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Animated Edition - Spring 2002
The politic body
When the drama of past conflict has been written on the bodies of its subjects, then the interplay of whole bodies and damaged bodies on a stage offers us nothing less than a glimpse of where we have been, and where we hope to go. Here Dr Nick Sheppard and Nicola Visser reveal how South African based Tshwaragano Dance Company are contesting difference
The Tshwaragano Dance Project is a significant recent event in the field of South African cultural affairs, and more specifically dance. It challenges and unsettles issues of race, gender and ability, as well as notions of nationhood, identity, and the memories and legacies of the past. Integrated dance was brought to South Africa, in this instance, by British choreographer Adam Benjamin. In The Querist's Quire, choreographed by Benjamin and performed by Tshwaragano - dancers who meet the time-honoured notion of ability share the stage with dancers in wheelchairs, a deaf dancer, and a dancer on crutches. The argument that we present here is as complex and layered as the meanings which have attached to this work in Europe. When transported to post-apartheid South Africa, it acquires additional layers of meaning and complexity, tied to both the legacies of South Africa's racialised cultural politics, and the continuation of historical forms of inequality.

Whilst some of these are clearly envisaged and articulated by Benjamin and the project's sponsors (The British Council and DACST), others have arisen in unplanned ways through the process of production and the sometimes- startling juxtaposition of aesthetic forms with cultural and social realities.

Dance and development
Benjamin came to South Africa in February 2000 to do a needs assessment, in the course of which he ran a workshop attended by Gauteng Department of Education teachers, visual artists, dancers, community dance and arts practitioners, Learners with Special Education Needs (LSEN) facilitators and musicians. (1)

'When I was first approached by Greg Nash, (then at The British Council) to work in South Africa I was, with his support, able to insist that any project I undertook he integrated firstly along racial lines - it would have been far too easy to be exported as a British white artist, doing 'good work' among disabled black youngsters in the town-ships, when the challenge of addressing any thing remotely to do with 'integration' in that country demanded that we look much deeper.' (2)

In October 2000 he returned for a week of intensive skills training, supported by two black colleagues, the dance educator Louise Katerega, and the disabled dancer Tom St. Louis, the latter two spearheaded educational work in Soweto whilst Benjamin led the adult training in Johannesburg. Thirty-four participants, disabled and non-disabled, from all nine provinces in South Africa took part. In the final open workshops, which doubled as auditions, a group of nine, black, white, disabled and non-disabled performers were selected to form the professional company. In February 2001, the group went into intense rehearsals and at the end of the month The Querist's Quire premiered to standing ovations in the FNB Vita Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg. By May the company were invited to participate in Freedom Too! As part of Celebrate South Africa Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, London. Since its inception the project has addressed both professional performance, skills training and school outreach. During the first phase of the project, Adrienne Sichel, the Gauteng based dance critic, wrote: 'Tshwaragano may not have the high profile of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre outreach... Yet in so many ways it outstrips those undeniably historic happenings. This is particularly true of its national networking... and its already proven ability to trigger, like wildfire, a whole new era in developmental, community and professional theatrical dance. (3)

I am as old as a mountain (4)
The Querist's Quire takes its title from a chance meeting between Benjamin and George Mxadana, conductor and musical director of the Imilonji KaNTU Choir, in Soweto. Benjamin writes: 'The choir music and George Mxadana's charismatic leadership planted a seed in my mind. The role of the choirmaster is to lead, but also to question: Is this the right direction? Are we together? Is this a true reflection of the music on the page? The choirmaster is also a question asker, a querist, and a visionary' (5).

The work unfolds in seven scenes, which range in mood and pace from the tenderly lyrical to fast-paced, humorous and ironic passages. In the first scene, David Fumbatha is lit at centre-stage, resting on his crutches. He says: 'I am as old as a mountain. When people ask me for advice I tell them: The world is like a mirror, it reflects what you do.' (6) At the Dance Factory in Johannesburg, the performance concluded with Makhotso Sompane singing a phrase, which was answered by 50 members of the Imilonji KaNTU Choir seated, amongst the unsuspecting audience. The choral tradition is a strong one in South Africa, where it has been allied to the culture of struggle. The key track from the musical accompaniment in terms of the larger artistic and thematic concerns of the project is the haunting choral work Thina Sizwe: Thina Sizwe esimnyanma Sikhalela izwe lethu Elathathwa ngamaBhulu Mabawuyeke umhlaba wethu (Our black country, We cry for our country, Taken by the Boers, Let them leave our land.)

Whole bodies and damaged lives
A potentially useful way of viewing history is through its effects on the human body. That is, through the manner in which large events and small - wars and conflicts, traditional practices, government policies, the violence unleashed by a stray bullet, a stray gene, or a virus encountered at the wrong moment - leave their marks upon the body, and form or dis-form it in the course of their passage. Instead of being dead and buried, the past lives on in that most intimate of realms, our own physicality. This may be direct and traumatic - the kind of damage which results from a date with one's torturer, or through being the victim of a gross violation - or subtle (the corrosive effects of guilt, or complicity through association; the acceptance, after a lifetime of pressure, of the negative stereotypes put forth by one's oppressor).

As well as blighting and terminating lives, apartheid inscribed bodies, whether through the actions of its security forces, its citizens, or the racialised logic of its health-care policies. Seven years into the life of a democratic, post-apartheid government we continue to live with the complex legacies of this past.

From the passing of the Truth Commission Act in July 1995 to the submission of its findings, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) sought, amongst other things, to provide an outlet for anger, fear guilt, shame and sadness. We argue that a richer and more layered reading of The Querist's Quire would place it in relation to this double process of past oppression and the search for renewal.

Little confinements
Michel Foucault's book Great Confinement saw the wholesale institutionalisation of disability in the 18th Century. Many African societies have been characterised by a series of 'little confinements' whereby disabled family members are tucked away in back rooms and backyards. In this context, the importance of the project has been in taking a group of disabled South Africans and thrusting them into the public sphere - in this case, literally, in the glare of the spotlights. One of the ideas, which circulates in the field of integrated dance, is that stigma, secrecy and the kind of general societal embarrassment, which attaches to disability are thereby confronted and addressed, not only within dance but more generally. In a key duet, David Fumbatha and Gladys Agulhas face one another on a stage that is lit with bars of light. Leaving his crutches behind, Fumbatha takes Agulhas' hands, and together they move across the stage. Their motion is undulant, dignified. The impression is created that it is Fumbatha who leads Agulhas, whereas, in fact, Agulhas supports Fumbatha (who is not normally ambulant without his crutches). It is a moment of extraordinary beauty, which remains in the mind long after its performance. How do we begin to fathom such a scene? History points us in the direction that analysis might take. Agulhas is a classically trained ballet dancer; in fact, she is one of a small number of black dancers in the country with formal training. She describes her own engagement with contemporary and integrated dance as a process of un-learning, giving herself permission to explore movement outside the prescribed postures and attitudes of ballet. The body that we see on stage is one that has been shaped and moulded according to a 'high' Western aesthetic (ballet), transposed onto African soil as part of the process of colonialism. In apartheid South Africa, 'the ballet' became a key symbol of modernity. Even today, each major city has its state theatre. We might suppose that the apparatchiks of apartheid, those heavy-jowled men in grey suits, never felt so worthy or so solemn in their worldliness as when they witnessed the rush of cygnets in white taffeta, en pointe.

David Fumbatha's disability was brought on by polio contracted during his childhood in Soweto; it is an affliction, which due to disparities in the country's health-care system under apartheid, is rare amongst white South Africans. From childhood until well into the post-apartheid period, Fumbatha's life-choices and career track have been shaped by the twin facts of his race and his disability. The duet of Fumbatha and Agulhas is a complex dance experience, which unfolds on at least three levels. At one level, what we witness is art, and central to its nature as art is the notion of illusion. The movement that we watch is performed, rather than given, a fact which, more than any other, insists on the dignity of the disabled dancers. On another level, the duet works as a potent conflation of history and politics, in providing a visual metaphor of containment and release (the barred light, the inspirational music). At a third level it works as a moment of transcendence with which we, the audience, identify. What Fumbatha and Agulhas perform is ourselves, damaged, hopeful, striving - ultimately beautiful.

There is a tendency in thinking and writing about dance in Africa to reify and essentialize it in terms of 'traditional' forms, which relate to indigenous systems of knowledge and practice. A sharp dichotomy emerges: whilst 'Western' dance is described as 'contemporary' or 'post-modern', African dance ranges from traditional to 'hybrid', a term used to imply the partial adoption of Western forms. We would argue that these terms are inadequate for a production such as this, where we are compelled, rather, to talk of 'contemporary dance in Africa', or 'post-modern African dance' - or to lose the 'African' appellation altogether - at any rate, to admit that dance in Africa can be as daring, experimental, mould-breaking, surprising, rooted, layered and multi-referential as dance anywhere else.

The idea of the nation
Perhaps the final and greatest significance of The Querist's Quire (and the Tshwaragano Dance Project more generally) is as an exercise in trust. That simple and most basic movement in dance, where the body is surrendered to a partner, becomes here a moment of extraordinary grace. This moment of surrender operates in a double sense: in the first place, because entrusting the care of a body which is unable to support itself, or lessen the impact of a fall, requires unusual trust. In the second place, this is because it operates against the mistrust of South Africa's past. Bodies, which were once adversaries, become partners; hands which once pushed now catch and hold. It is in this light that we come to address the idea of nation.

The events of Celebrate South Africa were occasions in which South Africa presented an image of its post-apartheid self for global consumption. At the gala evening held in the Royal Festival Hall, Tshwaragano shared the stage with Desmond Tutu, chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Council; Mark Lottering, the Cape Town-based comedian; Hugh Masekela, the formerly exiled South African musician; the movie star Richard E Grant; and Anthony Sher, the South African-born actor. In the midst of this pantheon of stars the members of Tshwaragano presented, we want to suggest, a different and alternative notion of South Africanness. In what does this idea of the nation consist? It is that we all carry damage from the past. That transcendence is to be found not through denying this, but through working with it, creatively. It is that whole bodies may hide damaged lives, just as damaged bodies may hide states of grace and inspiration. That anger and guilt are forms of disability. That beauty can, indeed, emerge from pain and suffering - but that pain and suffering should never he a condition for the emergence of beauty. That bravery takes many forms. That pity is better reserved for ourselves.

Dr Nick Shepherd, lecturer, Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town and Nicola Visser, artistic director, Remix Theatre Company, Cape Town.
Email Nick at and Nicola at

Adam Benjamin. Visit
Making an Entrance - Theory and Practice for Disabled and Non-disabled dancers by Adam Benjamin. Available from Routledge +44 (0)1264 343071 or email 

1. The visit was part of The British Council's Britain and South Africa Dancing
2. Benjamin, A., 2002
3. Sichel, A., The Message is Clear: Aids Sucks, The Star, South Africa, 1 March 2001
4. From the show written bt David Fumbatha, 2001
5. Benjamin, A., Tshwaragano, Dance Theatre Journal, London, Spring 2001
6. Fumbatha, D., 2001

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Animated: Spring 2002