A rough road towards equality, democracy and freedom in Africa

Gregory Maqoma’s Via Kanana opens with one word projected onto a white screen: corrupt.

The Soweto-born choreographer brings together the traditional township dance of pantsula with contemporary counterparts to create a performance that emulates both struggle and hope. Under South Africa’s apartheid regime, black rural populations were displaced to the townships that surround big cities. In these ghettos, encompassed by unemployment and crime, pantsula was born as a dance of protest.

There was this great belief in the promises that democracy and freedom would deliver to all of the residents of South Africa after apartheid ended, and yet, a number of years later, it seems to fall short of the promises that were made, says Jim Smith, artistic and executive director at Dancehouse.

Via Kanana poses questions about equality, democracy and freedom and whether everyone has the right to have a fair chance at a meaningful life. Presented by DanceHouse and Digidance as part of Black History Month, the performance will be streaming from Feb. 16 to March 6, 2022.

Pantsula-style dancing gives a sense of what it’s like to live in the township of Via Katlehong. | Photo courtesy of Dancehouse

The Promise Land

What was originally just a dance is now a lifestyle including fashion, music and language. Via Katlehong Dance, founded in 1992, combines pantsula, tap dance, step and gumboot – a miners’ dance based on hand strokes on the thighs and calves – into a distinctly South African choreographic language that celebrates the urban and calls for positive change.

“The dance gives a sense of what it’s like to live in the township of Via Katlehong in that pantsula style, which is very much about gestures from everyday being put into a very rhythmic gumboot-patterned fashion,” says Smith.

Speaking to aspirations, feelings and senses of expectation that are potentially unfulfilled, the performance focuses on corruption that emerged in the process of governance and democracy in South Africa.

“Even with a new democracy with greater inclusion, it still seems to be coming up short,” says Smith.

That’s where ‘Kanana’ comes in, a Sotho word for “a land that has been promised, but not delivered.”

Via Kanana comes from this community. Maqoma had to walk the daily life of what it was like for people trying to survive and have a daily existence inside of the Katlehong township,” says Smith. “He understands the contradictions in play. That’s why there is this level of commitment and dedication to the stories of people from that township.”

Maqoma has constructed a piece that exposes and brings to life the dissatisfaction of people in the current situation but still brings a level of hopefulness to the performance, Smith explains.

Culture meets contemporary

Although pantsula is rooted in heritage and cultural work, Via Kanana also brings in the notion of contemporary dance, which required an educational component on both ends, explains Smith.

Jim Smith, artistic and executive director at Dancehouse. | Photo courtesy of Jim Smith

“The cast is made up of true pantsula practitioners along with a contemporary dance artist. The pantsula dancers had to learn and expand their practice to learn contemporary elements, and [the other artist] had to extend and grow in different ways,” says Smith.

Ultimately, the performance brings a range of work not seen enough, states Smith, adding that it was important to them to put it in a pan-Canadian context.

When the pandemic hit and people were no longer able to go to the theatre, Smith devised Digidance, a digital way to watch performances while staying true to the work of the original artist. He partnered with the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and Danse Danse in Montreal to bring international performances to local communities including work such as Via Kanana.

“The project became bigger than any of our organizations,” says Smith.

He explains that they see it as a way of raising national awareness of primarily, but not only, contemporary dance as a whole expression of the human condition that some people wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

“We recognize that there will be a legacy in this project. It will carry on even when Covid subsides,” says Smith.

Learn more about Via Kanana here: www.dancehouse.ca