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Animated Edition - Autumn 2007
Between worlds
Tim Rubidge enters into an intercultural dance dialogue with Xhosa dancer Zamuxolo Mgoduka in South Africa
When Zamuxolo looks me in the eye and I return this look of calm focus we know we are ready to begin the dance. We had been dancing on and off for a week and a half and had about the same time ahead of us. Our work - improvisation together, watching each other solo, exchanging feedback and exploring talking to each other through dance - was beginning to produce sketches of what we would eventually show, alongside other new work of ours, on the main stage of Port Elizabeth Opera House on the penultimate day of my residency in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. We were upstairs in a studio space that doubles as the informal Barn Theatre.

As dancers we came together into an empty space. But of course the space was only empty in a physical sense. As we looked at each other, we each brought with us a perceived identity, different social and cultural histories; together with an enthusiasm, a curiosity, for exploring and establishing something new to us both. He envies my relationship with a developed culture of financial support for making art. I envy his greater holistic relationship with areas of life and living which in our culture are often separate. Dance and art and well-being - a communication about our humanness. How did we get here and what did we think we were doing?

I had met Zamuxolo Mgoduka three years before. A project involving North East England based theatre company Dodgy Clutch and South African dancers, drummers, singers and actors had blossomed into an emerging programme of cultural exchange under the direction of Peter Stark and supported by Arts Council England, North East. In 2006 there was a strong South African presence at the World Summit for Arts and Culture hosted by Newcastle/Gateshead and Arts Council England. I had choreographed for the performance in Baltic Square that welcomed the international delegates to the UK.

Zamuxolo dances and leads Uphondo lwe Afrika, a company of 16 Xhosa women and men with a repertory of Xhosa and Zulu traditional dances. They live in Zwede, a township in Port Elizabeth, and perform at festivals and other celebratory events. But there was something else about Zed that inspired me, left me wanting to know more. He is a Sangoma, a natural healer working with knowledge and wisdom of the human body, mind and spirit. He works with individual people; but also in communities where broken relationships might be mended and wrongs erased. With me he was interested to find out how themes and ideas can emerge and take shape through improvisation.

Here we were in 2007, a year later and it is just the two of us. Zed had responded to my request of trying something out - a dance journey involving two very different people - and seeing where it might go, what might get made, and how we might benefit from the experience. Part of the journey was conversation and an exchange of stories and anecdotes. Time and again this would bring us to an intersection that connected Southern African traditional practice of working holistically with dance, healing and imagery drawn from the natural world; and the Western context in my work of developing choreography with a sense of community, people and the dialogue between our inner world and our surroundings, the place where we find ourselves.

TR: How did you find the first few days where we combined watching each other solo with improvising together?
ZM: The things that I did just came out. Some of the things seemed to fall into my body and into my state of mind. On that first day we had the empty space and we talked about opening doors, finding something new each time.
TR: To open up the imagination, for the body to be the imagination...we were exploring ways of finding the dance, ways where - somehow - the dance found us.
ZM: Coming from traditional Xhosa dance this was new for me. Exploring other ways of where the body is the instrument that paints the picture.
TR: But it did not take long before we both were confident improvising together. And some have been long stretches of imaginative joined up movement!
ZM: Drawing inspiration from nature, it seems to me, is the same thing as how we have drawn inspiration from our dancing. Whereas Xhosa dances are set and have been for a very long time. This is one way we have of talking with the Ancestors. But sometimes when you dance you can do things, do movements, you never thought of doing. You feel yourself dancing and you are just taken up to where you can do anything. So there are similarities - let your body do the movement, let the body talk on its way.
TR: I wanted to ask you about that, how this experience compares - if at all - with dancing and practicing traditional healing. For most people in the UK dancing and medicine occupy very different places in our culture. But there are a growing number of dancers - in fact artists from all the disciplines - who are actively interested in the relationship between art, being creative, what is felt and well-being.
ZM: Using our bodies helps our minds get into a certain state. Some healers work at home. But I felt a conflict after my training because I really wanted to dance with the company. I have done a lot of talking with my ancestors and with my teacher. I said this is what I want to do. And he said this is exactly the same thing and a different way of doing it. We all dance together. It is another way of healing. Not all of us should stay in the house. Our work together, you and me, it has similarities.
TR: With the two of us, close or on the other side of the room, there is an ever changing space full of potential. It's like the space is charged up. I have been working in the UK with this idea of the body being a sensitive and sensitised connector - like a connective tissue - between our constantly shifting inner world and our constantly changing outer world. Where movement is a kind of call-and-response between the two. In our different ways both of us are looking to find balance and equilibrium, flow of movement in mind and body by dancing.
ZM: I chose a path when I trained as a Sangoma. But it was like the Ancestors had also chosen me. I was having these dreams where these older people were coming to talk to me. Sometimes I would see them dancing. Later I started to consult different traditional healers and they all told me the same thing, as if it was written on my forehead. It is like a spark passing between you, you can feel it. With our dancing here I think it is because of the trust between the two of us. I feel free to do it.

Whatever made its way into the space, whatever we found there, was going to have our imagination informing, shaping and challenging us. It was also going to have projected elements of individual cultural and historical identity. How can you keep out of the dance all that went into making who we are? It goes without saying, but here's saying it anyway: there was a whole world of conversation that we danced that cannot be described with words on the page. What can be spoken of is summed up by writer Nicci Gerrard when talking about friendship: 'There are no rules for it - it's an act of choice, spontaneous, voluntary, limitless.' This was tangible to us both - felt, noticed, listened to - a celebration of our shared humanness.

Tim Rubidge is an Independent Dance Artist and can be contacted on tim.rubidge@phonecoop.coop

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Animated: Autumn 2007