It’s July 13th, we’ve been in South Africa for about two weeks and I’ve made the mistake of thinking I’ve started to understand it. I’m getting used to looking right first before crossing a street, to how vocal South African audiences are in our performances, and to having peri-peri sauce on all of my meals.
So when we arrive at the Elkhaya Arts Centre in Kwa-Mashu outside of Durban to work with the theater students there, you’d think I would have been prepared. Nope. Our Durban-based choreographer, Sduduzo Ka-Mbili, has come along with us to teach the students here a small phrase of gum-boot dance and American step to start them off. 15 minutes later almost the entire group of 25 has learned the phrases and added vocal punctuations to it. (By contrast it took us a week to just get the steps down in rhythm.) Don’t believe me? Check it:
Over the course of the next three days we lead them through exercises to get them used to creating scenes instantaneously as a group—like creating tableaus of a recognizable place or situation and then improvising a scene from those tableaus.
Since we only have a short amount of time to work with them, we move quickly to sending the students off to create short two-minute scenes that are based on a story from their own experience or inspired from a headline that grabbed their attention. Other than the time limit, we only ask that they incorporate some element of the choreography they learned on the first day and some element of music into their scenes.
The scenes they create—in 15 minutes—are inspiring, playful, and filled with snippets of close-harmonies and syncopated dance rhythms. One of my favorites was a group that depicted a grandmother getting on a mini-bus
only to realize the bill she was going to pay with was fake. The group created a mini-bus full of people, conjuring both the movement of the bus as well as the blast of music coming from it as it zoomed around the township.
Watching our students fully embody the choreography or use music and movement to such thrilling effect filled me with a sense that whatever knowledge I was imparting to them, I was learning at least as much if not more in return.