Industry insights from Sashin Kandhai
My engagement with the JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience began in my very first year as a student at Howard College exactly ten years ago. Up until the moment I started my lectures in the drama department, I had only ever dabbled in Indian styles of dance on a very commercial level so walking into this new world of what performance and dance meant was exhilarating and daunting in equal measure! I will never forget how much of a struggle it was to find my feet in those first few months – it was information and experience overload! The ability to use dance as a thought-provoking medium, the notion of the body itself being political, the quintessence of contemporary dance and the very way it engaged the body so differently to anything I had experienced before... it was a lot to take in.
As time progressed, the initial struggle fell away, and my perception of dance was reinvented. I started to engage with dance through education, sometimes taking in its theory form through lectures with Lliane Loots and Clare Craighead, and other times taking in its practical form through my work with Flatfoot Training Company. To borrow a quote from Aladdin, I became completely immersed in a whole new world that I was once so uncomfortable even contemplating let alone participating in. It was especially fulfilling to be able to take all of that knowledge and skill and use it to perform in the JOMBA! Fringe Festival in 2015 in a work that was produced by a group of artists who called themselves The Rickshaw Collective.
Over half a decade later and the journey which was recalibrated in an academic space has moved me into a more commercial space where dance suddenly needed to be about business. The past six years have been dedicated to discovering the need to diversify in order to develop a brand that would allow me to survive as a full time dancer and choreographer. And though I found myself immersed in an entirely mainstream environment, the ideologies about dance and art and theatre that I has nurtured throughout my years at Howard College have never left me. Now, all these years later, an opportunity has risen to be a part of JOMBA! in a way I would never have imagined possible and I simply couldn’t turn it down.
Collab Company is a UAE-based performing arts organisation founded by a fellow South African and with a vested interest in connecting with creatives from all around the world in a global ensemble. As part of our cross-continental collaborative work within Collab Company, six of us from South Africa and the United Arab Emirates were asked to join the JOMBA! Khuluma Writing Residency in an effort to support the arts, and develop dance journalism on a global stage. I saw this as the perfect platform to revisit not only the world of contemporary dance but also the academia which underpins dance in all its varied forms. I jumped right into my first virtual lecture as part of the program and found myself in an intriguing discussion around artistic defiance. This topic led to an extensive unpacking around the notion of hope and proved again why collaborations across boundaries and borders are so very significant. Why? Because in just one 60 minute seminar we were able to experience the notion of what hope itself symbolizes to so many different people in so many different places all around the world. This conversation resulted in some interesting – even conflicting – definitions of hope for artists, and it compelled me to think about my own experience with hope, both personally and professionally.
I believe that we have all held on to hope at some point in our lives. As artists, we hope like hell that the institution we have devoted our lives and livelihoods to has the capacity to stand strong as we navigate a pandemic. As creatives, we hope to continue to create our work and do what we love without a dark cloud constantly looming overhead. We hope for theatres and international travel to reopen. We hope for the green light so that we might put on our live performances again. We hope that in a world where every cent counts, people are able to invest in the arts so that we can sustain our careers. Whether we accept it or not, hope is an ideal that we engage with in even the most trivial of our day to day activities. These were the thoughts that raced through my mind as I participated in one of the opening virtual lectures of JOMBA! Khuluma as led by Clare Craighead. It was an eye-opening experience because it was suddenly so evident that hope is a concept which is deeply rooted in the personal experiences and expressions of each individual. But the very concept of hope requires our own acknowledgement as to whether holding onto hope has become so ingrained in our subconscious that hope unaccompanied by action becomes inevitable? How do we know if our own hope has evolved into a strategy or deteriorated into a scapegoat?
Let me take you back to the UAE in January 2020. After four years of talking about it – dare I say, hoping for it? – and two years of planning it, I landed in Dubai to meet my friend and colleague, Lauren Noble, to start our work on a theatrical extravaganza: Arabian Nights. The thrill of this experience was so much more about the process than the product, which is one of the reasons the two of us have always worked so well together. Consider this against the fact that we were hustling hard to ensure that the production itself was the best we had ever seen, let alone worked on, ourselves. We were giving it our all in Dubai!
It still amazes me and terrifies me in the same breath to contemplate how, in the blink of an eye, a situation can make a complete 180. One month into our project and this new virus they were calling COVID-19 shifted from an indistinct phenomenon to a series of rapidly rising cases. And just like that, we were informed that we had stop all work on our production indefinitely. At first it was a feeling of being wounded but not defeated – we were down but not out! There was a measure of hope that this was just temporary. We continued to work in small numbers, our performers even meeting in their community parks and local Starbucks, working on whatever we could in the hope that we would be back up and running as quickly as we were shut down. Was it blind hope? And is blind hope dangerous? We didn’t know what would happen tonight, tomorrow, in three days’ time, but we held on to hope because we simply did not want to see the production we cared about so deeply not come to life. Were we setting ourselves up for further disappointment? That question was answered for us in the most decisive fashion when the UAE announced a pending lockdown and the rumour that every airline was suspending all flights in and out of the country. Again, in the blink of an eye, my flight was changed… and I was on my way back to South Africa.
I was disappointed having returned not finishing what we set out to do however there was much to look forward to coming home and I was still hopeful. I landed back in South Africa as the first case of COVID-19 was detected. The numbers quickly began to rise and suddenly, for the first time, we too were presented with the rumours of a hard lockdown. This is when I first felt the hope in me begin to seep away. My work began to fall away, first postponed and eventually cancelled. Deposits had to be returned. Studios were closed and later forfeited. It felt as though I was being forcibly stripped of the very essence that makes me an artist. There was suddenly no room for hope.
I cannot sugarcoat this. The pandemic, this lockdown and its so many nonsensical rules, no income, losing loved ones. My spirit was broken. I am an artist who loves nothing more than my craft. I spend every day doing what I am most passionate about whilst running it as a business and constantly being a busy body for my art. Having life come to a complete standstill like this was a shock to my system and one that I honestly struggled to process alone. I had lost the will to even begin to find an alternative way forward. At this critical point, hope seemed absolutely futile. And even the ability to hope was being overpowered by the situations surrounding us which proceeded to worsen. As artists we were given the shortest straw out of a pack of straws for others that were not very long to begin with. With nowhere else to turn, we looked to those who run our nation for a sliver of hope given promises of a tangible support program for the arts… but we were instead presented with a million untruths and deceptions.
It’s ironic that the same government which was put into power by the defiance of artists who hoped for a better tomorrow is the same government which now leaves its own artists in a space of abject hopelessness. I was always so proud of our artistic defiance as a nation. Art became one of the most honest vehicles to criticize and challenge the system of apartheid. The collective outcry of artists gave rise to a hope that swept across South Africa with works such as Sizwe Banzi is Dead, The Island and Woza Albert! which travelled internationally, providing the rest of the world with a human insight into the injustices of an oppressive system. In this way and more, artworks and artists themselves have played a pivotal role in shifting the possession of power in our country… only to be blatantly disregarded in our darkest hour, a quarter-century later.
It makes sense that I was living on empty hopes, and I was realising with each passing day that in hoping I had begun to sabotage myself. Hope became an excuse sit still when the world began to slowly find a new equilibrium. The hope to return to a post-pandemic way of life held me back from exploring the new avenues that artists everywhere were engaging with in order to survive and keep their art alive. The hope that, if I waited long enough, something would change and everything would work itself out. I was brainwashing myself and this made me complacent with the state of nothingness that I was trapped within. And since life does not come equipped with the magic wands of fairytales, I slowly realized that my empty hopes were causing me more damage by keeping me from moving on months into the pandemic.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it all starts with us, the individuals, who must make the conscious decision to take the first step. Nearly 5 months into the pandemic I had become lazy and demotivated. In a weird way I wish I was the definition of a hot mess on Urban Dictionary but, alas, I think I was just a mess! That’s when it became clearer than ever that hope cannot work alone. One of my favourite sayings is “God helps those who help themselves” and so it is with hope: it will remain meaningless unless it is acted upon. It must be the catalyst for a strategy and not the understudy for a scapegoat.
Thus began the shift. In hoping for things to get better, I would also ask myself:
“But are you prepared for when they do? Physically, mentally, emotionally?”
I must act on that hope instead of allowing it to just remain as a thought in my mind’s playground. It’s all very good to hope that if I move my dance workshops online I will get good attendance. But have I done any research? Have I started to plan what the classes would look like? Have I strategized around how I would adapt my teaching style for a digital platform? Have I developed a unique marketing strategy to attract people to engage with this new medium? We must act on that hope and give it life rather than allowing it to remain a sentiment of inaction.
I have always been a hopeful person because when there’s nothing left to hold onto, hope presents itself as a second chance and a new beginning. It gives you the momentum to get going and the confidence to never give up even if the actions that follow bear no fruit. Through my experiences I have been able to engage with hope in many different shapes and forms. I have seen hope turn into hopelessness, I have experienced its disillusionment but I have also felt its warmth rush over me and strengthen me. Having discussed hope and its ability to build or break, I believe that the power hope has lies solely with the individual hoping. Through my journey I have learned that you and only you have the ability to let your hope turn your situation around.
Acting on my hope reignited a flame in me that had almost burned out. It gave new meaning to the very concept of hope for me, but only once I had made the decision to view it from a different perspective. Hope had become about bravery and it began to fuel me with courage. In a time where all artists were left to create their own hope, it sparked a sense of camaraderie and unity. Hope had become about strengthening ourselves and the bonds between us. It is only in doing so that we can be a force and I believe, for artists, that is where hope becomes our defiance. In acting on that defiance, we find a way forward hence a festival as prolific as JOMBA! can still be celebrated and be appreciated, perhaps, by a larger global audience now that it has shifted to a digital platform.
© Written by Sashin Kandhai for JOMBA! Khuluma and Collab Company
Edited by Lauren Noble | 2021
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