Africa’s oldest dance festival evolves to overcome pandemic
Now in its 23rd year, JOMBA! is a contemporary dance festival hosted at the Creative Arts Center of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, one of five festivals hosted by the Durban-based center. It connects South African dance creators with the rest of the continent for performances and workshops, expressing the need to open artistic borders in Africa. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, JOMBA! is also the pioneer of the online festival space. Award-winning Dr Lliane Loots is a dance teacher at the university and founder, artistic director and curator of the festival. We asked her what to expect from the last edition and how the pandemic is shaping it.
What excites you about the 2021 festival?
When the festival started in 1998, I wanted to create a space that puts the artist and the dance designer at the center. I thought if we did that, the audience, the funding, and everything in between would follow. Today, the festival has evolved to offer one of Africa’s most serious platforms for contemporary dance, and it is now the continent’s oldest dance festival. At 23, he has become a beacon for navigating the long-term partnerships, trainings and collaborations that are at the heart of growing African dance creators.
In 2021 JOMBA! remains completely online and completely free. Last year was our first digital iteration after varying levels of COVID-19 lockdowns, social distancing, and movie theater closures. Since South Africa is still in a Level 3 lockout and the theaters are not fully open, the festival remains 100% live. The impetus is to continue to keep this vital art form alive in these new and innovative ways that are emerging. So while the festival will feature dance works originally designed for the stage, there is a great effort to look at the interface between film, cinema and dance – there has been a passage from a art from stage to dance to screen.
Tell us about the new dance films
The choreographers think of camera angles and edits rather than exits and entrances. It is not a transition that all dance designers can or want to make, but it has certainly offered a new and evolving form of dance that is very interesting. The artists in the program will tour in their own countries and contexts. Often, place and space become important political and aesthetic markers for these dance films. On the program, the new Mozambican work by Pak Guiamba entitled IN BOX !!, for example, where he skillfully films his own body dancing in the streets of Maputo. He navigates between the loss, the memory and the hope of a country ravaged by war.
Films are often shorter than a live work. A 20 minute on-screen dance film is considered a big job, while on stage it might be a smaller offer. It’s exciting to see new territories develop and we welcome dance works from 11 countries. There are also creative webinars and an industry support program to help choreographers with advertising ideas and things like how to apply for music rights. And there is our digital blog JOMBA! Khuluma which has 45 participants from all over the world to focus on dance writing reviews.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of digital festivals?
While there is still a lot of unease around the digital divide in Africa, we are delighted to have found ways to also offer low-fi delivery which allows some of our platforms to be viewed on phones. portable. Support from backers means we don’t charge for viewing or tickets. It is important to us that dance work is always commissioned, that dance designers are always working and that their work is always visible.
JOMBA’s digital delivery! has also meant that we have greater global reach. In recent years, our main venue has been the Sneddon Theater in Durban, which could accommodate 400 people. So, for a live festival, we could accommodate a maximum of around 7,000 spectators. In 2020, we had 1.3 million views – that’s an interesting opening! The downside, of course, is that we don’t sit in a theater, we don’t breathe with the dancers, we don’t witness the toil and effort of artistic creation.
What are the works not to be missed?
JOMBA! 2021 used the provocation “Crossing Borders” as its theme. As part of this, we have set up various visualization platforms and organized events that feature what we call ‘sleepers’. We have, for example, a platform called Indian Crossing which features a collaboration with a Calcutta-based organization called The Pickle Factory Dance Foundation which has organized eight short films of contemporary Indian dance on screen that will be shown. For me personally, I am very excited about our African Crossings platform which will feature four new on-screen dance works by artists from across our continent.
One of the main mandates of JOMBA! continues to be offering partnerships and collaborations with some of Africa’s most prominent, forward-thinking and inspiring dance designers. For this edition, we have commissioned four screen dance films – from Marcel Gbeffa (Benin), Gaby Saranouffi (Madagascar), Robert Ssempijja (Uganda) and Bernardo Guiamba alias Pak Ndjamena (Mozambique).
by Gbeffa In my mind enters a dream landscape that borders the state of wakefulness and sleep. by Ssempijja Alienation asks the tough questions about colonial architecture and how we situate ourselves today. that of saranouffi Face (s) of Basadi examines the gender boundaries of young African women and the hold of tradition. And in Ndjamena’s film, the dancing body reflects memories of the past and present and human resilience with a message of hope.
JOMBA! takes place from August 24 to September 5, 2021. Each work will be visible for 72 hours after its creation on the festival’s YouTube channel