The private made public in Nyamza’s “Grounded”
By Bongekile Mkhize
On Thursday the 8th of September at the Sneddon Theatre, dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza presented Grounded as part of the 24th JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience. This is an intergenerational collaboration with her son Amkele Mandla. It’s a fiercly vulnerable work, courageous to its core.
As the lights fade up, Mamela Nyamza stands on a raised platform, statuesque her back is to us, her feet in constant motion the tiny bones and muscles grounding her.
The platform is surrounded by chairs on stage where audience members are invited to sit. A voiceover plays and in it she talks about her feet, she has been walking for a long time kodwa usahamba nangoku (but she is still walking), she is tired and her feet are muddy. I notice that her movement emanates from her feet and then travels up through her body — this is something she expresses in the post show talk back too. I consider the significance of the feet for a dancer but also for the pathways we walk through our lives.
Throughout the beginning of the performance, she remains in motion, shuffling, swaying and tiptoeing, using her body to explore her life and history… there is much effort in her trying to remain “grounded”. Influences from her dancing history including her training in Ballet, African dance forms and contemporary dance are infused with embodiments of her culture. Her work embraces the dualities of the work “grounded” — Nyamza is grounded in her movement, solid and stable but she is also exploring historical “punishments” both personal and political.
A moment of stillness, and Nyamza lowers the skirt of her dress, she greets us as her audience and introduces herself in Xhosa: “My name is Mamela Miranda Nyamza”. I’m invited in, it feels unlike other performances that ask us to watch, I feel as though I am willed to listen. Listening — something we could all do more of in the loudness of our contemporary lifestyles!
We are given insight into her family history her mother and grandmother forced to live under an Apartheid system. What is drawn through is a pattern of the people in her lineage all having English names — historically used by white people who could not (or rather would not learn how to) pronounce Black people’s names in their own indigenous tongues. Nyamza did not give her son an English name, born into the generation of born free’s in South Africa, she did not want her son “to be like them”. She had the freedom to choose.
Amkele Mandla enters his energy palpable, he raps in English and roots his rap in the heritage of his clan names. Nyamza watches him, listening intently, pride in her eyes, he is her “product”. We are invited in to their conversation, mother and son speak candidly through questions about identity, its complexities and also intergenerational shifts in experiences as Black South Africans. The delicacy of their conversation, the private patterns of their speech spoken so publicly exudes a sense of healing. The gentle picking away and uncovering that happens through their conversation reveals a will for change as some of the cracks of our democracy are gently exposed.
Grounded is complex and dualistic — offering such tenderness between mother and son on stage. Nyamza reveals in the post show talk back that this work was planned before our recent Covid-19 lockdown chaos, and an augmented reality version was created in lieu of bans on gatherings which in some ways “grounded” live performance. What a privilege that we at JOMBA! had to witness the birthing of this work into the live domain. It is a work that bears testament to the transformative power of live performance — no one who witnessed the work could remain un-moved.