A tribute to a warrior ancestor

Jun. 13, 2014 @ 02:00 PM

In his solo, “Exit/Exist,” Gregory Maqoma does not just put on a show with images, narration, movement and live music. He dances to tell a real story, to keep the memory of his warrior ancestor alive and to inspire others to engage in new struggles in today’s South Africa.
Maqoma makes his American Dance Festival debut with performances of this hourlong work Saturday through Monday at Reynolds Industries Theater.
In the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa, he grew up listening to his grandmother tell stories of his great-great-grandfather Jongum-sobomvu Maqoma, a 19th century Xhosa chief. “He was regarded as a great warrior and a fighter and he gave the British hell,” Maqoma said in an interview earlier this week at a Durham hotel.
Chief Maqoma eventually died for his efforts to reclaim his peoples’ land taken by the British, the dancer added.
Both Chief Maqoma and his wife were imprisoned for two years at Robben Island. “His wife was also a fighter and they were afraid to leave her behind,” Maqoma said. The second time, he was incarcerated for 12 years at the island prison. He was paroled in 1869 but when he attempted to resettle on his land that had been taken by the British, they returned him to Robben Island where he died at age 75 in 1873. “Some say he was trying to escape. The authorities said he died of illness,” Maqoma said.
Before he created his solo, Maqoma wanted to ask his ancestor’s permission. So, elders took him to the warrior’s mountain gravesite in the Eastern Cape region. It was windy and rainy – just like the day they had come to this place to bury Chief Maqoma’s bones moved from where the prison had buried him, the dancer said.  “After he gave me his permission, it stopped raining and the sun came out,” Maqoma added.
“I feel strongly that his presence is with me when I perform,” the dancer said. “I think he’d be very proud. I feel like I’m finishing the journey he was taking. The struggle continues. Unemployment is high, especially for young people,” he said.
It had been during a time of struggle, in the late 1980s, in Soweto, that Maqoma turned to dance.  He was 9 or 10 and violent protests and government crackdowns persisted in his township. “Dancing was part of my escape,” he said. He began to combine street dancing with the pop styles he was seeing on TV. “I saw Michael Jackson and I thought – wow! – someone who is black and can move people like that,” Maqoma recalled.
He and his friends formed a dance group, The Joy Dancers.
Later, he would receive formal dance training at Moving Into Dance Mophatong.
In 1999, he formed his own company, Vuyani Dance Theatre in Johannesburg. Community outreach continues to be a large part of the company’s mission. “The company wants to create opportunities to help young people find something meaningful about themselves through the arts. And, to know who they are so they can see possibilities and work toward a vision,” he said.
And, find joy instead of despair. Maqoma took the name of his company from his traditional name, Vuyani, which means “joy,” he said.

: The American Dance Festival presents Gregory Maqoma of Vuyani Dance Theatre in “Exit/Exist.”
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, Monday. (June 14-June 16).
WHERE: Reynolds Industries Theater, Duke University.
TICKETS: 919-684-4444 or www.americandancefestival.org