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A Curtain Up Collaboration

A collective reflection on opening night

We Want The Key by Lauren Noble

Towards the very beginning of the labyrinthine journey that was Jay Pather's undertow there was a segment dedicated to an interview with Achille Mbembe. Acknowledging the ambivalence of our 21st century world, Mbembe comments on the prevalence of absolute boundaries alongside an interconnectedness like never before in human history.

"Can we keep dancing today in the same way we danced yesterday?"

It was a seemingly innocuous query which intersected beautifully with the post-colonial, post-apartheid performance art choreographies and dance pieces which make up so much of Pather's legacy. But it got me thinking (which was the point, of course) that the very same question can and should be asked of education. Can we keep teaching today in the same way we taught yesterday? You would think that the answer to that is an obvious one - and it is! - but between the knowing what needs to be done and the ability to do it, there exists a rather expansive gap. Bridging that gap is a task that simply has to involve every cog within the machine that is educational reform. From the students who have ideas and insights about the efficacy of teaching and learning to the teacher who is on the frontlines of lesson delivery with their fingers firmly on the pulse of everyday education; from the heads of department who are tasked with academic adaptations and curriculum management to the exam boards who are (at best) fighting on our behalf against councils of non-educators making decisions on education from their ivory towers or are (at worst) so exhausted from the fight that they exist now to merely placate both sides in some sort of defeated middle ground. That's not even including the role of professional recommendations, of parents and caregivers, of senior school leadership, and even of researching the issues inherent in the very careers we prepare our young people for... there are a lot of cogs to consider!

It was exactly a year ago that the wall of my dining room looked like this. The Collab Company brainstorm of 2020 and JOMBA! Khuluma was listed from day one on a yellow Post-It.

I founded Collab Company exactly a year ago this week. For the first four months prior to our official launch I used everything I had learned on my journey as an arts educator and as a creative to shape our company ethos. I soon realised that everything I was aiming to achieve across the entirety of the company was rooted in holistic pedagogy alongside an ensemble ethos as we aimed to redefine the performing arts on a global stage. We know that at every level in the hierarchy of education there are gatekeepers who have the capacity to choose what we learn, how we learn it, and at what pace we are supposed to do so. They decide what is important and what is not, what is examinable and what is merely a tick-box exercise. The gatekeepers alternate between the dedicated and duty-bound, the passionate and pretentious, the tenacious and the timid. Our act of redefinition is therefore one which consciously seeks to include every cog within the machine of arts education and professional practice, forging a better way of teaching, learning and creating within our wider performing arts industry. We don't want to remove the gatekeepers... we just want more of us to have the key!

One of the very first things I wrote on a Post-It during a Collab Company brainstorm last August was the phrase "JOMBA!" followed closely by "Clare Craighead". I knew that on our journey to bridge that gap between knowing what needs to be done and our ability to do it existed the JOMBA! Khuluma Writing Residency under the tutelage of Clare Craighead and the now global cohort of dancers, writers, researchers and dance journalists. Our work with JOMBA! proves that cross-cultural, cross-continental collaborations between people of all ages and qualifications provide the platform to teach and learn with and from one another. This article is just one of Collab's experimental structures and styles for our own brand of dance journalism which is achieved by collaborating in practice rather than in theory.

The opening night of JOMBA! challenged our sensibilities and inspired a three hour discussion about who holds the key to the gates of knowledge and this forms the basis of much of our critique. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it together...

She Is On Her Way by Vicki Galloway-Place

The words of Arundhati Roy have been a source of inspiration for many of Lliane Loots' opening addresses over the years. They are especially pertinent this year given the 'strange breathlessness' that Loots unpacks for the audience at the very start of JOMBA! 2021

The words of Lliane Loots, Artistic Director of the JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience, have resonated with me since her speech last week. Such power, such depth, such hope; and don't we all cling to hope when we are yearning for change? The address was both moving and poetic, perfectly contextualizing the exhibits of dance we will bear witness to over the next two weeks. It set the tone perfectly, preparing the digital space for the diverse range the festival will provide.

Loots followed Ismail Mahomed who is the Director of The Centre of Creative Arts at UKZN where JOMBA! is one of many artistic festivals. Together their words provided a moment, one of many binding us all together, watching all over the world, this JOMBA! virtual audience. Their speeches were all they should be at the start of a festival but I was particularly inspired by to Mahomed's poignant words which spoke to our collective envisioning of a global community "where human life is valued, freedom is celebrated, and where creativity becomes a universal language which powerfully communicate where no other language can." Beautifully reminding us, once again, of the power of dance where no words are needed.

JOMBA! is now in its 23rd year and dance, theatre, performance, the world - everything - has changed, adapted and moved on. In the midst of the past two years, I have witnessed the adaptability, the creativity, and the sheer determination of the arts in continuing to create, and to provide for the global community (artistic or otherwise) and in this, borders were crossed in previously unimagined ways. The world became our stage. We regrouped and have risen stronger, bolder and louder than ever before. JOMBA! symbolizes all of this and by going digital for the past two years, finding innovative ways of presenting and performing work, a larger audience has been discovered and more stories are able to be heard. The whisper of the new world is resonating now in all of our ears; as we participate in observing dances of truth, of defiance, considering what our contributions to the new world might be and lean into the hope that she, the new world, is well on her way. And what better way to wait for her arrival than by bearing witness to the multitude of works by Jay Pather, Legacy Artist for JOMBA! 2021.

Crossing Borders and Pushing Boundaries by Sasha Topic

Legacy is term we might use to describe something which has been handed down from the past but, in this context, it also engages the idea of sustaining something so that it is kept alive for future generations. It is so important for young artists to have legacies to draw from and JOMBA! plays a significant role in facilitating the act of passing the flame, of documenting the history, and of sharing across cultural boundaries in a way that reminds us of this year's theme of Border Crossings. With so many different cultures coming together through dance, theatre, performance art, and writing, the collaborative potential is phenomenal and it provides a host of opportunities to learn about things we did not know or understand before. The work of Jay Pather fits into that space for me.

"Pather is no stranger to JOMBA! and has, over the years, presented numerous of his dance works with Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre at the festival. As founder and director of the company, Pather has forged a path as one of South Africa’s most critical and innovative dance makers often celebrating the border crossings of cultural clash and the dis-ease of the ‘rainbow nation’." via JOMBA! press release

This year Pather was awarded the title of Legacy Artist for JOMBA! 2021 for his contributions to the dance, choreography, performance art landscape of South Africa and beyond. A Durbanite of many talents, Pather has produced a body of work over the years which encourages even the most passive audiences to think, to critique, to engage. He showcases a variety of topical issues, often using a Postmodern style which highlights the magic and versatility of arts. This, in turn, cultivates a strong sense of engagement given the varied perspectives that result from a stint as an audience member - sometimes in a theatre, sometimes on the street, sometimes in a mansion-like house! We could argue for days about his work but, of course, that seems to be exactly the point.

I moved to Dubai a few years ago with a very low understanding of the English language. School life was very difficult at the beginning but it was my involvement in the theatre programs created by Lauren Noble which paved the way for me to gain confidence in myself. I joined Collab Company this year and I am busier than ever, learning new skills as a journalist and allowing myself to think further outside the box than ever before. My journey in the arts makes me think of what Jay Pather said about the difficulties of crossing borders, even ones that we may have built for ourselves:

“Getting to the other side clear, clean, triumphant and unmarked, is impossible - things tug, hurt and tear. And you gather parts, reassemble something resembling a new way and move on to the next dig.”

The arts has helped me push my own boundaries but now I am also eager to push the boundaries of dance in Dubai too.

Dance has a history for a reason and even though I have been dancing for most of my life, no one has really taught me the history behind it. Dubai is alive with dance, with studios in every community, but there should definitely be more opportunities for those of us who love dance to learn about it more methodically. There is so much room for cross-cultural dance acknowledgement to grow and I would love to see more opportunities for dance education to take root in Dubai where there is an obvious passion for it. The arts provides us all with different ways of obtaining an education. My experience with JOMBA! in just one week has provided me with so much learning and being exposed to the unique work of Jay Pather has asked me to think more deeply and consider a much bigger picture. At times I battled to understand the works presented in undertow but I realise that my confusion is also part of my journey, asking me to remember that the borders of my own dance knowledge can and must be crossed in different ways. To quote the border-crossing Legacy Artist himself: "Borders for me have not been ones that you can gracefully jeté over, or jump, or even assail. Border crossing has meant digging below, just before the fence, rummaging through mud, crafting in trenches, tunneling through underneath." It's time to start crossing borders and pushing boundaries...

Through The Looking Lens: Part I by Nadiah Tejani

The opening ceremony of the annual JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience and Jay Pather's undertow in particular had me asking one question over and over again: how do we actually create meaning? A few minutes later - or perhaps a few hours, who knows? - I was falling down a rabbit hole of critical thought and suddenly arrived at a Postmodern device known as 'undecidability’. Undecidability effectively counters the belief that one needs to decide, definitively, on different forms of interpretation in order to truly understand a piece of art.

Jay Pather's choreographies are multidimensional in the extreme and there is always so much happening within and without © Val Adamson - 'Body of Evidence' (2009), The Playhouse

As someone who grew up without much in the way of dance in my life, I have always been rather tentative when exploring this art form. My knowledge of dance was influenced by the mainstream media and that often meant there was a lack of cultural spirit and intellectual rigour. The act of experiencing undertow as part of a digital audience opened my eyes to the phenomenon that is South African dance whilst simultaneously (and utterly) overwhelming me with dance performances that I could not apply my usual logic to. And this, folks, is where 'undecidability' fits into the picture! Why? Because there was no rubric to follow, no academic requirement for me to lean on as I attempted to rationalize the meaning I had started to form in my mind. I was suddenly in a situation where - as so much of my schooling had instructed me to do - I was consistently seeking to order the supposed disorder of Pather's composite film. But it wasn't working!

Then Denton Douglas and Ntombi Gasa began performing around each other within a hotel room. Individually, they portrayed an array of emotions ranging from fear to rage, panic to pain, but it was the chemistry that emanated from them as they moved together which made me suddenly fear a conflict was about to occur. That particular moment of meaning was created through my own lens of understanding and I realised that this is actually true of all of us as audience members. When questioning Lauren on what she understood from Hotel she said that she felt such an intense intimacy between the two dancers, despite their lack of physical proximity, and that it almost made her want to look away to give them some privacy. And this, right here, is exactly why it is so interesting - and necessary - to collaborate as we navigate JOMBA! according to Collab's ethos. Whether student or teacher, professional or enthusiast, beginner or experienced, we all have the capacity to decode meaning according to our own lens and no one perspective is more valid than another.

The title of Pather’s work is undertow, a term which defines an individual current of water below the surface that moves in a different direction to the current on the surface. In much the same way, our unique responses to dance can be seen as that individual current of water. No matter the intention of the artist, or the views of the person sitting next to you, or even the expertise of the person in the house one continent twice removed to your left, the law of undecidability gives you the freedom to interpret art with no boundaries, no borders and no boxes to limit your perspective. The only question you must ask yourself to begin is "which lens am I looking through right now?"

Through The Looking Lens: Part II by Bibars Murad

As someone who has never previously been too familiar with South African history and theatre, witnessing JOMBA’s opening night left me with an array of often contrasting thoughts and emotions. Upon reflection, I think a lot of that had to do with my own uncertainty about which lens I was supposed to be looking through.

Through one lens, as an audience member, I was completely bewildered. I mean, wouldn't you be? Having just been exposed to what I could only assume was traditional or perhaps even ritualistic South African dance theatre for the very first time in my life! I found myself questioning a lot of different aspects from the style of the dance to the physical appearance of the performers, as I attempted to order the overwhelmingly disordered. And yet, somehow, it was this confusion which piqued my curiosity and built up within me an eagerness to learn more. Our Collab Company WhatsApp group was alight with questions, answers and opinions throughout opening night and it was fascinating to read the perspectives of a South African, Kenyan and Serbian alongside my own.

Jay Pather's performance art choreographies are literal pieces of living, breathing art which can be deconstructed and reconstructed through a variety of lenses © Val Adamson - 'Qaphela Caesar' (2009), Press Shoot

Through another lens, as a contemporary dancer, I was able to spot several elements I was familiar with despite their being combined with aspects of South African culture. For instance, one performance which stood out to me incorporated aspects of traditional dance alongside balletic movements and combinations. It took another two observations of the dance before I realised the superficiality of every movement I was deconstructing was actually getting in the way of a wider perspective - this was something I had grappled with when writing my poem, Listen, earlier this week. Suddenly, it seemed as if the ballerina was symbolizing a sense of westernization as the man beside her comedically imitated her movements. Was he mocking the very idea of westernization from a South African perspective? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It was a meaningful detail to include, especially when considering the many other examples undertow used to send up the idea of the supposed superiority of western society. And if JOMBA! has taught me anything this week, it's that the very concept of superiority occupies a highly problematic space in a dance festival like this...

About The Festival: For more about the JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience please visit their official webpage here or pop over to their social media accounts on Instagram or Facebook. If you'd like to spend some time engaging with previous festival content through the eyes of JOMBA! Khuluma then head over to their official blogspace here.


© Written by Lauren Noble, Vicki Galloway-Place, Sasha Topic, Nadiah Tejani and Bibars Murad for JOMBA! Khuluma and Collab Company | Edited by Lauren Noble | 2021


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