Dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza: Boundaries are there to be crushed

Johannesburg - When dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza performed Hatched at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2010, she struggled to fill the venue.

Now, she is finally being recognised for her massive contribution to the arts and has become the first dancer to receive the prestigious National Arts Festival featured artist of the year gong.

Hopefully, Nyamza will receive the audience she deserves when she performs Hatched again at the festival this year.

Nyamza feels that dancers are expected only to be entertainers in South Africa, and that there’s no space for them to be artists.

She pulls no punches when expressing her dislike for controversial popular dancers.

“If you don’t shake your ass as a dancer, you’re not seen as a dancer,” she says.

“Look at the people who are actually being recognised on social media; people who are considered celebrities for wearing nothing. [If] she dances with her ass out [and] she wears revealing dresses, she’s big.”

“Are you talking about a particular person?” I probe.

“Zodwa [Wabantu],” she says.

“These people get invited and get paid R30 000 to R100 000 for a night. Then there are artists who have gone on a journey, but will never be acknowledged like that.

"There’s something very twisted in our country in how we don’t appreciate art. The younger generation now wants to do something like that [like Zodwa] because it’s quick cash.

“It’s something that’s happening overseas and now it’s happening here. You go to an event and you wear nothing and shake your ass, then you’re a celebrity.

"But if you’re invited to an event to perform an artwork, they don’t understand what you’re doing because they’re still not there yet. We’re still trying to educate our people that art is actually the heartbeat of the nation.”

City Press spoke to Nyamza over the phone about receiving the award, and she was giddy with excitement.

“I’m so excited about this,” she says.

“I can’t wait for it to be announced [the winner’s name was under embargo until today] ... the news has been sitting with my partner and my family for quite some time now and they’re very happy.

“It’s good to have this acknowledgement, especially for my kids. I’m a lesbian and I’m out about it, and it’s good for my children to see their mother is a lesbian and a hardworking artist.”

Born in Gugulethu, Nyamza first started dancing at the age of eight at the Zama Dance School under the late Arlene Westergaard.

Athletic and with obvious talent, she received a scholarship to study dance at the Tshwane University of Technology, and was later awarded a prestigious scholarship to study further at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York, which is considered to be one of the best dance schools in the world.

Since then, she’s starred as a lead in some of the most acclaimed musicals in the world, including The Lion King, African Footprint and We Will Rock You.

She has also produced many important works of her own.

Stirring, unsettling and ultimately cathartic, Hatched is a work so critically acclaimed that she’s been invited to perform it all over the world, including in Mexico and New York.

The half-filled theatre in Grahamstown in 2010 is a stark commentary on the way South Africans value artists in this country.

As a black queer woman, her work is political and includes pieces such as The Last Attitude, which interrogates gender inequality in dance, and I Stand Corrected, which looks at homophobia and hate crimes.

It’s primarily the way she fuses activism and her lived experience into her dance that’s made her such an important performer.

Like many South African artists, she’s appreciated more overseas than here.

“It really bothers me as an artist that I’m not recognised at home. You end up making money for other countries. In other countries, they listen to you more.

"At home, people feel like they know you, but they’ve never seen your work,” Nyamza laments.

Nyamza will also reveal a new work in Grahamstown.

She’s secretive about it, but says that she’ll be “using a very iconic South African woman”.

She will also be performing a group work with the dancers from The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative.

“As an artist, you must push the boundaries, take risks and not play it safe,” she says.


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(Photos: Supplied/City Press)