Opening Friday night’s production, a soft light appeared on the stage, focusing on Zama Sonjica, a dancer who lost his legs in a car accident and is known for his wheelchair dancing. Only, his wheelchair was nowhere to be seen. It appeared a few scenes later.
There was no music in the beginning. Just a riveting silence as he went through his moving solo.
The other dancers then appeared and the music started. The light patterns on the stage changed as the dancers moved through their scenes. What ensued was, at first, a discordance that gave way to synchronous movements as the dancers showed how, in order to communicate effectively, people need to learn from each other.
This theme of learning is encapsulated in the performance’s name “Ufundo”, a Xhosa word meaning “to learn”.
The dancers signaled their names in their performance, integrating the sign language alphabet into their body movements, using hand signs to communicate among themselves, and to listen to each other.
A performance consisting of a synchrony of choreographed movements fused with sign language, it was interjected with a series of solos, duets, and well executed jumps.
Deaf dancer and choreographer Andile Vellem’s solo with headphones was surreal.
Six dancers, three each from Jazzart Dance Theatre and Unmute Dance Company, joined forces in a unique collaboration that focused on challenging the stereotypes of what the human body is capable and incapable of doing. The dancers were, in addition to Sonjica and Vellem, Yaseen Manuel, Adam Malebo, Thabisa Dinga, and Nomfundo Hlongwa.
Choreographers Mziyanda Mancam (Jazzart) and Vellem (Unmute) worked closely together to bring the concept for this production to life within the tight time-frame of a month.
“It was all about learning from each other,” said Vellem, the founder of Unmute, an integrated dance company that focuses on dancers with disabilities. Unmute won the 2015 Standard Bank Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival earlier this year.
This learning collaboration, in which able-bodied dancers and dancers with disabilities gave rise to two parallel themes, emerged in the production – that of “waiting” and of “giving and receiving”.
“It was very challenging and a great learning experience,” said Vellem after the performance.
In the beginning, communication, he said, was incredibly difficult, especially as “the interpreter was unreliable, only showing up at least twice”.
Left in the lurch, Vellem, who uses South African sign language, said: “I tried lip reading, but at the same I time was signing to them and trying to use my voice.”
“We communicated through our body language,” Mancam said, recounting how they bridged the communication gap. “At first it was difficult, then it became easier. Soon it felt like we had been working together for years.”
“Andile was very clever; he had us sign our names to create movement,” Mancam said.
Mancam, who has over 20 years dance experience, said it was hard work for the dancers to learn something new.
“Sign language itself is so unique because it doesn’t allow one to sit back and relax, and moves you to want to learn more. I believe everyone inherently has sign language in their bodies,” explained Vellem.
Vellem, who started dancing when he was eight, said, as a dancer the production stretched and challenged him. The only deaf dancer in the group, “it was hard work”, he said.
“We stepped into unknown waters,” Mancam said, describing the experience.
The dancers challenged the audience at the end of the performance to learn sign language and become aware of communication needs for the deaf and hard of hearing. This message comes during a month that raises awareness around deafness and celebrates heritage.
“We want people to become aware that when working with differently-abled people, there is so much more to who they are than appears on the surface,” said Mancam.
At the end of Friday’s performance, a group of deaf people in the audience raised up their hands to clap. Vellem said this was the highlight of the evening as he lined up with the cast to bow.
It was unexpected, he said with delight. “It is the first time a group of deaf people have come to see my performance, and it meant a lot to me, especially as theatre is not very accessible to the deaf and people with disabilities.”
Ufundo, directed by Sifiso Kweyama, opened at the Artscape Theatre on September 10 and ends on September 12.
– African News Agency (ANA)