On the book and the author ...
This is about a book. But it is more – it is of dance and art; it is of South Africa and its peoples; their history, their cultures, spirituality and beliefs; their socio-political condition and about the writer herself.
I write here words of praise to Sylvia "Magogo" Glasser, the author of this book, in itself a work of art; a culmination of a splendid career as dancer, choreographer, dance educator, social anthropologist and socio-cultural activist in the challenging and changing world of South Africa with all its racial complexities. She received a Knighthood in the Order Orange-Nassau from the Netherlands in 2014 and the Order of Ikhamanga Silver from South Africa in 2016 for this work.
Sylvia is a childhood friend. We both were born and grew up in Polokwane (Pietersburg), South Africa. Our forefathers emigrated from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. Being Jewish, we both grew up as part of the privileged white population with all the associated benefits. We were however deeply aware of the racial discrimination in South Africa, particularly during the apartheid era. This background played a significant role in the person she became and her extraordinary achievements.
The book tells the story of one of the many dances she created and choreographed, titled Tranceformations. It was "inspired by the ancient rock art and trance/healing dance of the indigenous first people of Southern Africa – the San or Bushmen". The dance was first performed in Johannesburg by Sylvia's dance company Moving into Dance (MID) in 1991. The company was founded by Sylvia in apartheid times, in 1978. At that stage she conducted classes in the garage at the back of the Glasser home in Johannesburg to a non-racial or mixed group of both black and white students. This extremely unusual and brave act was totally illegal in those times. It developed over the years into a highly professional organization with suitable premises and included the MID Dance Company and the Community Dance Teachers Training Course.
In the opening chapters she writes of her personal and family background, her dancing and academic career. She then goes on to discuss the San people, their rock art found in caves in southern Africa. Based on this she created this incredible performance depicting the trance dance of medicine men.
It covers an extensive picture of the history and lifestyle of the San peoples, whose remains can be found in Southern Africa dating back 10,000 years. The Bantu speaking nations immigrated later from the north to inhabit southern Africa about 2000 years ago. With their coming the San population was reduced due to armed struggle and assimilation. The click sounds of their language can still be clearly heard in many in the Bantu languages. However only after the Dutch colonization in 1652, did the Europeans perform a wholesale genocide of these indigenous peoples. Today under the new democratic South Africa the surviving San peoples and their culture have been given land, recognition and respect.
She continues a discussion on the medicine dance which is the central shared religious ritual in the San life. Sylvia explains that through learning and understanding the rock art of the San, she was able to appreciate the significance of their medicine or trance dance. This ancient art, the images and the meanings of the paintings became the foundation of the choreography for Tranceformations. At some point the author suggests that the rock art was a way of 'storing" the trance/dance ritual.
Sylvia further discusses the processes involved in the creation of her dance; using the San rock art images which clearly depicted their medicine/ healing /trance dance. Extensive research included a three year course in social anthropology. In her words "Rock art images related to the trance dance and their meaning were central to the process. It was vital to go beyond the pictorial and try to evoke images and feelings in the dancers that involved them and enabled them to enter the trance world of the shamans". She did not want to imitate but to create an original work that would convey respect for the San culture while at the same time give a sense of authenticity. The dance needed to be as real as possible but also to be suitable for theatrical performance. She needed to use specific images of the rock art and to create the movements linking the shapes and to imbue the images with life through movement.
The book contains many pages of splendid photographs – both in black and white and in brilliant color, portraying the rock art figures and the dance images based on these figures. The author analyses and gives a detailed description of the entire dance. This is intended to convey an impression of the dance in as much as words can capture what the viewer sees, hears and feels during a performance. A video film which comes with the book gives visual reality to her description
The musician, the costume and set designer, together with the dancers were an invaluable team for the Tranceformations dance which she created. They were all required to attain an in-depth knowledge of the San people, the rock art and their ritual healing dance.
Sylvia speaks of the performers. She tells their individual stories, quotes their impressions of the dance and how it affected them. In her choreography, Sylvia incorporated input from all the members of the team.
She tells of how the dancers learned, through this dance, to respect the San people who they had previously considered primitive. All are Black South Africans. Their spirited and intense dance, depicting the culture of a different race, the San people, carries an authenticity of a people who share something of that culture – movement, music, emotion - spiritual and physical, within their own culture and themselves.
Sylvia the choreographer who, though of European origin, but deeply South African, through many years of dancing, teaching and knowing black people; of creating Afrofusion dance; of the total commitment to the understanding of the lives, culture, dance and music of the San people, was able to create a dance based on the rock art and trance dance of this ancient nation. She discusses the issue of intolerance of "the other' so prevalent in South African peoples of all races and the legitimacy of her being the choreographer of this totally African ritual. She refers to the fact that she was called "Magogo" which is the African word for "grandmother", a highly respected person in the African culture.
The book covers far more than the story of a dance but includes an entire philosophy on life, on art in general and especially dance. It shows deep interest in social, political, and cultural conditions of the peoples of South Africa and the transformations that took place after apartheid - the liberation of all its peoples from the shackles of racial oppression.
I conclude with the following quote by my friend the author, "This story is about change – ancient and modern change; physical, mental and spiritual change; personal and collective change; political, social and cultural change. It is about destruction, decimation and denial but also about recognition, respect and revival". ''I believe that art, or specifically dance, can transform peoples' lives, not only in physical or cognitive parameters, but in changing attitudes and perceptions, that it can touch the human spirit and transform and transcend the very essence of being human".