Mamela Nyamza is an internationally renowned choreographer, dance artist, activist and Standard Bank Young Artist winner. After a successful run in The Netherlands, her carefully curated double bill, Rock to the Core and De-Apart-Hate arrives at the Baxter Theatre for a limited engagement before jetting off to be performed in Germany.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I think as an artist, I was just a dancer back in the 80’s/90’s. I was just dancing and then I thought it would be great to say something with your body and not just make beautiful pictures. Instead of making beautiful pictures, I’m telling stories with my body and that is what inspired me because I wanted to reflect what was happening around me. That is what inspired me to go into an artform that was too elite for me [which] was ballet. I was trained in it. I was curious as a young child but at some point I was like, “What did I get myself into?” Because the art was just too elite for [me] as a black woman from Gugulethu. There are many inspirations though. I could go on and on. Even starting it, it was like, “Am I doing the right thing?” Because the system was actually favouring men more than women. That was inspiration as well because I’ve turned all of those tools of oppression into beauty and art.
At what point did you realise that you were going to pursue dance as a career?
I felt like there was a connection. There was a call. It happened very strongly when my mom passed away. At that point I was like, “I am going to take this really seriously now.” It became so vivid that this is what I wanted to do. It was already a career but not in a way of creating my own work. I was just the performer and just doing the work and not trying to do my own work. That is when my voice became strong and said, “Ok I’m going to pursue this stronger.”
Once you graduated from university, you headed straight to Alvin Ailey in New York. How was your time in there?
New York was hard for me. I think I am such a home-girl but being away from home was like taking away my heart which is my art. I didn’t connect too much to New York. I [went over there] with two guys and I was the only woman. I felt like I was accompanying two men because already when you get to these dance institutions men take the cake. That was also a fight within me that I never shared because I felt like men were celebrated in these institutions. I became depressed in New York, truly speaking. The training was actually quite difficult. We used to train from 9am-9pm. The experience there was interesting because there were other black women there like me. I was not the only one in class and I didn’t feel like the ugly duckling. I just felt like I fit in because there were other black women. All of that made me feel at home but then I was not home at heart. My heart wanted to be at home with the art.
During the last two weeks, you’ve created work for the Cape Town Fringe Festival, gone to Amsterdam to perform in the Afrovibes Festival, now you are performing at the Baxter and then you are off to Germany. What does that feel like and how are you managing all of that?
It might look like “Wow, she’s living it,” but it’s actually quite hard, to be honest. I have two kids, so leaving my kids behind is sad for me and sad for them but then at the same time I must put food on the table. Leaving my partner behind is also sad because I am leaving someone I love. I’m leaving family behind. I don’t catch a taxi to work, I catch a plane to work… you travel maybe 15 hours and you have to go to all these airports and transits and you face questions, “How long are you here for?” As if I want to stay there. I face all these questions which are actually quite depressing at times because it’s like I have to defend myself, “I’m here on a cultural exchange. I’m an artist.” You always say the same thing and it becomes tiring. Of course one wants to be at home but when there are not many opportunities at home, I end up going away when my work is invited. I’m lucky that it gets invited because then I can actually make a living and survive.
Have you noticed any major differences between the overseas audiences and the audiences in South Africa?
Definitely. At home I don’t have to explain myself too much but when I go there, there is always a post question and answer about my work and what they’ve just seen. The vibe is also different. The audiences look at you like “The Other.” I’ll make an example with the work I just did now in The Netherlands, De-Apart-Hate. At home, when I perform that work, people get it and they understand the vibe of it and that I’m seducing the audience to be in this religious, spiritual form and then I reveal the most uncomfortable thing in my bubble which is like, “Woah.” At home, it hits them like that. When you perform it overseas, the audience is not in that vibe and if you ask them to actually get involved with you it’s hard because there is also the language barrier. There is also the content and the context that is being lost. Some cities can be hard on you, some cities can be good to you. Sometimes it’s good to not have everybody like the work because that is what a work of art is. Some will love it, some will hate it, some will be like, “hmm.” It’s art. You get all of those reactions.
I’ve just seen Rock to the Core as part of The Cape Town Fringe and I love how you were able to turn your protest at the Fleur du Caps into something tangible. How did you get the idea to take your message and turn it from the protest into a piece of art?
After marching and getting all the responses that we got on social media, I was like, “Ok we really need to do a work about this.” Even to initiate it was hard. I didn’t only want four women. I said, “Come artists. Let’s go.” And then only two women show up, me, Chuma [Sopotela] and Buhlebezwe [Siwani] and the fourth woman, Zikhona [Zee Jacobs] was actually in the space and I said, “Hey, I’ve got costumes. Come.” She joined us and then we were four. The remarks that people made on us… I was like, “Ok let’s turn this into art,” because they didn’t know the main reason for this and they were trying to mock it. Let’s actually show them that we can be larger and go beyond the protest. We did a silent one and now we are going to make noise on stage. That is what inspired me. I was kind of intrigued by the reactions of people and we used it in the work. They treated us like sex workers in a way like, “What are they wearing? They are so trashy.” We used that to play with as a work of art.
You are an artist who has a very clear vision and is not prepared to let anything affect that. What is the driving force that fuels that fearlessness for you?
I think I’m at that stage where I don’t give a hoot about anything. I do it because if I don’t do it, someone else will. Sometimes I do things not knowing how people are going to react. I was telling the performers that this work is very confronting so they need to be prepared for any negativity because it might not sit well with many people. It didn’t even sit well with people who are our friends, black people as well because it is talking about art, artists, the industry, everybody. It also says, “Black people, why are you not doing your own things and actually making it for yourself?” It was talking about two oppositions. All those oppositions were in the work. The beauty about it is that it is not one of those conventional pieces where you feel like you need to follow a text or you need to follow a story. It’s many stories within a story. These women are building a rock to a trophy but this rock could be a woman too. Even though we are made unable, we are not unable. We can. A woman can. The thing that I loved about it is that it’s a woman directing women. That was also very much like, “Now we can have somebody who is going to direct women without trying to compromise anything.” This is our protest now. It was a silent one, now let’s make noise on stage. That is our job to say it as is on stage. As artist’s we say it as is.
I’m curious about the process of shaping this piece because you’ve managed to take four incredibly strong individual women and create an ensemble. What was the process like shaping this piece?
When I said, “Guys let’s do this as a piece,” I was going to be in the work. It was going to be the four of us. It was going to be kind of a collaborative work and then I realized that I came with the body of work so it ended up very much like “Mamela” in a way. I had this thing about rock stars and about rock music. This became the concept and then I was like, “Maybe we become the instruments?” Things were coming slowly and then for some reason, I came up with knives and rocks because when I create something I like to use words and see the word and where it is going. I said, “Rocks can be bricks. Rocks are women. A woman is a rock.” This rock did not become what everybody thought it would be. It was just using rocks, having a rocking chair and also talking about rockstars. I even had pictures. I like to send them pictures. Women having fur coats is kind of diva-ish. Whatever costume I use must make sense. Fur coats are taken from slaughtered animals. We ended up using sheep because one of the actors, Buhlebezwe, is a sangoma. She can’t wear a goat or cow skin. She can only wear sheep. I surrounded everything around the sheep. The metaphor for sheep is how they follow each other and there’s always the black sheep which became the language. We are talking about sheep, I know there is a lullaby about it. That became the song because they are rockstars so of course they sing. Also, a sheep is igusha. Our vagina’s are called igusha’s in Xhosa. We don’t say vagina. This is the contrast and I like to work with contrast. Even though I am a dancer, I know my mind goes beyond a dancer when I create. I created the set, not as in making it but I said, “I want a transparent mirror” to go back to the scene of a dressing room because I feel like rockstars always go back to their dressing rooms and they do drugs or whatever but the drugs for me became Coca Cola…Coke. I play with words. Playing with the knives and the rocks became the music. I like to play with props that don’t say exactly what they do. If you use a knife, you aren’t just going to cut. As a choreographer, with movement, I felt like we are moving backwards. That is why they come on stage moving backwards and directing each other. It was a choice of me saying, “You create those patterns on stage. Talk to each other.” The movement on the floor was also one of those things where we were like, “We are going to use this movement because we feel like we are being chopped at our feet.” We are being treated like we are unable but we are able. That’s how it came about.
For this season that you’ve curated for the Baxter, you are working in the capacity of being a choreographer, director and a performer. Do you find it easy to switch between the different hats?
I must say it’s quite hard to handle four women because they are all busy but because of the way I work, you don’t have to follow choreography that you have to memorize, you don’t have to follow a text that you must memorize, it made it a bit easier. I don’t work 9am-5pm. Two or three hours in a studio is enough because if I watch that work for two months non-stop, I’m going to be bored and my eyes are going to be tired of seeing the same thing to the point where I will even take away the idea because I’ve been seeing it everyday. I remember when we would do the same work everyday as a dancer, I’d get bored. To actually ask the performers to do the same work 9am-5pm, they would get bored. The work would no longer have a meaning onstage. That is one technique I find useful. When you don’t have your own [rehearsal] space, you don’t want to waste R300 for 3 hours thinking, “What am I going to do?” I try to use my money in a good way where we are only going to rent space because we will try [specific] things. Saving that money makes you work on the edge because you think, “I’m not going to rehearse if there is no idea.” I must be triggered by an idea and go, “Guys, let’s do this.”
What advice would you have to younger artists who maybe feel like they don’t have a choice in the work that they are currently doing?
I think it’s good to try and to strive because at some point you will figure out what you want. If you don’t try and actually do anything, you will never get there. My grandfather used to say to me, “Failing is good because you will pass one day.” That has stayed with me. Failing is good because you get better at it by doing it. You won’t get better at it by not doing it. Striving is the best way to get there. I started performing not even having an audience. I cried cancelling a show, having only two people [in the audience.] I said to myself going home, “I am not going to stop. I’m going to do it.” And now I’m performing around the world for people.
What is something you feel most proud of?
I’m proud of where I come from and I’m proud of all the obstacles that have been in my way to get where I am because without them, I would never have created what I have created today. I feel like I had to knock on every door for it to be opened. To come here was a march. I’ve been in constant fights all my life. All of those have made me who I am and all of those have triggered work. Those who didn’t believe in me, made me fight harder to say, “I am going to do it.” I was that student who was told, “You’ll never make it. Just get a rich husband. What are you doing in dance?” I am still carrying that flag. Those things have made me who I am. All of those things are in my work. Not that you have to have it hard to make good work but for me, in my reality of life, I turned all those tools of oppression into beauty. That crisis became art.
Who are some South Africa women in the arts that inspire you?
I have been inspired by many women. I just lost my ballet teacher [Arlene Westergaard] who was my first ballet teacher. When I was told by her daughter that she was dying, she told me that “mom is dying.” She knows the relationship I have with her mom. She was like a mother. When I was told that she was dying, I have never wept the way I wept for this woman. I didn’t know how special she was until she was gone. I had to fly to Cape Town to catch her last breath. We drove to the airport and I was weeping. Tears were falling. They were tears that were reflecting on my life. This woman was the woman who said to me while I was at Tech when I said, “I can’t do this,” “Mamela, you can. Just get a diploma.” I did it. When I went to New York, she used to say, “Mamela, just finish the year and then you can come back home.” She is that woman who helped me be who I am today. We had a connection that was too strong to break. When I flew to Cape Town and [went] straight to the hospital, she was still breathing. I came back the following day [and] a few seconds after I arrived with her daughter, she passed away… She is the woman who inspired me and it just came stronger when she was gone. Her daughter left me this ring for the memory of her mother. This ring came from her daughter who said, “My mom wanted you to have this.” I’ve never had that. It was so special and the happiest thing was to see her off. I kiss this ring every time I go on stage. This was more than a woman, this was a mother.
You can follow Mamela on Twitter.