then thought to myself: nothing will happen to you? Seriously, is she for real? Are you for real?
That for me, was a radical statement!
I was intrigued. Then I started to wonder if all the times when I did speak up and something happened to me as result, was all just a fragment of my imagination. If I created the consequences of other people’s reactions to my words? Her words brought to mind an essay penned by the late African-American Poet and writer, Audre Lorde called “The transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in it she said:
“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. I was going to die, if not sooner, then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

When I first read these words I thought I understood what she meant. That faced with the final inevitability of death – it was natural and perhaps even essential for one to speak up – to say your truth since, in that context nothing else matters, more, there is, in that reality nothing left to lose. But without the clarity which imminent death brings to bear, what incentives do people have to “speak of what is most important, to make it verbal and shared even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood”??
I never questioned this idea that something would happen to me if I spoke up, particularly in my practice of journalism. I had never for a moment thought that I could speak up and nothing will happen, that I won’t die, be killed, starved, robbed of opportunities, ignored, fired. Silenced. That I wouldn’t be labelled as crazy. I lived in acceptance of the fact that there would be some degree of negative consequence to anything I did. This extended to the very core of my entire awareness, as a black woman, sister, child. I was a negative consequence of my mother’s mistake. If my mother had done it right the first time, I probably would not be alive, so as a result my existence in this place (earth) was a burden, a load on my mother’s shoulders which it was my sole duty to alleviate and to make light.
I thought of all that I was afraid of in the words of Audre Lorde: “contempt, censure, of some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.”
And this is where I made this startling discovery. Something which I had never considered when I first read this essay. This discovery was that I was not, as I had convinced myself in all these years, afraid to die. No, no,no, no I was essentially and ultimately, quintessentially most afraid to Live. Because life is uncertain, unpredictable , risky and in the infinite multiplicity of ways beyond – my control.
It’s only now that I realize what she meant when she said “And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.”
Imagine speaking the truth, telling it like it is all the time, and have absolutely nothing happen to you! I have never, not even once in my life considered that to even be a vague possibility in my lifetime. Why we’ve seen leaders, activists, ordinary, nameless people do the same  and some died because of what they said, yet many more lived which is why we know of them today.

I never quite realized that by speaking my truth ( even though I thought it was a reaction to my fear of death – or even a desire to die)  I was in fact – living, being alive. I never realized that it is the very thing which has kept me  most alive. That  with the possibility of  dancing, again. And again.

It was quite something to come face to face with a look of fearlessness encapsulated in Fariel Hafajee’s simple statement, ” you can speak up, nothing will happen to you” which at first seemed so ridiculously radical, it was unreal. And yet , that is indeed the only way to live, to be free.

It is a stunning reality to wake up to every morning.

The face of freedom!1743686_10153184849338455_1424347907708626257_n