It is often said that art imitates life. However, many creators will tell you their art is more a response to life, both how they feel about current circumstances and a projected ideal of how they would like the world to be.
This is the case for INDUMBA, part of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’s 20th anniversary show, running December 7–10 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.
South African choreographer Fana Tshabalala created the piece and shared it with Deeply Rooted during a three-week residency this summer. He crafted INDUMBA as a response to unresolved issues stemming from South Africa’s apartheid. While apartheid ended in 1991, it left scars that remain unhealed, which Tshabalala attributed to apartheid ending at just the surface level, without any attempt to understand the emotional and spiritual damage left behind.
“It didn’t work in South Africa, because we dealt with things in a material way. We didn’t go deep,” he said.
In South Africa, he said people of different races live side by side, but they’re not connected, and they’re not equal. He said black South Africans still find themselves primarily under white leadership. To correct this, he believes South Africans of all races must connect on a deeper level, and he choreographed INDUMBA as a starting point for breaking down barriers of understanding.
INDUMBA, meaning a traditional, African healing hut, pulls not only from his own experiences, but provides a platform for dancers to express their unique experiences with race, as well. He worked with the dancers through a collaborative creative process.
While he originally choreographed the piece to reflect his feelings on post-apartheid South Africa, the work has been translated for an American audience and the racial political issues felt here.
“For me, I’m not trying to adapt it, but I’m trying to make the piece take shape with different bodies…bodies that have faced different roadblocks and experiences as a result of race,” Tshabalala said.
Kevin Iega Jeff, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater co-founder and artistic director, said the timing of the piece is intentional.
“I think everyone is trying to make their belief system the right system, whether it’s truthful or not, whether it’s harmful or not; I think everyone is fighting for what divides us,” Jeff said. “INDUMBA is really focused on listening to people’s stories…inside someone else’s pain you can see your own.”
Jeff first met Tshabalala in South Africa in 2013. Deeply Rooted had received sponsorship from the American consulate in South Africa to perform at a festival, and Jeff saw INDUMBA for the first time.
“It just blew me away,” he said. “The dancers were so poetic, and when you talk about African contemporary work, I though it was very, very, true to form.”
He said the Deeply Rooted dancers have enjoyed working with Tshabalala, digging into a new vocabulary, and testing out his approach of creating movement through their own experiences in an improvisational context.
Tshabalala returns for two weeks before the December show, so for now the dancers have time to dig into the piece, their own experiences, and reflect on what message they’d like to share with the audience. The work has improvisational moments cemented inside its shell, so the challenge for dancers is maintaining the piece without the improvisational elements becoming routine or stale.
Tshabalala said he hopes audiences view the piece with an open mind. While race can be difficult to discuss, INDUMBA aims to be a jumping off point, sharing experiences and a vision for the future. For the dancers, they must surrender to their stories, laying bare their vulnerabilities and hoping the audience offers them the space to explore.
“It’s up to the performers to take it forward,” Tshabalala said. “In a vulnerable place, that’s where you become yourself.”