This year I had the incredible experience of travelling for my first time to Africa. I was awarded an Artist International Development (also my first time to receive the award) to work with acclaimed international poet Toni Stuart in Capetown. Just reflecting back on this experience I am filled with every emotion from warmth at the wonderful people I met, saudade (at missing them like mad) and then at the same time a combination of confusion, and anger at some of the other things I saw and experienced in South Africa.
We explored the complexities, nuances and discomfort around identity and ethnicity as people of heritage who often pass for white, exploring what privileges and what guilt that brings us, and how it affects how we view ourselves, can we view ourselves as women of colour? South Africa, with such a complex history of racism where it was actually illegal to be mixed heritage was a powerful place to locate the creation of this work. In the first week, before we began rehearsals, we attended the Cape History Tour with the incredibly inspiring Lucille Campbell, learning many untold tories of South African people of colour historically. I also visited the apartheid museum in Johannesburg and went to Robben Island: all of which were incredibly harrowing and important reminders of the history of this complex country and of how fear can lead to such atrocities in the world.
I found myself thinking a lot about privilege over the weeks I was in South Africa: around slavery and the lack of reparations or redistributing of wealth after apartheid, at the privileges I have experienced in life and at being able to be there on this incredible journey, at the opportunity to have had an education and at being able to create work which I truly love, at the very obvious divides in wealth in the city: for example the gates locking people in to their houses to protect their wealth. Then the bigger signs of privilege, for example on the day of our second performance I saw police moving homeless people sleeping rough in the centre out to other areas: which reminded me of many things that happened during apartheid with re-housing, or of stories I had read in Trevor Noah’s ‘Born a crime’.
Papyllon was a deeply personal piece for both Toni Stuart and I to create, and took the form of the heroine’s journey to speak about our mixed heritages; what we, as women, learn and un-learn from our mothers; and how we step into our own lives. Papyllon was also inspired by the four stages of transformation in the lifecycle of the butterfly and alchemy or transformation in the form of healing and stepping into our best selves.
There is a strong tradition of ancestor worship in South Africa: making offerings to, honouring and respecting our ancestors, and a belief that our ancestors maintain a spiritual connection with their living relatives. Doing some of this work myself I was struck to see this drawing below of us with the long line of our ancestors behind us (the women to the left, the men to the right) and how much it resembles a butterfly or bird. I wanted to work with the butterfly in Papyllon because it is reborn during its lifetime on earth, and I wanted to allow this experience to be a cleansing and a rebirth for us and our ancestors.
Via Dancing Words collaborations: I have interpreted the poetry of Warsan Shire, Karen McCarthy Wolf and Mona Arshi, but this would be my first time to creating work as a true collaboration with a poet and sharing the spcae. I learnt a lot stepping into the poetry world about the power of language and communication: especially in a country where there are 12 national languages. I found myself thinking a lot about how language can be a powerful tool to oppress and to empower. Poetry being one very empowering tool: just like song, to allow people to have a voice. There is a deep healing that can happen in a poem, and as I got to know the community further during the Open Book Festival, I was struck by the truth in poet Phelisa Sekwata’s words: ‘Poetry is a healing.’
Whilst I was in Cape Town, it was experiencing its worst drought in over a century. The campaign was city wide, asking us to limit our showers to under 90 seconds, to avoid bathing, to put a bucket in our showers and sinks to collect water and use the run-off to flush toilets or water plants and to avoid flushing (if it’s yellow let it mellow). I found this made me think very differently and deepened my respect for water and its scarcity and also mother nature. The city is just beautiful, almost entirely surrounded by mountains and on the coast, it is hard not to feel deeply connected to nature here. As our piece is water based, we found ourselves talking often of the drought. As is customary in South Africa, we often associated Sacred Earth Mother as a living being- a spiritual Mother with the life-giving, nurturing qualities of our mothers. I wondered: if we humans were to treat mother earth with the respect, kindness and care we do for our human mothers, if we would still be facing droughts and other environmental crisis across the world?
Over the two weeks, we truly dived in and created a beautiful working environment: we ate together, stayed together, walked along the beach at sunset, we warmed up and meditated. We discovered three main themes in our work: Mothers, womb and water. The piece became about our mothers: a celebration of them, a celebration of our families and our ancestry. We began to dig deeper in this second week… to look further at the elephants in the room (this is how I make work), and to think about what is missing and what is too much. I believe each piece has its own personality, and it is about listening to and letting that persona be revealed.
Toni and I spent 2 weeks rehearsing in Stellenbosch in a circus, followed by a week of performances: one at the Institute for Contemporary Arts’ Live Art Festival and two performances at the Open Book Festival. We created a short projection of our families, in particular our mothers, to project onto the silks for our second performance where we knew we could not put weight on the silks.
It was truly an unforgettable experience this summer. Art is a powerful tool to raise awareness of inequalities and transform trauma through expression and creativity, and this is a perfect example of that experience. I was delighted to be able to finalise the work as a duet, and I love how the work has developed. This experience allowed me to dig deeper in terms of my performance states, and over the rehearsal period I have further understood my process and how I love to invest from a deeply personal place for the true deep healing of telling personal stories to happen. I recognised in South Africa how important this work was for my own mental wellbeing: I felt emboldened to share my own story working with Toni: I learnt that stories are therapeutic, and that the healing experience of bringing these issues out into the open was freeing.
I was able to connect to this continent where I have a lineage and ancestry, and to learn about the history hands on through experiences such as Lucille Campbells transcending history healing tour and work into my ancestry. Being in South Africa there was a different learning around my own identity as a person of mixed heritage, a stepping into who I am and a positive impact being in a country where people are willing to talk about racism in a more open way. There was also a standing my ground in terms of realising who I was and was not prepared to spend time with in a country so divided on race issues, and in learning and understanding how I can work with mother nature and how I can contribute to or have a positive impact for change in the world. Art is a healing tool, an opportunity to tell herstory, to pave the way with positive heroines of different heritages, body types, experiences and empower and embolden future generations to create an even better world in the future.
Being around poets was truly a wonderful experience, and I am sure that this importance of language positively affected me and my experience making my next piece of work Foreign Bodies (for which I recently wrote an entire script). Working with Toni, I was able to learn a lot about myself and my practise, and to delve deeper into how to stand fully in and hold that with a new found confidence. I learnt to go slow: the importance of and the opportunity to reflect on my practise: I have decided this year to take a kind of sabbatical to look at my practise and the future of Ella Mesma Company: thank you Toni Stuart for this revealing!
We did it! Thank you to everyone who attended Roots of Rumba. We toured 5 cities, our shows were seen by 470 people, we showed 19 pieces of work by artists from across the UK and abroad and held three banging afterparties! Roots of Rumba was a celebration of dance and music deriving from Africa and Latin America. It was a healing heartfelt show of dance, music, spoken word, beatboxing. The classes were taught by absolute masters in their fields, the audience bought a beautiful energy (Candela!) and the djs at all three afterparties were internationally acclaimed and on fire!
Myself and all of the Roots of Rumba would like to say a huge thank you to:
Arts Council of England, Eclipse Theatre, Cheshire Dance, Trinity Centre, Yorkshire Dance Centre, Lion Salt Works, Horniman Museum, Dance City, The Wardrobe, Kommunity Newcastle
To the team: Julia Testa (superheroine), Carly Woodbridge, Amanda Demerara Royes, Ingrid Santos, Jane McClean, Degna Stone.
To all the artists involved: Ama Rouge and Ama Rouge Ensemble, Luanda Pau, Sandra Passirani, Dani Sands, Myriam Gadri, Marv Radio, Franck Arnaud-Lusbec, Ffion Campbell-Davies, Miguel Gonzalez, Orquidea Lima, Neelam Suman, Xavier Osmir, Lubi Jovanovic, Nandy Selectorchico Cabrera, Azara Meghie, Anna Alvarez, Hsing Ya Wu, Ella Mesma Company, Iris De Brito, Rise Youth Dance, Helen Wilson, Mestre Piolho (Rafael Braga), Paige Lyons, D.O.P.E. Male Performance Co, Jack Robinson, Latisha Cesar, Marie Mathias (x2), Unidos Do Ritmo, Akeim Toussaint, Patricia Verity Suarez, Juliette & Georgina Lance, Francis Odongo.
And most of all to EVERYONE who supported our event: Thank you!
Roots of Rumba is a concept imagined in 2013 with the awesome Scannersinc. We held the first one (Roots of Rhythm) together, and I carried the flame onwards with my mission to create a platform for established professionals and emerging Latin dance artists to present Dance Theatre with Afro-Latin dance and themes at the heart.
Why diaspora dance theatre? As Ama Rouge said so eloquently in her interview about her Ama Rouge Ensemble piece ‘Roots Bloom’ on Saturday 15th September 2018 at Roots of Rumba London, it is important to celebrate and recognise that, despite Africans being forcibly dispersed around the world, they have carried their root with them, and all of the dance styles and influences that were presented at Roots of Rumba have bloomed from that root (hence the title of her piece: Roots Bloom). (Read more about the making of Roots of Rumba here)
It meant so much to me to realise this dream this year: celebrating and putting dance styles from across the globe on the stage, showcasing the high levels of talent and theatrical work, holding workshops with masters in their fields, taking this across the UK to reach new audiences and celebrating with our community.
As Marv Radio said in the interview above, “Hip hop is about intelligent movement and the ability to share our stories: to me these shows were all Hip hop”. Hip hop upholds values of social justice of peace, respect, self-worth, community, and having fun, and this were what all of these performances were on tour. These shows were healing, they spoke of life, justice and they spoke of people from all different experiences from across the world: and it is so important that we all have a voice and are represented on stage.
“Diverse, inclusive and completely engaging” Candice Wu
“A true marriage of dance, feeling, culture, politics and love” Carly Trigg, Northwich
“Brilliant: Vibrant, life affirming dance with enormous power to move and inspire” Fiona Young: Audience member, Leeds
“Roots of Rumba is about getting back to the root of movement: connecting body, soul and music” Audience member, London
“A fantastic expression of dance and the human condition” David Evans, London
“Be prepared to dance, laugh and cry” Audience member, London
“A spectacular show full of different styles with an African root: Joyful to watch”
“The best dance event in the UK” Audience member, London
Whilst I was in Capetown, I regularly attended flamenco classes with the wonderful La Tanya of Solo Flamenco with Toni Stuart. Toni was interviewed by La Tanya and we were supported by many wonderful Flamenco dancers at the show. Below is Tanya’s interview. Read the original article at http://soloflamenco.co.za/blog/2018/8/30/spotlight-on-toni-stuart-poet
I would normally interview people who have been at SoloFLAMENCO for a while so that I have a feel for their ‘entrañas’ … but this is not the case with Toni Stuart who joined our studio only this year.
But who would not like to know more about Toni when you find out she is a poet … yes, you read those words correctly, a poet by profession.
So if you are thinking WTF, swallow your thoughts and we will try and cover the most basic questions to give an overview of the life of a poet.
[If you just used Google translator to understand the word ‘entrañas’ and you feeling disgusted by the thought of bowels/ guts/ intestines: I understand, but the Spanish and flamencos often refer to ‘entrañas’ as it suggests our innermost self and sound corny in English]
What are the most stupid questions you get asked, when people meet you the first time and hear you are a poet?
Haha, I love this question! Well it’s not so much a stupid question, but the first reaction I always get is: A very shocked expression on someone’s face, and then they either ask me, (or if I’m with a friend, they’ll ask a friend in disbelief) “how do you make money?”
I earn an income in three overall ways: commissions to write poems, payment for performances or running workshops.
How does one become a poet?
I think there are many people who are poets, they might just not make a living through their poetry. My journey to being a full-time poet who earns a living doing this work, was a strange one. I worked in journalism and then youth development before taking the leap. When I decided to be a full-time artist, I had already been writing and performing poetry for a number of years. My suggestion for anyone starting out would be:
– read a lot (not just poetry, everything)
– write a lot
– research full-time poets and artists (musicians, dancers, actors, filmmakers, theatremakers) whose work you respect and admire, and whose creative practice & work ethic and business you respect and admire. study what they do and see which aspects of it, you can apply to your own career
– find a mentor who would be willing to support you AND shadow other poets who are doing the kind of work that you want to do for eg: if you want to teach, spend time with a poet who works in schools and learn from them
– identify the ways in which you can generate an income
– create a website where people can learn about what you do
– learn the business side of the arts business – what are standard rates for performances, for commissions; how to invoice, draw up a project budget, apply for funding
Is there a specific theme that you enjoy writing about, or that drives your poetry?
What drives my poetry is the community I come from – I was born and raised in Athlone, Cape Town, and my work is driven by a deep desire to bring about healing and a sense of agency in my own community and the people I come from. I want to tell the stories and re-imagine new stories that will give people classified as coloured/mixed, a sense of belonging to ourselves, and each other and the wider world around us.
The themes I’m currently writing about are grief, identity and the heroine’s journey.
What is the most challenging part of being a poet?
Ensuring that I create and schedule enough time in my week/month to sit down and write – to work at my craft and keep working away at the book I’m writing. This is a challenge because as a self-employed artist there are so many other things to do as well: all of the business & financial admin, marketing, as well as funding applications, and applications for other programmes. Then, when creating a show, there’s all of the meetings and producing side of things. My next goal is working towards hiring an administrative assistant and/ or producer.
What do you enjoy most about being a poet?
Writing and reading. I get grumpy when I’ve gone for a long period without reading and writing. Then I just want to be left alone (I turn my phone off, I don’t answer a knock on the front door) to write for a while.
Also, seeing when or how my work speaks to people – how it allows them to connect with a part of themselves they hadn’t been able to see or hear before, or, when people say: “This is my experience too, you’re speaking my life.” Also, when my work allows people to connect with each other.
Have you been published … If yes, where can people buy your works
I haven’t published my own poetry collection yet, I’m currently writing that book. But I have work published in a few anthologies and you can listen to/watch some of my work here:
Ma Ek Ko Huistoe – Badilisha Poetry Radio
You will be performing PAPYLLON at UCT’s ICA Live Art Festival on Sunday September 2. Tell us more about the work
Papyllon is a collaboration with UK dancer Ella Mesma. The work is a deeply personal piece for both of us. It takes the form of the heroine’s journey and speaks about our mixed heritages; what we, as women, learn and don’t learn from our mothers; and how we step into our own lives. It is such an incredible experience making this show – we are both being stretched and challenged – personally and creatively.
In 2016 and 2017 I collaborated with UK flamenco company dotdotdot dance which we performed at Sadler’s Wells in London and in Manchester. I absolutely loved the experience and I learnt so much about flamenco and fell in love with it – the way the music, and the singing, the compas and the footwork all sync together. There is this absolute connection with each aspect of flamenco, everything HAS to sit together otherwise it doesn’t work. What draws me most to the dance is that, you can’t dance or sing flamenco without bringing every single part of yourself to the floor. You have to dance from your ovaries, you have to sing from your ovaries. Imagine if we all lived that way? What a different world we would create together.
Toni will also be appearing on Wednesday 5 September with dancer, choreographer and dramaturge Ella Mesma in PAPYLLON at the Fugard Theatre, as part of the Open Book Festival.
For more info visit on Toni: