At the edge of Definition

Earlier this year Durban-based Mlungisi Zondi won the 2006 MTN new contemporaries award for a performance piece titled silhouette. Here he discusses his evolution as a dancer, conceptual choreographer and performance artist

Dance and performance have always been central to what you do. You danced spansula from an early age, studied drama and performance at Durban University of Technology, and in 2000 co-founded the experimental theatre company Sololique Projacts. There is much to suggest that drama – not performance art – was your logical destination. What prompted you to explore performance?After studying different types of performance styles, I had to find my own voice, something through which I could express myself. Dance and choreography were the first choices but through experimentation I ended up working in conceptual theatre, which – on certain levels – is performance art.To what extent did your encounter with other performers at past Dance Umbrellas shape your approach to performance?Sololique-Rafiki (2003) was the first work I presented at the Dance Umbrella and was so experimental that the other dancers thought I was crazy. I had just returned from the Lausanne International Dance Festival in Switzerland and been exposed to a range of experimental work there. However, a few local dancers did commend me for my guts. I ended up collaborating with one of them, Tiro Motlhatlhedi from Limpopo. We produced a work Abel & Kane for the 2003 Jomba Festival – it was also too experimental for a dance audience.How influential was the work of Jay Pather?Jay was my dance lecturer [at DIT] and he instilled a sense of freedom when it comes to creating performance work. He took the black box away and made me produce more experimental works. He also suggested using multimedia in my creative process, which propelled my work to another level.Can you talk a bit about your 2004 solo exhibition, a performance installation at the KZNSA Gallery titled Identikit? What prompted the work?I have this problem that when I walk on the street – people stare at me, even little kids. I have never figured out why. Maybe I have a fascinating face. I decided on a show that was based on exposure, on being the centre of attention. The first part took place in the gallery. I created a Mlabalaba installation – Mlabalaba is a traditional board game – with me as the pawn. The installation had low lighting and I had to roll under the lights exposing details of my skin. The second part took place at Victoria Market: I danced to the different music played there, and wore oversized glasses and colourful rubbish bags. The third instalment took place at North Beach where I swam in the same costume. All these performances were based on the notion of being the other. As an onlooker you start questioning your own identity and how society looks at you.Your recent work Silhouette deals with the issue of young adult sexuality. Was it a difficult piece to conceptualise? It was tricky to create. It started with nine scenes in Paris in 2005; they all dealt with different issues and were based on stories from three performers – each performer had three stories. I also had to create video images for each scene. When I did the performance in Jo’burg for the Awards I had to edit the scenes because I had two performers and a video artist. The scenes were still standalone pieces but I had to reshuffle them and ended up with a narrative that created a mini-story. That also helped us to understand the work better and to start focusing on the details. The work wasn’t as confusing as it had been before.Critics might argue that Silhouette is overly didactic. How would you respond?This is because of the narrative nature of the work. Only the top layer of the work, though, is easily read. If you start peeling away the different layers in the various scenes you come up with meanings that might not be didactic at all. They might stimulate question on the socio-economic situation of the country and how, especially in black communities, that shapes your decisions. There is also a layer on the media and its role in stereotyping. How you read Silhouette depends on the level which you engage the work – I always find that interpretations differ according to an audience’s background.
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