“Where some people see dereliction, others see opportunity,” choreographer Luyanda Sidiya smiles as he takes New Frame on a tour of the premises of his company, the Luthando Arts Academy in Sebokeng. The premises are not newly built. They’re in a disused wing of Tshepo Themba Secondary School, near Evaton, south of Johannesburg. There are broken windows and parts of the building are in need of repair, but together with his company of 11, Sidiya is repurposing classrooms to function as dance studios, performance areas and offices.
Sidiya is only in his late 30s, but he’s a veteran of contemporary dance. He has benefitted from tuition at Sylvia Glasser’s company Moving Into Dance (MID) and been associated in a leadership capacity with Vuyani Dance Theatre (VDT) under Gregory Maqoma. Sidiya also has a unique repertoire of works under his choreographic belt and was the dance recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist award in 2015.
Contemporary dance in South Africa has a vital history. Practitioners the likes of Glasser worked against European currents from 1978 to give voice and a platform to African dance. She has influenced generations of dancers and Maqoma was one of her protégés in 1991. He was a fully formed choreographer in MID’s leadership echelons by the time Sidiya joined the company in 2001.
Sidiya took his work seriously from the start. He was a part of that year’s Dance Umbrella with a work entitled The Worshippers, and his repertoire grew. “When I look at the videos of these works now, sometimes I get so embarrassed,” he laughs. “I realise that the ideas I had then are only beginning to reach maturity now.”
One of the challenges of contemporary African dance is the need to grow audiences. To do that, you need platforms. Many choreographers stage their works at established venues, but Sidiya doesn’t want to go that route. He explains that his audience of choice is Sebokeng residents.
The support of South African actor Hamilton Dlamini, who hails from Sebokeng, excited Sidiya enough to believe in his dreams. In the first half of 2020, Luthando will be premiering a new work by Phumlani Nyanga, the company’s rehearsal director. They are planning to launch two studios around the same time, one of which will be named to honour Dlamini.
“It’s crucial for us to work with what we have,” Sidiya says. An owl frequents the roof of the room designated as the academy’s admin office. The floors are not sprung, but the dancers have refurbished and functional bathrooms, as well as studio space. Best of all, they’re not expected to pay rent and have a 30-year lease commitment from the school.
Luthando’s seeds were sown with a R500 000 grant from the national lottery. “We used that money as a springboard to create works, to develop programmes and to ensure we are visible enough,” says Sidiya. “Our visibility has the power to ensure we get more work.”
Sidiya is keen to destroy the perception of Sebokeng as parochial. He adds that it is not about where you come from, it is about dance itself. Always. “Sylvia’s immortality is based on her impact on others. When I say I was taught by Sylvia, her immortality continues.
“I left MID in 2006 with a heavy heart, I had loved working there,” he says. He spent three months teaching African dance at Bennington College in New York in the United States, and then three years in Birmingham, United Kingdom, on a dance residency. On his return in 2010, he was invited to join VDT as an artistic assistant. Shortly after he joined VDT, he was promoted to artistic director of the theatre.
“I remember the time vividly,” he says. “It was just after I had created two works, Umnikelo and Dominion. At that point, Gregory’s solo career with his Beautiful series was taking off. The mandate was clear, someone needed to captain the VDT ship.”
But this was more complex than it seemed. At the time, VDT had “only had full-time funding and fixed-term contracts with dancers in 2005, and then in 2011, the lottery granted VDT further funding for three years”, Sidiya remembers. The company survived because Maqoma was “creating new works, here and there, hustling for funding”.
No time for smugness
It seemed to be too much, too soon for Sidiya. As a relative newcomer to VDT, he was being mandated to take the company on a new trajectory. The company was invited to perform Sidiya’s Dominion in Beijing and Toronto, where it was nominated for the Best International Ensemble in the prestigious Dora Mavor Moore Awards recognising artistic excellence.
“It was overwhelming,” Sidiya says. He knew he couldn’t afford to be smug about success. “We’d invested so much hard work, we didn’t want to disappoint the company. I didn’t want the company to die in my hands. At times, I felt empty. I felt I had nothing more to give. But the more you feel empty, the more something refuels and the more you become inspired to do more.”
Right now, Luthando’s aim is clear: “More than creating a production or performing company, we are gunning for an institution that will be accredited. We are waiting on NQF [the National Qualifications Framework] for arts accreditation level 4. Hopefully one day degrees will come from here,” he says expansively.
Provisionally hanging up his dance shoes, Sidiya is currently working on his honours degree in Heritage Studies at Wits University. “I’m getting into another phase of my life,” he says. “Just after I left Vuyani, [South African-born, Berlin-based choreographer] Robyn Orlin advised me to change gears and she told me not to approach things with the same tools.”
Sidiya registered Luthando as a company in 2007, the year after he left MID. “I was inspired by Sylvia to do so,” he says. “I reminded her that I had joined MID in order to be able to do the community dance teachers training diploma MID offered. But I was now roped into the professional company. I appreciated that, but I yearned to have such a conservatory where I come from. There is nothing like that there.
“And Sylvia was like, ‘You know Luyanda, that is the whole reason you are here!’ She would come to classes I was teaching and she would give notes, about pliés, about taking care of dancers’ cartilage … and in return, because there was so much I could assimilate from Sylvia at the time, I would always choose her as a facilitator in the teaching schedule. And she would do those classes in which you never get to sweat, but you work on thinking, knowing and understanding the connections in your body, from your head to your transversal abdominals … Sylvia would teach one exercise, break it down until you would understand exactly the source of it, where each movement comes from.”
There are no empty promises in Sidiya’s description of Luthando. Already on the books are the salaries of 11 people. Each member has a range of skills, passions and training, from dancing to singing, musical and applied theatre to administrative capacities. Some have more industry experience than others, but everyone, says Sidiya, “is part of the core”.
Ancestral bonds, family love
Sidiya is keenly aware of his bonds with his ancestors. “I believe we are all spiritual, but that some connect more with their spiritual side than others. I feel that I am carried.
“My family is born-again Christian, but they have also allowed me to be me and to voice myself. They’ve created a safe space that allows me to question. Sometimes people ask me how I did something in my choreography and I don’t know how to answer them. This is when I realise there is something beyond just Luyanda that carries me and my work.”
In the 1980s, when many arts initiatives were born, from Benoni-based community arts company Sibikwa to craft organisation Imbali, MID and the Market Theatre Laboratory, South Africans didn’t really know when democracy would happen. Sidiya feels a similar restless energy in the air. He’s determined a dance company can – and should – be self-sustaining. “We want to keep it real.” What’s the secret? “One has to give back,” Sidiya says, with great simplicity.