There are few things in one’s everyday working journey as loud as the South African minibus or communal taxi. Outside, on the streets, taxis hoot unceasingly. Inside, commuters talk continuously. People call out their fares as money passes to the driver and change disperses back while commuters shout their stops – all amid general conversation.
But when Lulu Mlangeni was carving out her career path as a choreographer, it was not in her own small car that she chose to move forward, it was inside a taxi. The taxi was the only place where she could think about her daily goals on her way to the dance studio and create aims for the next day, when she journeyed home to Soweto. In the taxi, the noise surrounding her was absorbed.
I first met Lulu Mlangeni in 2015. At the time, she was preparing her first full-length choreographic debut at the Market Theatre as the inaugural winner of the 2014 Sophie Mgcina Award for Emerging Artists. The pressure was palpable. In front of me sat an accomplished dancer who had won numerous accolades for dance, including the 2007 Dance Umbrella’s Most Promising Dancer Award and the nationally televised 2010 So You Think You Can Dance grand prize. But the shy woman I met cast her gaze continuously downward. Mlangeni recalls, “Already they’d put me on this pedestal of ‘one of the most amazing dancers and let’s see what she can do’. I was afraid.”
Interviewing her almost five years later, she brims with confidence and infectious joy. As the sound of taxis hum outside, she directs our discussion. “This isn’t an interview, neh? It’s a conversation.” She leans back on her chair to sip water. Mlangeni has been in interviews all day. Now that she is the 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for dance, the pressure has increased to a massive scale. But, she says, “I have zero fear … I have been through a lot.”
Her words recall her first 10-minute choreography in 2010, Question Mark. The piece was a solo ode to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who famously said, after years of torture while fighting apartheid, “There is no longer anything I can fear.”
Becoming an artist
“These are things I’d love to share with people. The not-so-nice things … because it’s always about the glam and, oooh, the end productions. You know, the nice things … People see umsebenzi on stage and, like, they don’t know what I went through,” she says, leaning in. Umsebenzi, an isiZulu word for work and performance, articulates her core concerns. She is concerned with raising the confidence of younger generations to ensure they never have to struggle as she did to work and perform freely as an artist. So, we begin by discussing her journey.
In 1995, a year after South Africa’s first democratic elections allowed black people freedom of movement across the country, Mlangeni was eight years old. While watching a talent show on television called Shell Road to Fame, she saw a group perform and realised they were from 10 blocks away in her township. She asked her uncle, “Why am I not part of these people? … I have to join them.” He introduced Mlangeni to Dorah Mbokazi, who started Dorah’s Dancers in her parents’ backyard in 1994.
“Two weeks down the line, I was in the upper level group,” Mlangeni says, beaming. By nine years old, she was performing in Switzerland, doing schoolwork once a week on a designated day. She was brilliant and dedicated. “It was a lot … It’s not given. It’s things that I asked for,” she says.
At 15, Mlangeni witnessed her first theatre production, Gregory Maqoma’s Virtually Blonde. Mlangeni gleams as she describes the show: “There was like a nice, huge, white set onstage. It was a fusion of text, dance and there was singing … and audio. And, I felt like I was watching a movie but I was in a theatre space!” Again, just as she had said to her uncle after watching Shell Road to Fame, she said out loud to her friend, “This is what I want to do.”
So when what was then the Vuyani Dance Theatre, founded by Maqoma, sought its first woman dancer, Mlangeni auditioned for the company. “I trained for a whole year,” she says. “But I was doing grade 11.” Maqoma insisted she finish school. But she got a call on the last day of her high school exams and was with the company for 10 years from then on, moving “from being a trainee, to becoming a junior dancer, a senior dancer, to becoming rehearsal director, to becoming creative assistant”.
Mlangeni found being the creative assistant for the company challenging. “In front of people you are making decisions but behind closed doors, you are just a front.” The issue lay in being placed in an elevated position without any mentorship. “I was creative assistant … It’s a nice title. People are like, ‘Yay, female empowerment!’ And wada wada. But then I realised ukuthi [that], oops, it’s a lot. And no one was helping me … I would cry every night … The previous generation failed us.” At the Vuyani Dance Company, she was groomed to be a creative. But in business, “they still saw me as this little girl”.
By 2015, she had forgotten her brilliance. She choreographed Page 27. “It was a mess.” The production pieced together her earlier Winnie Madikizela-Mandela solo with ensemble work by the entire company. Her solo stood out. Clad in beads and moving in a prison window of light, she was visually different to the textured material and languishing movements of the group.
“When I worked with the guys, there was that blockage of, ‘Let’s see what she can do’ … I didn’t understand myself.” Mlangeni would get out of the taxi at the studio, walk to the space and cry. She often didn’t want to go inside.
A work of art
In 2018, Mlangeni made a compelling work called Confined. She was Madikizela-Mandela again. This time, a rope tied to her limbs symbolised the constriction. But she did not only perform the symbolic stalwart, she also performed the push and pull of her mind working to free itself. She then resigned from the company.
Mlangeni is a freelancer now. She no longer needs the taxi to drown out her inner noise. She begins her day at the gym. There, she plans her day: who to call, what funding and production proposals to write and what classes to attend. “I have to think about it thoroughly … I am my own boss now,” she says. Her journey has led her to a critical evaluation of her development through a dance company. She says companies should train employees in business to allow them to build their own companies, rather than confine them.
Mlangeni is now open, confident and relaxed. “Like a goddess,” she says. “When I dance, I feel like a goddess.” The dancer-choreographer hopes to start her own arts academy to build younger artists’ confidence and bridge the gap between art and work. Her next choreographic work, one imagines, will be full of the light she currently radiates.