Dancing across borders on Cape Town stage

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Body movements and not words helped a South African choreographer communicate to Chinese dancers her vision for a dance piece they will perform in the city on Monday night.

Moya Michael, who has lived in Belgium for two decades, was commissioned to work with dancers at the Shanghai-based Jin Xing Dance Theatre.


South African choreographer Moya Michael. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

Michael, originally from Johannesburg, said they could not understand each other’s languages but for the five weeks they rehearsed together they formed an understanding based mostly on body movements.

“It was a challenge in the beginning, even though there were translators. It takes a bit longer to work like that,” says Michael.

“But I work mainly with images, so most of the time I ended up showing what I wanted to say.”

Michael is among three international choreographers whose collaboration with Jin Xing that will be staged at the inaugural Cape Town International Dance Festival at Artscape Theatre on Monday night. It runs until December 6.

Michael’s half-hour performance is called Echo and she said it is a show of women’s strength.

“I wanted to work with women because of all the stereotypes of Chinese women who are seen as being subservient. I wanted to show the strength of women,” said Michael.

“The seven women dancers all look very beautiful and elegant. But when they move it’s just raw power.”

Echo was also the first performance on a Chinese stage with a “highly pregnant female dancer” said Michael.

“I reworked the piece recently after the dancer gave birth, to give her more movement,” said Michael.

When Michael first went to China, she felt “very welcomed” and did not rely on stereotypes when she landed there.

“We hear all these things; Chinese people are like this or that. But I was just interested to learn. I was lucky to see China on different levels,” she said.

“It’s very busy and fascinating. All your senses are opened. There is so much to see, hear, smell and eat.

“There’s so much western influence but they are so proud of their heritage.”

Jin Xing, founder of the company that commissioned Michael, said they met in Shanghai. She said she hired Michael because she is a “good choreographer”.

Xing started dancing in the Chinese military at age nine but years later studied and worked in contemporary dance in New York and Europe.

“I was a dance machine in the military, but I was doing propaganda work. It was a job and less passion,” said Xing.

“After I discovered modern dance, I decided to send a message through my work about what I’m thinking.”

Working independently, Xing soon discovered that Chinese audiences were not always open to her contemporary dance pieces.

But ten years on, she says there has been progress.

“Self-expression was difficult for audiences when we started. It has taken time but things have changed tremendously,” she said.

“I never worry about the audience anymore.”

Heinz Gerd Oidtmann, whose company produced the three dance pieces for Monday night’s performance, said after a decade of working in China he has also seen possibilities shift.

“It’s not easy (for contemporary dancers) because there is reluctance and resistance. But if you are determined you can do it,” he said.

“The dynamic of the country and economy offers a lot of opportunities for people who are ambitious and want to achieve something more.”


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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