It was a dance performance that shook South Africa’s dance values. Premised on a San rock art aesthetic, Sylvia Glasser, 78, choreographed Tranceformations in the early 1990s and it broke rules and reconvened values.
Glasser, fondly known as “Magogo”, has written a book about this work and her contribution to South African dance. Titled Tranceformations and Transformations: Southern African Rock Art and Contemporary Dance launched at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg on Saturday 28 September.
“My fascination with San culture started with Laurens van der Post’s novels,” says Glasser, admitting that the idealism and romanticism of the books seduced her. “But this was just the starting point. It was only later, when I met [South African archaeologist] David Lewis-Williams and read his interpretation of San rock art and San mythology, that I developed a deeper understanding of San rock art and rituals.”
Glasser started Moving Into Dance (MID) in 1978 from the garage of her suburban Johannesburg home in Victory Park. This was before it was legal for black and white dancers to share a stage.
In the 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement became urgent. It was a time in South African academia during which social anthropology, archaeology and sociology university departments were becoming known for the political activism of their staff members. It drew on Marxist thinking, Glasser remembers: “It was about looking beneath the surface to understand context.”
Having read English and Classical Thought in the 1960s at Wits University, Glasser returned in 1987, to study. She was taught by respected social anthropologists David Hammond-Tooke and David Webster, and Lewis-Williams.
“David Webster was killed by the apartheid regime on 1 May 1989,” her face softens sadly. “I will never forget that day. It was a Friday. The following week, he was going to organise one of the men who worked as a cleaner at Wits to teach traditional Zulu dancing at MID,” she says. “Maggie Friedman, David’s partner at that time, eventually found that man. He did the teaching, but the loss of David was enormous.”
She remembers: “In 1987, Lewis-Williams spoke to me about cultural appropriation in my work. How would I feel if someone took an object sacred to me and reused it to underplay its meaning?
“I read and read the research papers Lewis-Williams had given me and I decided, no. I’m not going to do it.” Married to career academic David Glasser, who headed the engineering department at Wits and served for a stint as dean, she enjoyed the benefits of travel.
In the 1990s, the Glassers travelled to Australia on sabbatical. “I attended dance anthropology lectures by the late Drid Williams. I learnt about how to look at dance with what I’d learnt in anthropology. Drid gave me confidence, when I returned home, to pick up my thinking’s threads.”
Williams was an important influence – and friend – for Glasser over the years and she encouraged her to publish in many international journals. Glasser remembers presenting and publishing papers in fields related to the anthropology of dance, the politics of music and dance, and cultural appropriation over the years. “My papers enjoyed big audiences, particularly in the American universities. I don’t know if it would be the same today,” she ponders.
“Was I tempted to go the academic route? Yes, I was,” she smiles, recalling that she was the inaugural winner of the David Webster Prize for excellence in anthropology over three years of undergraduate study.
“During my three years of social anthropology, I was working and choreographing all the time. After the three years was completed, I spoke to David Hammond-Tooke about the idea of an academic career for me. He gave me sage advice. He said, carry on with your dancing and write about what you do.
“I wanted to do my honours, see where it took me, but Hammond-Tooke said I would have gotten bored. I would have stopped my company. I’m so happy I listened to him. I know what goes on in academia. I could not have done things in the way that I did,” she says.
When you think of anthropology, you may think colonialist typecasting. But there were two streams: “There were the British social anthropologists and former English-speaking universities in South Africa and there were the German cultural anthropologists and former Afrikaans-speaking universities. The latter tended to study or view the different ‘tribes’ and their cultures as separate entities.
“I’ve always said that the problems were not necessarily due to tribalism itself, it was due to apartheid actually enforcing tribalism, enforcing the so-called separate cultures as discrete entities frozen in time. This was never the intention or approach in South African social anthropology at Wits when I was there,” says Glasser. “Certainly not in the 1980s and 1990s. And as far as I know, not currently.”
Glasser names MID graduates Gregory Maqoma, Vincent Mantsoe, Moeketsi Koena, Thoko Sidiya, Muzi Shili, Oscar Buthelezi, Luyanda Sidiya and Sonia Radebe, who are today respected choreographers, and actors Sello Motloung, Gcina Mkhize and Tinah Mnumzana, among others, who benefitted from MID training.
In considering the work of her protégés, Glasser acknowledges that “there is always influence. I never wanted them to be clones of me or to keep their work frozen in time. I was ‘planting seeds’.”
She speaks of the challenge of mentoring a choreographer. I used to strip them of preconceived ideas or ways of working. “Take the idea of a ‘walking dance’, for example. We begin with discussing what you are allowed to do and what not. We define walking, but within those parameters, each dancer defines their own movements, and this is how the choreography developed. There are no ‘steps’ learned from anyone else, each dancer is trying to find their own way.
“That’s not to say everyone invents an entirely new language of dance. You build on what’s there. When I went towards an African aesthetic, it was quoting pan-African basic movements and changing them … you see that in Tranceformations. It’s not meant to be an imitation or a replica of the San trance dance, but it certainly uses stylistic elements – and I question myself carefully throughout my career and in my book.
“There is also a lot of history in this book. Not just my personal history or my choreographic methodology, performance and sociocultural anthropology and the anthropology of dance, or the history of Moving into Dance, which is now in its 41st year, but also history of the San people, the history of their genocide, their almost decimation.”
A book in its own time
The book is published through Staging Post, hosted by Jacana. It is neither self-publishing nor a formal Jacana imprint. “I didn’t choose this approach lightly,” says Glasser, acknowledging the help she received from Jessica Denyschen at the Ar(t)chive at Wits University and funding from the National Arts Council (NAC). “Through the NAC, we will be distributing 100 of these books to under-resourced community groups and schools throughout the nine provinces.”
Glasser also credits Denyschen, Tammy Ballantyne and Bridget van Oerle for organising the launch, as well as the Market Theatre for providing the venue. She says she is grateful to the current leadership at MID, chief executive Nadia Virasamy and artistic director Mark Hawkins, as well as “the amazing MID company, for performing Tranceformations at the launch.” Shili and Thandiwe Tshabalala, who have been at MID since 2000, rehearsed the work.
“I started looking for a publisher in 1996, but the time wasn’t right,” says Glasser.
One local publisher who accepted the pitch died. Later, the Wesleyan University Press in the United States showed interest. “By the time I was ready to show them something, the person I had dealt with was retiring and they’d changed their publishing mandate.
“I don’t regret it taking so long. I could not have produced this book in a short time. If I had done it through Wesleyan, there would have been more academic interest, but that doesn’t worry me anymore. The book is South African. It happened here, it belongs here.”
Awards and ego
Glasser has received many awards. She was knighted by the Netherlands in 2014 and granted the Order of Ikhamanga Silver in 2016, which is awarded for achievements in arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport in South Africa. But she’s always remained Sylvia: humble, direct, outspoken.
The book comes with a DVD of the original 1991 cast performing Tranceformations: Mantsoe, Maqoma, Koena, the late Pule Kgaratse, Eric Lehana, Portia Mashigo, Angie Sekonye, Tshidi Shuping and Justice Ntshinga. “When you watch the work,” she says, “It’s important to remember it was still apartheid. Especially the ending,” she says.
The initial sale of Glasser’s book took place over a season of three days last week at the Market Theatre, where Tranceformations was performed alongside Alfred Hinkel’s Bolero on 26 and 27 September, and a performance of Tranceformations was coupled with the book launch and a discussion on Saturday 28 September.
“When I went into the rehearsals of Tranceformations … I was so worried as one of the main dancers and mentor was unable to be there or perform due to illness. But I needn’t have been. It looks absolutely amazing!”
Glasser, who retired from MID in 2015, explains that the work’s current version features dancers who’ve never done it before: the next generation. Tranceformations has been part of the matric curriculum for dance since 2006.
Tranceformations and Transformations is available for purchase through The Ar(t)chive.