where does dance happen?

By Nicola van Straaten

Intentionally or otherwise, we seem to have arrived in a culture and society that has decided on very specific places and contexts where dance is allowed to happen. From what I’ve observed, coming from my small angle on things, dance tends to (more or less) occur in the following contexts:

– In the company of small children. This type of dancing can include bopping, enthusiastic and rhythmic clapping, waving hands in the air, swaying side-to-side, twirling and even small jumps.

– In nightclubs or at parties, usually with the aid of alcohol or other enablers. Often this dance involves dark and flashing lights (poor visibility but great effect) in small or crowded spaces, which can limit movement. This type of dancing varies greatly according to music, age, gender, sexual agenda etc.

– At weddings (sometimes birthday parties, rituals, feasts or other fun celebratory occasions). Similar to the above point, but this type of dance is more inter-generational and sometimes involves a ‘slow dance’ that can be as simple as a sweet, slow rotation.

– Dance classes or rehearsals, big rooms (sometimes with mirrors) where people practise certain dances and dance moves to show to other people. (An interesting hybrid space that I’m not going to unpack in this piece) and…

– Stages. A space with the formal intention of performance.

I think I missed a few, but all of those places, except the last one, generally involve quite a casual kind of performance. Performance is present in all contexts but I like to think that with the first four examples, the dancing that takes places is generally for oneself – in order to feel the joy and enjoyment of moving. The performance that happens all the time is often a by-product of humans just being in a space together (dancing or not). But when it comes to a stage, the entire space is crafted specifically for this by-product. It is a construction that is fully devoted to the act of watching.

Things are not usually fuzzy or fluid when it comes to the stage. Generally, we know who is dancing and we know who is watching. People go there in order to watch people and if you try and challenge the order of watcher and watched (you know, for art’s sake) audiences can get a bit cross and who can blame them? Perhaps part of the reason that the stage is ‘magic’ is because these roles are so defined – we have created a designated watching and performing space. There is something magical in being allowed to fully commit to watching someone perform something. Perhaps the magic lies in the contrast that what you are watching is real because it is right there in front of you, but it is not real because it is performance and therefore in some way pretend. It’s a very grown-up and serious way of dealing with play – which is magic.

But as far as I’m concerned, there seems to be a problem with the traditional structures that we build around stages. Namely, a certain type of theatre. You know the one I mean, the big exciting one with curtains and lights and wings and flies and tiered seating that goes up, up, up right to the back where the sound and the light lives, with God sitting inside. I mean, a phantom made his home in a theatre like this and then they made an opera about it.

Theatres as we know them today are strange relics from another time. They were the surround sound entertainment area of those European Kings and Queens. A medieval IMAX where fairies floated past in gauzy silk and peasant girls frolicked whilst the prince watched on lustily. And then, after the Kings and Queens got very rich (thanks to those faraway countries, you know) they decided to build more! And here we are in Southern Africa in 2016 with all these buildings called ‘theatres’ sprinkled around the country (who built these theatres?). A building is never just a building, a space is never a neutral place. It would be silly to ignore (which we are all actually quite good at doing a lot of the time) the problems and the historical, cultural agendas that were built into theatres.*

*#DidYouKnow: the Nico Malan Theatre (which only changed its name to the Artscape Theatre in 2001) was initially a whites-only theatre when it opened in 1971? After a lot of backlash and pressure it allowed all races onto the premises in 1975 but many black artists and performers continued to boycott the theatre afterwards. It was one of the fanciest and most expensive theatres built in South Africa at the time

But here they are, here we are. Large theatrical houses that cost money to keep running. Slightly defeated and defensive dancers and choreographers clambering to get inside, get on stage, perform to the half-empty audience. (Except when the royalty deigns a visit and comes to perform for the ex-commonwealth peasants, you know, the Americans and the Russians. Except when the Capitalized Ballet comes to town, then our medieval IMAX is bursting at the seams with loyal and cultured balletomanes).

I’m not saying theatres should go anywhere (they’re not going anywhere) or that they should be burnt down (the apocalypse of culture!) or boycotted (which they kind of are already?). What I am saying is that theatres do not own stages. Remember that magic I mentioned before, the magic about stages and performances? That magic is certainly not reliant on those expansive playhouses you’ll find in the cities. The smoke and pomp and velvet curtains lifting and lowering, these things are not as vital as one thinks.

Sometimes we forget that it is perfectly possible (and actually deeply necessary) to create new stages. With all due respect to the crumbling ‘un-supported’ theatre culture, we can joyously set out on finding a space (there are so many spaces!) and go about intentionally naming them stages. It’s all about paying attention to what’s around you and looking for ways to turn certain spaces into places of performative opportunity. (See Julia’s article for more about this!) As artists and creators, as dancers and performers, we can honour the space of performance, but also re-define the space of performance.

Build your stage within and around your own lifestyle, what you already have is enough. Start small, think big. Tiny microscopic stages, theatres and audiences are everywhere, one just has to look and look again. Practise is practise. Work is work. Build and rebuild your own stage and magic will come.

At least.

This is what I tell myself.

But it’s something I need to tell myself. Otherwise. You know. The Kings and Queens will win.

And we can’t have that.