Founder & Executive Director
I grew up in Soweto in a household where music was very much part of the culture and I was always looking forward to weekends because my father was a great lover of jazz and he had a huge collection of jazz albums. My father's jazz is what brought me into the appreciation of that kind of music which at such an early age - seven or eight years old. I would not only listen but also dance to the music. My form of dancing at that age was literally responding to that kind of music with my body and creating a sense of language that I got to understand much later on.
I also grew up close to a hostel that had many black men who were from different parts of Southern Africa. Over the weekends I would go there and watch their traditional dance forms. I would go home with the music in my head and play around with fusing these traditional sounds and movements in relation to the jazz I heard at home.
When I was about nine or ten years old I came across Michael Jackson. I saw him on a small television screen that we had at the time at home and I was just amazed to see a black man able to move people so as to break cultural barriers. In South Africa at the time we were growing up in the context of cultural boycotts in the townships so we were not exposed to what was going on outside our country, nor what was going on in terms of arts and culture. Even what we saw on television was sanctioned by apartheid values. Everything that could have been represented as inferior about a black person and superior about white culture, was. When I saw Michael Jackson, I was like; Wow here is somebody who is black and I can identify with that person because they're able to break all kinds of stereotypes that I grew up knowing about being black.
But it was in Belgium in 1998 and 1999 when I was studying at Performing Arts Research and Training Studios under the direction of and Teresa De Keersmaeker, the first time that I had been away from South Africa for such a long time, that I was able to look at South Africa from the outside. It was there that I was able to think about my position as a black African particularly during a time in the country when the landscapes the political and cultural were changing so rapidly.
It was then, and armed with the kind of retrospective vision that I created a work called Rhythm 123 which is really my first independent work outside an institution. I worked in collaboration with Moya Michael and Shanell Winlock Pailman who had also been PARTS students. The work considered Johannesburg as a concrete slab with its rules and culture and urban setting. In reflecting on this I realize that my creation of work was somehow not only pulling me into the context of the complexity of an urban setting but also the complexity of South Africa post apartheid.
Thus I wanted to create a space for artists to come together, for artist to develop so that they can be part of the complexity and start to define it one or another, but through the body.
So Vuyani Dance Theatre was created as a space for us to come together to play, to find something more significant about ourselves, about our country and significantly to say who we are in the context of an urban setting. Vuyani Dance Theatre was never about me. The great thing is that I was never a soloist even in my early days of Moving Into Dance. The first works I choreographed was a trio that I created on the on the younger dancers. It was a piece that won me my first award; The pick of the Stepping Stones. I've always enjoyed working with people and creating a sharing platform. Before I made Vuyani Dance Theatre professional, my focus was on making it collaborative which makes me sleep with a lot of joy.
Since starting the business part of the company I've learned and grown tremendously. Recently, I was given a list of all the people associated with the company from trainees to management and there are 22 of us. Being in this company makes a difference to everyone in terms of their careers in terms of their livelihood and in terms of their self-esteem. We must remember that the realities of being a black South African and growing up marginalized. The minute you start thinking about forming a career it's not just about yourself it's also about your siblings and about the people in your community. I know that everyone of the people who comes to us including the students shares even their stipends with their entire families. I know that employing people directly impacts the whole family.
From the outset the very first piece that I created was about global work and not something that could fit into an 'arg shame' rubric. I also I always tried to move away from that and to be unapologetic with it. In my earlier works with MID I knew I didn't fit into the company's culture I was always different, the titles of my work demonstrated that. Works such as Virtually Blind and Duplicate, which were about colonial invasion. There is a spirit that moves with me I make work from a spiritual context. Once I'm invested in the work and I'm in the performance mode, I know for sure there is a spirit that is present. I'm very aware of it. I mean, especially with works like Beautiful Me where I'm a soloist and in Exit/Exist there's definitely the spirit.
I don't collaborate with something that I don't believe in or someone I don't believe in it's always about the belief. Collaborations for me must be mutually beneficial.
Collaborations for me stem from mutual respect for the artist. It's not only about having a person on stage sometimes it's also about making choices in terms of programs for instance. I am very meticulous in checking that everyone who has collaborated on a project, from the supporters to the artistic directors has been acknowledged. Everyone's part is important if I was not able to collaborate there would be no point in me doing the work. Collaboration for me is not about a transaction or a contractual agreement it really comes from the human spirit. Collaborative energies come from the audience as well. During the run of Exit/Exist at the Market Theatre in 2019 we brought in people who have never been to a theatre, black people in particular. Many of them came because someone dragged them along and it has changed their lives for the better.
In 2019 I was in Manchester for about six or seven weeks for the production Tree, in between I had four productions at the Holland Festival where I had a chance to work with the festival's featured artists William Kentridge and Faustin Linyekula. I first met Faustin in 1996 when I was with MID in Kenya where he was in a self imposed exile there at the time. He's Congolese. We've been collaborating for sometime. When he was named the featured artist at the Holland Festival the first thing he said was, "I need Gregory's work here." The same thing happened with William Kentridge, who collaborated with me in his production The Head and The Load. So it comes down to that mutual respect.
Obtaining funding for my work and my company has always been dependent on file on the fighting spirit if you have the money and not the fighting spirit and you're trending Trending on something that is serving the money and not really saving the real purpose I'm about the real purpose we are also teaching people that it's not only the dances were teaching our audiences because we've decided to cut down on free tickets we need to teach people that there is value in what we do people who I know and went to school with a king to supporters of helps them to understand that the ticket pays for each costume for that person who cleans the theater it actually pays for the lighting guy it pays for the person who you buy the ticket from and so on so there's a ripple affect from the tip ticket money and the paint audience is helping to generating a thriving economy in the arts the important thing about Vittle is that we enable our dancers to build their own path Bongwana is one of them Leander Cydia They know that if they build their own pause then they can determine where they want to go with it but they are tools here their dances here there's an office here whenever I go to fund funders I told him that but investing in a production they're actually investing in the future of many many people when I work is successful and a travels dinner triples the investment we will often tour with that production for 4 to 5 sometimes even seven years the work exit exit is a good example of this it was a piece that sustains the company for many years when we didn't have any funding this was the piece that sustained the company it paid the salaries of 20 people when I think about the future I think the word self sustainable is risky to use but we have to try to be an organization that is self-sustaining and self-sustaining does not necessarily mean that we need to have money to use it's about relationships it's about collaborations it's about how we sustain ourselves even when there's no money on the table so for me I think the biggest wish is that an as an organization we will continue to be viewed as a recognizable asset for this country because without it this country could be robbed of the quality of work that we are able to put on the stage