Dancer Mamela Nyamza in her own words

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Dancer, choreographer, director and international artist Mamela Nyamza has been performing at art festivals across Europe but has never had a solo show in Cape Town. The 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year winner for dance talks about her latest projects. Then she packed her bags – again.

“I’m a Gugs girl. I’m from Gugulethu NY16 in Cape Town. We didn’t have dance lessons at my school. We had to push ourselves to [get to dance classes]. Our parents didn’t drop us off for dance class. I used to go whether it was raining or not. I’d run home after dance class in the rain.

Dancer Mamela Nyamza. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Dancer Mamela Nyamza. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

I wanted to go to dance class even when I had exams. I think young people don’t think like that now. They just want things to come to them. They don’t realise you have to struggle, take steps.

It’s funny how my work is now being shown all over Europe. When I was in Paris, it created a buzz about South Africa. People don’t know much about South Africa.

I feel blessed now. I can say I work internationally. My suitcase is always ready to go. I just change costumes. Sometimes I get tired of travelling. But I’m lucky. I say that every day. I’m excited. It’s just that as a mother [Mamela has a 13-year-old son], sometimes it’s hard to travel so much.

I’ve been performing a lot in Europe this year. I performed Shift in Berlin in June and in Paris in late July. I opened a festival in Avignon in July with 19-born-76-rebels. In August I performed a solo piece, Isinqala, in Zurich. Right now I’m preparing to perform in France again. In October I’m performing in a show with the Soweto Kids in Lagos, Nigeria. And in November I will perform in Italy, France and the Netherlands.

Working internationally has really opened me up as an artist. It has showed me that there is no wrong or right. I don’t think of one specific audience when I produce work – so I don’t think, ‘I’m going to Europe; I must do something different for them’. If you are original and authentic you will bring something new. You can’t show Europe what they already have.

When you are far away from home, you are not scared. There are things in my work that I have not yet done at home, but that I have tried in Paris. But [I’m now planning to try these things] at home too.

Everybody expects me to have a subject. People call me names. They say ‘she’s feminist’ or make assumptions about what will happen. So I didn’t start with a theme when I began my latest work. In it, I’m the only woman – the rest of the group is all men who are 19 to 25 years old. I’m wearing a cat suit, something that I have never worn on stage. I didn’t want to talk about issues, but [they came up] because I’m the only woman in the performance. I become the mother, caregiver, the sexy woman. There is one point where it looks like I am abusing them. It’s about a woman speaking to young boys.

I have found when creating work that deals with politics white South Africans say, ‘Oh no, let’s leave the past behind’. But as artists, we bring a different context [to the subject]. In 19-born-76-rebels, I say we are repeating what we were fighting against. I would like to see how a broader audience would react to this piece if I showed it locally.

I wish I could show my work more at home. I’m tired of applying to show my work at different festivals or venues locally. I’ve realised that as artists, we are always appreciated more outside our own countries. When I was in Paris it was big. You would go in the subway and see my name on big posters.

But at home I have never even had a solo show at the Baxter or Artscape theatres. This is a sad thing; we are only going to be celebrated when we are 60. People won’t see us perform live. They will only see our archives. I want to perform at home, maybe have a seven-night run at Artscape Theatre.”

Born to the movement
Mamela Nyamza was born in Gugulethu in 1976. She trained at the Zama Dance School, graduated with a ballet diploma from the Pretoria Technikon, and after winning a scholarship, studied further at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Centre. She challenges traditional ballet and dance forms.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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