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David April, embracing dance in South Africa

Published on 31 January 2018

The Main programme of the National Arts Festival is selected from an annual open call for submissions by an Artistic Committee, comprising experts in their fields who give input into creating a programme that is reflective of South Africa, aiming to challenge as well as entertain new and established audiences.

A member of the Artistic Committee, ​David Thatanelo April is ​also the lead curator of the Dance programme for this year’s National Arts Festival, which opens in Grahamstown on 28 June. He has a proven track record of leadership and success in dance and associated areas, and has a reputation for innovation and excellence. April’s arts consultancy focuses on improving clarity of purpose, management and financial sustainability of cultural organisations, and exploring partnerships between the private, public and non-profit sectors. In addition, he has filled the roles of performer, project manager, fundraiser, dance activist, developer of education through dance and movement, dance adjudicator, motivational speaker and reviewer.

Q: What sparked your passion for dance?

A: I grew up in Kimberly in the Northern Cape, where opportunities for young people interested in dance training were very limited. There were ‘dance clubs’ in the townships, which offered Latin and ballroom, with older people teaching the youngsters at weekends. But it was not enough for me. What I saw on television – including the choreography in Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s music videos – inspired me. However, the school I attended – St Boniface – was a missionary school and very focused on academics, not arts and culture. Getting an education was regarded as being very important.

I registered for a Computer Science degree at ML Sultan, but after dropping out after a year of that, I, by chance, I heard an advert on Radio 5 (now 5fm) for dance auditions at Moving Into Dance  – this was in the early 1990s. I knew this was an opportunity for me and, after speaking to Sylvia Glasser, I auditioned. Out of 50 applicants, 12 of us were accepted and I became a student, performer, teacher, manager, assistant to the director Sylvia Glasser and eventually executive director of Moving into Dance Mophatong.

Within the performing arts sphere, you have played a range of roles – from performer and dance activist to project manager and fundraiser to educationist and motivational speaker. Which of these roles is the most important to you and why?

As an independent consultant and project manager, I still fulfil all these roles – in varying degrees, depending on what we’re working on. One is not more important than another; rather they flow into each other. I have an integrated approach, which is crucial when you’re working in the creative industry.

Mikahail Baryshnikov once said that he lost interest in classical dance because he was more interested in modern choreography. How do we as South Africans resolve the tension between the classical or traditional and the contemporary? Do we? Can we? Should we?

My immediate response to that question is ‘to each his own’ – but when we look at the rich history of South Africa and what we have on offer with our arts and culture – including ballet, traditional and Indian dance – many of these styles have grown over time and grown well. The key is to find an integrated approach that best showcases these dance forms – to each other and to the world. There is a hunger for South African art forms.

With classical dance, people can have different and quite uncompromising tastes. But we should avoid saying that one form is better than the other, or that we should be concentrating on one form more than another, because we have such a wide range in South Africa. We live in interesting times and when you listen to the music and see the dance being staged, it’s a beautiful mix that draws together all our various dance forms with all our various histories with incredible results. We should be embracing what is on offer in South Africa – it’s quite unique.

How do we build a future for dance in South Africa? Is there a future for dance in South Africa?

We have dance training companies and institutions in South Africa that are producing dancers and performers of world calibre. These include Jazzart, Moving into Dance, Cape Dance Academy, Vuyani Dance Theatre, and the Flatfoot Dance Company. The problem is that there are not enough platforms for these dancers, making them practically unemployable. So it is international dance companies and productions that land up employing South African dancers, who then leave the country. It is these dancers who showcase South African talent overseas, acting as ambassadors for those who most aspire to be like them and to continue the industry’s positive growth trajectory.

There is a future for dance, albeit a difficult one. We need more government funding, private interest and other support structures to build dance. Somehow, our resilience allows us to keep on and has not prevented the performing arts from expanding and producing elite, multi-skilled and employable artists for the local and international industry.

What can audiences look forward to on the dance programme at this year’s Festival?

Dance works are always a strong audience drawcard at the Festival. In 2018, the programme will not only engage but challenge audiences. The criteria that helped inform the curatorial selection for the Main dance programme rested heavily on the need to recognise and support artistic innovation and excellence.

The dance works include strong, critical voices and look at issues of identity and what it means to be a contemporary African citizen. The themes are current, relevant and necessary to deal with some of the issues around space, place and African identity. The works lend themselves strongly to negotiating ‘history and memory’ as a way to understand the ‘now’.

We believe the inclusion and variety of intergenerational choreographic voices will help to interrogate the past, review the present and build a sense of what the future entails. The thematic framework also centres on honouring those who continue to nurture young dance makers who are shaping the future South African dance landscape.

Central themes of affirmation, recognition and acknowledgement were important in the selection criteria. We believe that the selected dance work’s for the 2018 Festival will not only engage but also challenge the audience.