“The work belongs to a series called The Portable Home Project, co-created by Talonen and Finnish lighting designer Nanna Vapaavuori, which has played out in several countries” (Photography by Val Adamson)


By Tammy Ballantyne (The Ar(t)chive) — Guest Writer


25 years ago, on a dare (and possibly a wing and a prayer), the JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience was born in Durban, a project of the newly established Centre of the Creative Arts (CCA) at the then University of Natal (now UKZN). Dr Lliane Loots, describing herself as an “accidental curator”, has led this remarkable festival dedicated to expanding and promoting contemporary dance in KZN, South Africa and on the continent.

In her statement of intent in back copies of JOMBA! programmes, Loots describes her vision for this festival (taking its name from the isiZulu “to jump) as jumping towards supporting contemporary dance-making in the region, but also challenging racist assumptions based on an “historically constructed white-owned view of dance in South Africa”.

Committed to building partnerships and fostering collaborations across borders, JOMBA! comes of age with its first outing to Johannesburg this year, at The Market Theatre. Last night felt just a little like a return to Dance Umbrella as we mingled with friends, ambassadors, choreographers and supporters of dance in the foyer. The programme, linked by the theme of “(in)tangible heritages”, focusses on ideas of belonging and “in thinking about the present, we are obliged to remember our past and continue to imagine other futures” (programme note).

The first double bill, in the Mannie Manim, featured Finnish choreographer Virva Talonen in her solo “Nothing Personal” and FLATFOOT DANCE COMPANY from Durban in “Portable Home”, the work a product of an ongoing relationship with Talonen. The work belongs to a series called The Portable Home Project, co-created by Talonen and Finnish lighting designer Nanna Vapaavuori, which has played out in several countries.

Talonen explores a return to her hometown, to familiar places and settings from her childhood, in a quiet, considered work which conjures ideas of home; at first, we are drawn into the sparse space with a voiceover speaking in velvet tones, cajoling and coaxing us to “come in, come here”. When she enters, one single light is clicked on, flooding her confined area. A sense of calm washes over and through the piece; we are drawn to her ever-moving arms, broad circular movements, pushing the air in many ways. The repetition tends to become hypnotic, her precise movement language contrasting to the music, which then shifts pace and energy. It is an exercise in minimalism, challenging the audience to feed off the repetition and buy into a slower pace.

Harnessing echoes of her solo, “Portable Home” uses similar improvisational movement choices. There is symbiosis amongst the FLATFOOT ensemble of six, who breathe in turns together and apart. The music, varied and powerful, draws us into this shape-shifting work, where we see Talonen’s impulses in the bodies but interpreted differently. There are instances of deep intimacy, of trust and contact, of this inter-changeable, inter-generational cast exploring, rolling, carrying, breathing. The space is small, we are cramped, the dancers are close, the exquisite lighting casts patinas on sweat-soaked skin; Sifiso Khumalo, enfolds the work in the ending — singing, chanting and dancing, conjuring ekhaya in his own unique way.

In a crazy pace-change, we whizz across to the John Kani Theatre for ACE Dance and Music from Birmingham, UK. Steeped in cultural exchange and collaborations, ACE draws on many different forms, informed by its multi-cultural company which at the moment includes Zambian rehearsal director Kennedy Muntanga with a Singaporean, a Swiss, a Ugandan, an Italian, a Welsh and two South African dancers — Thabang Motaung, a graduate of Moving Into Dance and Mthoko Mkhwanazi, born in Kwamashu and trained by FLATFOOT DANCE COMPANY; the marvellous legacies and connections are all there.

“There is tension and agony, gestural sequences performed with speed and agility, and indlamu sequences woven into the fabric of this anxiety-ridden space” (Photography by Val Adamson)

“TNBT — The Night Before Tomorrow” is mind-blowing. Choreographed by astounding Serge Aimé Coulibaly from Burkina Faso, the pumping, grinding soundscape transports us to a mythical space, complete with gorgeous lighting by James Mackenzie and the stage floor covered in astroturf. Throwing up the concept of “doing a last dance before an uncertain tomorrow”, the futuristic, almost apocalyptic work harnesses sharp, juddering movement languages. The dancers are technically brilliant, pliant, strong and adaptable. There is tension and agony, gestural sequences performed with speed and agility, and indlamu sequences woven into the fabric of this anxiety-ridden space. By the end, we are mind-whipped, the clubbing beat pulsating long after the work has ended.

With barely 15 minutes to catch our breath, we are back in the transformed, now sacred space, cleansed for Vincent Mantsoe’s “Mana — the Power Within”. Reminding one of Samurai warriors, Mantsoe’s time spent studying Eastern dance forms, is powerfully resonant here as all six dancers are costumed the same in padded bodices and wide skirts. Breath is the dominant pulse in the work, with breadth of movement, deep lunges and flexible backs featuring throughout. These shaman-like, sometimes combative figures, shift long bamboo sticks into various positions on the stage. There is solemnity in the ritualistic rhythms, drums vibrating, bodies connecting deep within. The red sand pouring over Motaung’s face and body in a pool of light connects us to Mantsoe’s link to the earth and those who lie beneath.

One thing is certain — contemporary dance makers provide a night full of transformative experiences; not all the works will ignite or sit comfortably with audiences, but you will leave those sensory spaces with a mind full of images and beats ringing in your ears long after you have made your exit.

JOMBA! @ The Market theatre runs until Saturday 16 September with various programmes. Visit www.jomba.ukzn.ac.za and book on Webtickets.



JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience

25th annual JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience 29 August – 10 September 2023