The French city of Lyon has presented the world premiere of a dance musical about the South African township Sophiatown.
Performed by ‘Via Katlehong Dance’, ‘Via Sophiatown’ is set in the Johannesburg suburb, which was a legendary black cultural hub during the ’40s and ’50s, similar to the Latin Quarter in Paris, London’s Soho or Berlin’s Kreuzberg.
Unlike others in South Africa, Sophiatown was a freehold township, making it one of the rare places in South African urban areas where black people were allowed to own land. As such, there was also a certain level of multicultural crossover.
Dancer Vusi Mduyi explained some of the township’s history:
“It’s one of the cities that was demolished in 1955 in South Africa. Where people used to live together in harmony, of different races,” he said. “You could find Indians, you could find coloured people…so we believe it’s one of the models that we can use in today’s life. As much as we are celebrating democracy in South Africa, we also want to revisit that life.”
‘Via Katlehong Dance’ was founded at the beginning of the 1990s in the township of Katlehong, located east of Johannesburg.
Home to several hundred thousand people, the township had a reputation for danger, but was also a hub of resistance during the apartheid years.
It was perhaps an unlikely place for the creation of an internationally successful dance company. But David Mahlaba did just that when, in 1992, he formed the group in an attempt to take young people off the streets.
The group gradually began to perform professionally. A breakthrough performance in La Rochelle, France, in 2003, led to a string of international appearances.
‘Via Katlehong Dance’ was invited to Lyon’s ‘Maison de la danse’ for the 2013 ‘South African’ dance season in France.
Maison de la Danse director, Dominique Hervieu, responded to our query about how to imagine everyday life in South Africa nowadays:
“One of the most endearing parts for me is that it is in the township: urban dances today really have an urban contemporary feel. They’re still danced with a real social force and the dances have missions in society. The first mission is to combat crime, violence, drugs etc., and so the ‘Via Katlehong’ dancers are people who really worked in the township and attempted to educate through art. I find it very touching,” he told euronews.
The show’s repertoire includes references from American swing, hip hop and tap dancing, through to Gumboot, which was conceived by black miners in South Africa as an alternative to drumming.
South Africa officially abolished the abandoned apartheid in 1990. But is skin colour still an issue in the country? ‘Via Katlehong’ members Vusi Mduyi and Mbali Nkosi gave their opinions:
“We still do feel it, as much as our parents tell us that now it’s better,” explained Mduyi. “But we believe that South Africa is still young and then there are so many great things that can happen.”
“Now we are getting opportunities to be able to create things, to be able to showcase our township dance,” said Nkosi. “Not only contemporary life but to be able to just showcase even our traditions. It’s an opportunity that I don’t think we would have had during apartheid.”
After the premiere of the show, ‘Via Sophiatown’ will go on tour. Its Lyon opening was a remarkable success across the generations.