Award-winning and Naledi-award nominated South African dancer and choreographer Thami Tshabalala puts LGBTQ+ rights under the microscope and pays homage to fallen queer activist Simon Nkoli with his latest piece, ‘Simon’.
By: Musa Gift Mqwashu
Images courtesy of Thami Tshabalala
The Soweto-born dancer is cited as the one to watch in the performance art scene. His work has already garnered universal acclaim and won him trophies, like the Kelsey Middleton Floating Awards for Best Contemporary dancer and Best Choreography, for his piece And the Soft Voices Die.
The dancer was also part of the original cast of Dada Masilo’s classic, ‘Gisselle’, and also performed the lead in the late dance pioneer Christopher Kindo’s ‘Me and You’. “What a time in my life,” he gushes to Blacklight.
With the current coronavirus global pandemic which ravaged through South Africa and saw the suspending of all staged performances (with an expected second wave looming), he is elated to be back on stage with his solo piece, Simon, in celebration of Pride season. The piece already enjoyed a successful run at the State Theatre, last year.
The lively and flamboyant, yet well-disposed dancer chats to us about his dance career, queer activism, and Nkoli’s legacy.
Blacklight: How does it feel to be back on stage, especially after the lockdown made it impossible for many performers to interact with audiences?
Thami Tshabalala: Fulfilling! This is a risk that I and my company took to heal. The world is bleeding and the greatest of God’s creations are out there saving the world.
BL: What inspired you to want to pay homage to the LGBTQ+ icon Simon Nkoli?
TM: I read through countless biographies as I wanted to do work about a fallen African hero. Simon’s story resonated a lot with me; his struggles, triumphs, and fight for social acceptance, not only for himself, but for the marginalized. He once said: “I am oppressed because I am gay and black.” So I cannot separate the two. I cannot just fight for my (own) struggles. I must fight against both oppressions’, and I believe he has handed over the baton to us. I am ready to run the miles that he was unwillingly denied.
BL: What themes are you unpacking with this work, and why do you think this is the right time to address these issues?
TM: I was deeply inspired by Simon’s trials, triumphs, and will to succeed. His will to liberate extensively. He was the only queer amongst 21 other trialists of the Delmas trial. So his life serves as a story of resilience, compassion, dedication of the human soul, in spite of the levels of inequality we live in.
BL: 30 years since the first Pride March, do you think that it still holds the same values as those of icons like Simon Nkoli, Beverly Ditsie, and others?
TM: The idea is still relevant, and I guess every generation is restating, reimagining what their vision of the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Queer) community, today. I would appreciate it if they kept to the authenticity of the march itself, instead of the boozy gatherings, which were established post the original peaceful marches, aimed at creating awareness about queer rights.
BL: What do you think is the role of the art in raising social awareness, especially during Pride season?
TM: It’s extremely crucial. We don’t learn the same way, and at this point (with the technology take over) – we must connect, educate each other and, most importantly, heal. We need to understand the powerful tool that is the digital-era, in starting conversations that will be conducive and of assistance to future generations. The notion of pride is completely different from what is being shared, socially, to the general public. The education, celebrating, teaching, and honouring of our culture and heritage is vital and sacred to our forefathers.
BL: Do you think the passing of the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crime and Hate Speech bill in South Africa can help curb the abuse and killing of queer bodies?
TM: Formally yes, the law is passed in, and those that go against it shall suffer the consequences – especially considering that about ¼ of the abusive acts are towards the queer community. The indoctrination and propaganda associated with the queer community is amongst individuals who have been misled and are not fortunate enough to have reference and representation at immediate proximity. The conversation around queer hate and malicious behavior needs to spread like fire and the queer people who hold positions of influence have the gavel in their hands. Their response is the acknowledgment of the work of activists like Simon Nkoli and Bev Ditsie and to also carry the baton forward.
BL: As a young black boy growing up in the township, was it easy for your community to understand your career choice?
TM: I have never regarded anyone’s opinion in terms of my career choice, which was still a hobby at the time. My biggest obstacle to overcome was getting my parents in my corner – most importantly, my father, as I am his only son. I knew that this was a wave I had to overcome with him first, being able to help him making sense of being queer and pursuing a career in the arts industry.
BL: Was there something in particular within your surroundings that motivated you to pursue a career in dance?
TM: I have always been the light in the room. Family gatherings were not the same without me. I use to gather all the girls in the hood and stage a pageant and ask my sister, who was a beauty pageant queen, to be the adjudicator. I joined local dance groups because I was a hyperactive child and I needed a space or platform to exhaust my energy. Art was and still is a spiritual experience.
BL: What is it about the art form that makes it the perfect language for self-expression?
TM: It’s the spiritual experience that dance always is for me. Hearing the music and sharing a space with like-minded body movement scientists. The art of creating body shapes and transcending the body to execute what the mind has envisioned. The way a dancer can have their legs stuck next to their ear, the body rotated 360 degrees, yet emoting a character and allowing the audience to visualize the music – how great is that?
BL: How was the transition from student to professional dancer?
TM: It was seamless. My mentor Kelsey Middleton always told me that there is no major difference between the two. How you treat yourself as a student is how you will carry yourself as a professional. Nothing has ever changed with me; the work was just enhanced.
BL: What would you say about the current state of dance in South Africa? Are there any chances of turning art into a lucrative career – especially in this digital age?
TM: Every industry has its pros and cons. This career field and choice not only demands discipline, passion, and hard work (the base of every industry), it also requires grit, resilience, being able to risk financial challenges to produce your work, and seeing your vision through. The issues around funding will always be an ongoing struggle, but if we invest in ourselves and our vision – we might get somewhere. You cannot expect a million-rand sponsorship if you are not willing to sacrifice R20 000 to invest in yourself, first.