I visit Mafa Makhubalo’s rehearsal on a sweltering September day at Collective Space, in the Junction of Toronto, where the dancers are literally dripping with sweat. It is 30°C and they are dancing hard. Mafa and three dancers, Kimya Hypolite, Tamla Matthews and Roushelle Reign, prepare to show a section of the work. The drummer, N’dere Nimon, has a djembe between his legs and is ready to play.
Music begins and Mafa snaps his fingers to count the dancers in, while one of the dancers second that with heavy hand claps, and they kick into an incredibly physical combination with intricate footwork, impressive upper body strength, and pulsing rhythms. I think I stopped breathing for a moment as I took in their percussive and intense movements. Calm and strong, the dancers seem as comfortable on the floor as they are in their feet. Their dance is at times accelerated and sharp while other moments find a flow like a wave washing over them. Smooth meets staccato in these skilled and versed bodies.
The highly athletic section ends, and once they catch their breath – which doesn’t take long – Mafa asks to see it again, working to refine and nuance aspects of the combination. The dancers take a moment to let the beat soak into their bodies, counting in, preparing mind and body. The pulse in the room between bodies and beats is riveting. A fusion of contemporary, African, modern, breakdance movement, and gesture are being explored. The individuality of each dancer shines, yet they are united by the movement and their push to accomplish their tasks. At times, it seems celebratory, raw, and full of release; at other times, it is controlled, defined, and rigorous.
As they prepare to show another section of the work, they all put on socks and rubber boots. This preparatory ritual is as performative as it is transitional. The performers, along with Mafa, stand straight together, then bend their torsos in a hunch so that their hands reach their boots. The music begins, and they clap hands together and on the inner and outer boot with tempo, speed and accuracy.
“I was born playing gumboot,” Mafa says. I speak with him over the phone days later, as he cares for his daughter. Mafa is a father of two. He has a 3-year old girl and the recent addition to his family – Azania Susumu Mohau, whose name means “Africa moves forward slowly” – was born five months ago. If he is under-slept, it doesn’t show. Mafa has energy to spare.
Mafa Makhubalo was born and raised in Sasolburg, South Africa. Growing up, gumboot was part of the fabric of his birthplace, and came to be an integral part of his practice, career, and way of life. Gumboot was born out of South Africa, created by miners who were denied the right to talk to each other while working. The different sounds created were distinct codes and messages to other workers. A physical language, form of protest, and dance form was born from their oppression.
Mafa grew up during the time that apartheid was being dismantled and transitioning to a new era. “Most of us were gangsters, and art helped us to move away from this.” He notes that many of his friends from his home town ended up in jail, and many of them are no longer alive. He reflects that dance and art came as a calling to help him and others move away from the harder lifestyle they were living. “We began asking: how can we fight without fighting? Art taught us to love. We had forgotten to love, because we grew up angry, we didn’t know why. It became normal.”
Mafa tells me that through his art form he found he could express himself, find possibilities, and the hope that life was not so narrow. “We stopped fearing our lives and ourselves. We found courage.” When he first applied to emigrate, he was rejected, as he didn’t know where Canada was, and he had confused Canada with the United States. He then did his research and got a letter of support from Toronto’s Ballet Creole. At that point, Mafa had to find his way, with no money, no friends and nowhere to stay.
Today, Mafa speaks of the long desire for a space, or a series where work can be presented without classification. “Without saying because I am from Africa, whatever movement I do is African dance. Give us an opportunity to explore what is our own voice, how to communicate with an audience, and how we relate to their presence.” Mafa notes that his voice and practice come from various influences and forms, and need not be classified under one umbrella. “We want to decolonize the art, but we need space to do this. We need to start from within for it to go beyond. We need to explore how one form relates to the other and learn to trust our own form so we can also open it up.” Mafa mentions that a series like Contemporaneity gives resources to explore facets of the many forms and influences of contemporary artists working in contemporary times. Allowing the artist to break out of old definitions, barriers, and taxonomies.
The project Mafa and his team are working on is titled Lentswe la Setjhaba (Voices of the Land). A section begins with the song Working Hard. Each in their own world, the three dancers seem to be getting ready for something. To go to work, to meet someone, to work up their courage. Their distinct worlds blur as they meet and come together in movement and motion. Mafa notes the song is “Afro-house, that’s what I’m exploring, that energy. When I listen to this lately, I become myself, more of myself. Also I wanted lyrics to be obvious. I don’t need to hide. I am creating living art, living experience. We are workers. What are we working for? Is it purposeful, or for the sake of work?” He goes on to explain that the dancers are each working with their own stories & struggles in the piece. “Being lost in aspects of ones’ struggle, when do you find yourself? When we let go, the nuance comes in and we can move forward.”
As they dance, rhythms meet movements, each a separate entity, but also layering over each other to create complex patterns and narratives. “Together we find that rhythm that moves us. Rhythm is a human internet, we are able to send signals to each other, connect, and Iisten to each other.”
Through these rhythms and connections Mafa is interested in questioning, “How does one adopt their own culture into different cultures, and still be able to have a sense of comfort in who they are? Gumboot tells stories, stories from those who came up with this form, it came from the pain of the miners. It is a revolutionary and protest dance, and we are using gumboot as a way of retaliating in our own field and world.”
Through themes of work, rhythm, and pattern, conversations are created between body and spirit, protest and resilience. As these songs, stories and histories radiate, they land us very much in today. In the moment. And very much in contemporary times.
-Jenn Goodwin. October 2017
photo by Manuela Accarpio of Mafa Makhubalo and collaborators in residence at Dancemakers
Not Hiding Behind the Words: Esie Mensah’s Shades of Blackness
In interview with Seika Boye
Commissioned by Anandam Dancetheatre
I met with choreographer Esie Mensah to discuss Shades of Blackness, which has been supported in its development by the residency program of Anandam Dancetheatre’s Contemporaneity Series 1.0. The work is focused on shadeism, which exists within Black and communities of colour and is discrimination based on skin shade. It is a systemic legacy of colonization around the globe that privileges lighter skin tones over darker ones. This discrimination penetrates private and public spaces. Its violence lives within families and communities, and feeds a massive consumer industry of skin bleaching. Below is the discussion that Mensah and I had before a Monday morning rehearsal at Joy of Dance Studio on the Danforth in Toronto. I asked Mensah about shadeism and her creative process for what she says is her most political choreographic work to date. Our discussion began with her listing the words that emerged from an earlier stage of exploration during a creation residency at Toronto Dance Theatre with the dancers: Tereka Tyler-Davis, Roney Lewis, Miranda Liverpool, Raffaele Bereton, and Zoe Edwards.
light skin. right skin. better. beauty. opportunity. privilege.
SB: How did you work with these words once they came into the process?
EM: I thought the work would be physical, but it ended up being a very simple, pedestrian feel. It just naturally happened. I didn’t say the words, Tereka and Miranda repeated them. I was interested in hearing the intention behind certain words. When spoken they punctuated and affected me – “right skin,” “better” – all of the things associated with light-skinned people and that we do not realize that we are perpetuating.
SB: Who is we?
EM: The black community. Even those who are conscious are still subconsciously linked to these stereotypes. It takes a very aware person to break out of it. Even as the one making this piece, I have to force myself not to go into stereotypes of what I think.
SB: Can you give me an example?
Yes. The dating and relationships one. I feel like you are the dark-skinned girl who doesn’t get noticed and who has to break out of that cycle. I know my beauty. I recognize my beauty. But when I am not getting attention from men I assume it is because I am dark-skinned.
SB: How do you change that when it is systemic?
EM: Rising above. Moving past the frame of mind that you have been trapped in.
SB: What aspects of your own practice have you turned to in facing these themes in the studio?
EM: I am a fairly new and emerging choreographer. I have created some work, but creating a work that is political – I am coming into it with a blank canvas. I am also getting help from dramaturge and co-director, Akosua Amo-Adem.
We have had conversations about specific themes: self, family, relationships. I am working with movement and Akosua is an actor and working with text. Together we ask, when does text live, when does movement live?
As someone who is still trying to understand process I ask, what is needed in the piece? I am also getting feedback from the dancers. You know, ‘we weren’t feeling that or this,’ for example reciting words in the last run and then doing it without words. When we ran with strictly movement, the work turned into a different beast. Not being able to hide behind words and seeing what that did to the movement opened me up to what this piece is, and what it is speaking to us to become.
SB: What happened when movement was not hiding behind words?
I got punched in the eye! It was interesting because we were going through a process of exploring each other. I had to leave the studio to get some ice. By the time I came back, the whole energy in the room had shifted.
One dancer, Ronny, was playing an angry, dark-skinned sibling. Through movement he was trying to ask, can we as dark-skinned people come together, can we exist, explore, appreciate ourselves without you here? He was doing this by pushing away the light-skinned girl in the group. It was interesting to see him pushing her away and pushing her away. Man, was it eye-opening - seeing someone physically get shunned.
This enactment linked me to a conversation that I had with a woman who went through a very traumatic experience as a light-skinned girl at the hands of a dark-skinned woman. We victimize ourselves as dark-skinned, we can say what we lack in oppourtunity. At no point in time are we talking about what dark-skinned women do to light-skinned women who are not asking for it.
Seeing these situations played through movement will affect people a lot more. People will see themselves in these everyday experiences. More so than just hearing a story or watching a film.
SB: What are you working on today?
Today is exploration day. Today is piecing together the things that we explored last week and trying to create some type of form within it. Film director Alexis Wood, [who is making a documentary about this work and her team were here all last week, and I think they noticed that I just need space. I was very happy about it when they noticed. I need time to just explore with my dancers and to be able to bring that forward. I am really excited. I don’t know what this is going to turn into.
SB: What can you say about form?
EM: Exploring and doing something open-ended is not generally how I work, but it is part of what I see in this artistic work. I am trying to listen and be as attentive as possible with this massive malleable balloon. How do I shape it? I am learning to be ok if it is resisting me, to let things go, reshape, maybe let that go.
SB: Is there anything that you would like to add?
Yes. It is about the need for conversation. It is necessary because this piece is going to hit people and they might not be ready for it. If it heals then I have done my job. If one person can come and see something, if the work shifts the way you look at your children, grandchildren, siblings, loved ones. That to me is a huge thing. In Caribbean communities shadeism is most relevant in families. In African communities it is about the self. Bleaching ads are massive all over Africa, Asia and South-East Asia. These are themes from slavery and colonialism. At the end of the day shadeism is something we have adopted. We are carrying it forward and perpetuating it. We have to take responsibility for that.
* this interview is abridged
Seika Boye, PhD is a dance scholar, artist and writer. She is a Lecturer at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies and Director of the Institute for Dance Studies at the University of the Toronto. Her current work explores blackness and dancing in Canada in early-mid 20th century and utilizes dance-focused research to confront historical omissions of Canada’s Black population. Seika’s recent projects include co-curating the gathering Configurations in Motion: Performance Curation for Communities of Colour (Concordia, 2017) with Thomas F. DeFrantz (Duke); dramaturgy/historical consultation for artist Deanna Bowen’s The Long Doorway (Mercer Union, 2017); and movement dramaturgy for Djanet Sears’ A Black Girl in Search of God (Centaur Theatre/National Arts Centre, 2015). Publications include writing for The Dance Current, Dance Collection Danse Magazine, alt.theatre, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism and Performance Matters. She has appeared as a guest panelist at the Art Gallery of Ontario and with the feminist working group EMILIA-AMALIA. Seika lives and works in Toronto with her husband and two sons.
Lentswe la Setjhaba (Voices of the Land)
By Jenn Goodwin
Commissioned by Anandam Dancetheatre
photo by E.S Cheah Photography,, Esie Mensah's Shades of Blackness, dance artists: Tereka Tyler-Davis and Percy Anane-Dwumfour