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07/02/2018 15:21 SAST | Updated 07/02/2018 15:21 SAST

30 Years Later, Dance Umbrella Is Still Winning

It's the most important festival in South African dance, and this year it's bigger than ever.

John Hogg
Dada Masilo's seminal 'Swan Lake' debuted in 2012 at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Johannesburg, during the Dance Umbrella festival.

Ask any arts aficionado and they'll tell you that dance in South Africa finds its home at the annual Dance Umbrella festival, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with a bumper crop of alumni taking the stage to celebrate the legacy of the groundbreaking organisation.

Established at a time when black dancers in SA were denied the same rights as their white counterparts, the festival has broken boundaries for its forward-looking policies and genre-redefining performances. Legendary figures like Gregory Maqoma, Dada Masilo, Vincent Mantsoe, Steven Cohen, Robyn Orlin, Fana Tshabalala and PJ Sabbagha all found their feet at this festival.

Yet not a year has gone by without concerned audiences asking if the festival will return. It has consistently been plagued by funding crises and management reshuffles, but since visionary leader Georgina Thomson took the helm, the festival has survived, finding inspired partners who have supported it through thick and thin.

Thomson, who has since been knighted by the French government for her work, steers a new festival today – one that focuses on outreach and the creation of new work that pushes the industry further, and one that demands that the dance sector can become bigger and better with the buy-in not just of investors, but of emerging audiences.

The focus on new work has seen the birth of seminal pieces like Masilo's pioneering "Swan Lake", and Orlin's "Daddy I've Seen This Piece Six Times Before And I Still Don't Know Why They're Hurting Each Other", among many – many others – and this year's programme should see the birth of future classics, steered by some of the industry's most powerful dance voices.

Thomson told HuffPost about her time at the festival, and it's impact.

"The Dance Umbrella has offered me the amazing opportunity to watch young artists start creating work; to watch them develop and finally to celebrate them internationally.

"The Dance Umbrella has shown me the amazing possibilities in South Africa, from grass roots to international companies. Highlights for me include watching the first performance of "Daddy I've Seen This Piece Six Times Before And I Still Don't Know Why They're Hurting Each Other" by Robyn Orlin – which went on to tour internationally for 10 years..."

She has many more highlights, however: "Vincent Mantsoe: his amazing spirituality within what he creates; Steven Cohen: his courage and belief in what he does; Sello Pesa: his move from straight choreography to political statement; Via Katlehong, who came onto the stage with a Pantsula piece that just spoke volumes and who now also tour internationally; Gregory Maqoma, who takes one giant leap after another: these are people who come to mind, but there are hundreds of others who will remain with me."

The festival will run at various theatres and venues in Johannesburg from March 6-18, 2018.