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”.