Through movement, music and fine arts, students conveyed themes of struggle and triumph in their performances of “Rhythms of Hope,” which they took to South Africa over the summer. Dancers executed choreography set to a blend of American and South African jazz music.
Erin Strong, Instructor and Chair in Theater and Dance, Peter Cirelli, Instructor and Chair in Music, and Therese Zemlin, Instructor and Chair in Art, chose South Africa as the focus of the performance and the location of the arts trip because of its rich cultural background and artistic heritage, as well as the resonance of the country’s history with the themes of “Rhythms of Hope.”
“The focus of many of the arts is on social-political issues relating to apartheid,” said Strong. “Artists are bringing to light many of these issues through their work on stage, so it proved to be a wonderful country for us to travel to with an arts focus. It allowed us to not only learn about South Africa’s history and engage in conversation about race, privilege and gender in a different way than we do here, but it also allowed us to examine the role the arts play in the discussion of these topics.”
“Rhythms of Hope” featured three main sections: Origins, Oppression and Hope. Starting before the continents split apart and continuing up to apartheid, dancers portrayed struggles against adversity through sharp movements, while jazz musicians played pieces with strong connections to social issues, both in South Africa and the United States.
Cirelli said, “We chose pieces such as ‘Fables of Faubus,’ written by American composer and bassist Charles Mingus as a protest of the racist policies of the former Governor of Arkansas, and ‘Manenberg’ by South African composer Abdullah Ibrahim, which he named after the district outside of Cape Town where blacks were forced to live after they were forcibly removed from District Six.”
The students performed “Rhythms of Hope” at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) and at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, where they also saw various other dance companies, music ensembles, theatrical performers and art galleries.
At OWLAG, the dancers took dance classes and the musicians interacted with other student musicians.
“We took a dance class with some of the girls, and the teachers paired us up. Together we had to choreograph a dance about home. My partner was named Emily, and she and I decided to start our dance far apart to show that we live on opposite sides of the world, come closer to show that we are not that far away after all, and at the end we hugged to show that dance and art unite us. I really formed a connection with her,” said dancer Katie Graber ’16.
The students and faculty also had the opportunity to travel to various other towns, schools and organizations. They visited the famous Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, saw Nelson Mandela’s house, toured Soweto, an impoverished suburb of Johannesburg, and visited the Cape of Good Hope. Throughout these excursions, they experienced for themselves the issues of oppression and privilege that affect South Africa today.
“One very special moment was when we visited the Kliptown Youth Program in Soweto,” said visual artist Jack McGovern ’15 in an email to The Phillipian. “Thulani, the director of the school, said to me, ‘South Africa needs a lot of help; that’s for sure. We have a lot of poverty and issues with the spreading of HIV and other viruses. But America needs help, too! You need help connecting your neighbors as family and loving each other.’ It was very humbling to hear what he had to say about America’s challenges and how South Africa could actually help us.”
Through immersion in a country so different from their own, the students were exposed to a myriad of different cultures, ideas and people.
“The people we met were just so warm and friendly, especially in the more impoverished towns we visited,” said dancer Elizabeth McGonagle ’16. “Everyone came up to us and hugged us, saying ‘Welcome home!’ This was so shocking to me because we would pull up in our big coach bus, carrying expensive tote bags and flashy cameras, and the people we encountered still treated us as one of their own.”