I make people think differently; there are no excuses, says one-legged dancer

Though Musa Motha dances with a crutch, he's just like everyone else in Joburg's acclaimed Vuyani Dance Theatre Company — exceptional

06 October 2019 - 00:00
'They really don’t give me any special treatment, they go hard,' says dancer Musa Motha about the Vuyani Dance Theatre Company.
'They really don’t give me any special treatment, they go hard,' says dancer Musa Motha about the Vuyani Dance Theatre Company.
Image: Alon Skuy

The stage is like a pulsating organism. Each swell of sound and movement roils the atmosphere as if it were a cosmic stew and some unseen celestial cook is stirring it.

The dancers of the Vuyani Dance Theatre move in spectacular synergy, each movement setting off the next - each graceful swoop, each rhythmic pulse, each electrifying leap a natural extension of physical being expressing an altered state that speaks directly to the soul.

Behind them, like an eternal ancient chorus, the Soweto Gospel Choir are singing life into death and death into life. 

The crutch in the scene is at once entirely natural and immediately jarring. It takes me a while to notice it but once I see it, I can't unsee it. I follow the crutch around the stage. Is it a prop?

The dancer it is attached to uses it like an extra limb, eloquent in the way of an elegant but unyielding arm. The dancer it is attached to is entirely embedded in the seething moving organism I am being roiled by. So I take a while to realise that this crutch is his limb. He is dancing on one leg.

At this point in the story I would like to pause and stop you in your thought tracks. This is not a gimmick. This one-legged dancer is not a clever emotional segue into some kind of feel-good inclusivity trope. This is not some sideshow of pity and redemption, an Oscar Pistorius tale on steroids. Because we all know how that story ends.

Musa Motha dances with Thabang Mojapelo.
Musa Motha dances with Thabang Mojapelo.
Image: Alon Skuy

This dancer is as able-bodied as the dancer next to him, and the one next to that dancer in the melee of bodies on the stage. This dancer is just that, a dancer in a company of dancers expressing this particular choreography to the best of his ability. It is precisely this quality that grips me with delight.

I need to meet Musa Motha and I need to meet Gregory Maqoma, the person who has enabled him to be the same as every other dancer on that stage. That is to say, exceptional.

The Vuyani Dance Theatre is to be found set in a hard square atop an unprepossessing iron staircase in a crumbling utilitarian two-storey building. It sits adjacent to a large parking lot in the peculiarly arid zone of Newtown, Joburg.

There used to be a buzz of buildings here but at some point a city administrator thought it would be smart to create open space, perhaps in the misguided notion that nature fills a vacuum.

Above the door the rubric The Dance Space welcomes us into a practice hall. Soft mats make for soft landings but the rest of the space could be a non-ironic film set about a hardscrabble but supremely talented inner-city dance company struggling to make ends meet. Which is ironic because that is the story but also not the story.

Gregory Maqoma, founder, choreographer, chief visionary and often lead dancer of the Vuyani Dance Theatre Company.
Gregory Maqoma, founder, choreographer, chief visionary and often lead dancer of the Vuyani Dance Theatre Company.
Image: Alon Skuy

The Vuyani Dance Theatre Company, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is world renowned. It is touring the Barbican in London later this month, and is in New York now for the Fall into Dance festival. It is feted, revered and adored, sometimes called the Alvin Ailey of Africa.

Maqoma is its founder, choreographer, chief visionary and often lead dancer, a global contemporary dance superstar. But closer to home the company received a politely official letter of rejection from the department of arts & culture for its request for funds to stage Maqoma's Cion: Requiem of Ravel's Bolero - based on Zakes Mda's novel about a professional mourner, with a score composed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Xolisile Bongwana and a collaboration with the Soweto Gospel Choir, theatre stalwart Mannie Manim, and Black Coffee for the achingly beautiful costumes. The letter arrived promptly on opening night in September, lest they were still waiting and hadn't got the message.

We arrive in the middle of rehearsal. It is a hard and beautiful grind, the athleticism and artistry a constant balancing act. And Maqoma is a hard driver. At the end of endless repeats of near perfect executions, the company breaks for lunch.

He gathers the dancers in a circle, moves his stool closer and like a cross between a snake charmer and a priest he cajoles, gently extrapolates and casually inspires the circle of devotees who by configuration and inclination all look up to him. Then he sends them off to eat their packed lunches on the steps outside.

WATCH | Musa Motha gives an exceptional performance in 'Cion: Requiem of Ravel's Bolero'

Maqoma speaks in long, graceful sentences - like his choreography, they are fully formed and deeply considered. "I work within the aesthetics of tradition and modernity, I call my work a cocktail of aesthetic history. My aim is to unleash a holocaust of emotions, to awaken something inside so as to remember that we feel something."

I understand what he means - viscerally having witnessed his Cion, which he describes as a strange moment of synergy. "It almost felt like I was holding a crystal ball when I was making it - at a time when our country is facing such a depth of darkness and atrocity towards women, children and other Africans."

My aim is to unleash a holocaust of emotions, to awaken something inside so as to remember that we feel something
Choreographer Gregory Maqoma

Of his dancers he says: "I push them to the maximum of their abilities, so that they can find their own traditions and culture, that culminates in a contextual manifestation of the joy and the hurt that we are feeling."

Of Motha he has this to say: "He found us. He came for auditions. He started the way I started in the '80s with street dancing - performing at school halls. I said, 'You are going to have to prove yourself like everyone else.'

"We accepted him on his potential as a human and as an artist, his genius in terms of his thinking and the way he can use his body. We look to dancers to surprise us. When we work with him in the production our aim is not to single him out. He does every single thing the company does. Falling. Failing. Recovering."

Motha echoes this to a fault: "I came to dancing through music, I was a DJ - it talks to me, my friends taught me sbhujwa, pantsula and hip-hop. We formed our own street dance group and performed in music videos, TV ads, competitions. But I wanted more. I auditioned here and it really was not easy.

"I knew what I was getting into from the get-go - they really don't give me any special treatment, they go hard. I grew up as a person, they changed the way I think, and instilled that thinking in my body. I changed how I do things and how I see things.

Musa Motha has a quiet moment backstage.
Musa Motha has a quiet moment backstage.
Image: Alon Skuy

"Before, in my street group, it was all about me. The crew I was with would do what I could do, so that Musa can stand out. Here it is about the company. I have to work out how to work with the choreography. It was a process, to learn how to come up with alternatives and solutions, and not let it kill my positivity.

"My parents did not approve of my dancing at first. I was studying to be a chemical engineer. Now they have changed their minds. I want to have my own company in the future, I want to inspire other amputees, how to use their bodies, execute a movement and come with an alternative."

Motha survived a childhood bout of osteosarcoma, a bone cancer. It was a dark time, but the amputation he says was a relief, he was finally free of pain, and could go out and play with the other kids. He uses a prosthesis at home: "It calms me down." But he is most in his own body without it: "I don't feel the crutches."

Gregory Vuyani Maqoma's middle name means "be happy". It is an incitement to action. It is also what he chose to name his company. It feels elemental to the work he does.

"As a choreographer and a dancer, I know how hard it is to be a dancer, the kind of work you have to put in. Yes, the work serves my own ego, but once we are together on the floor I have to think of the dancers, I think of them not as objects but as messengers. I have enormous respect for them. I find myself somewhere between being the catalyst and wanting to speed things up and make them happen, and a father figure and a mentor. Ultimately, they must walk out of here feeling valued."

His messengers come in many packages.

Motha says: "Dancing can heal you. I found my purpose, I heal people through my dancing. I restore people with positive energy. People think differently, there are no excuses anymore." Vuyani.


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