TOSSIE VAN TONDER
POSTAL ADDRESS P O BOX 53010 KENILWORTH WESTERN CAPE 7745
TELEPHONE (27)021-761-5052 083-2544-669
I have danced all my life. I have also trained as a clinical psychologist (MA Clin Psych, University of Pretoria) and wrote my master’s thesis on movement as therapy. After a period of working in Central Prison I went for one year’s training in the field of movement and therapy on the East Coast of America. There I encountered the wider contexts of application that extended the field to theatre, therapy and the self.
I returned to South Africa in a politically volatile 1980 and for the next 8 years applied myself to mainly solo productions that toured the country and Pacific Islands while each production also accompanied the training of people working in the healing professions, educators and artists. However, these were the ‘80s of South African politics where I had to reach such a level of abstraction in order to portray myself within an artistic medium and play politically safe, that the tension between my creativity and the possibilities of public disclosure of my experiences became intolerable.
In 1988 I left the country for Namibia where I used my skills as psychotherapist to facilitate transformation in an African country that was fast approaching its own independence from colonial rule. I applied my skills in transformation in fields such as education (matriculants, teachers, school managers, communities), health (nurses in graduate and post-graduate studies and their lecturers), development workers (volunteers from Europe and their counterparts in local communities), all supported by The Canada Fund over four years.
In 1993 I returned to Cape Town, became a mother and adjusted to a new role. My work became more local community based and I offered workshops and ongoing classes for dancers, actors, children and people who were not involved in the arts but willing to move and be moved. During this time I completed the BA Hons Degree in Gender Studies (cum laude) (University of South Africa), and did my research on myself as subject of art, art object and as artist. My studies made me a strong follower of the discourses of the French feminists and philosophers such as Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Michel Foucault and others before them. Their work enhanced my perspectives on the current Southern African issues of the African diaspora, third worlding by the West, the effects of globalisation on the third world, post-colonialism, post-negritude, the inherent democracy of motherhood and the politics of the body. I started to write and developed an essayistic form of prose that has accompanied my performances ever since.
In a performance during 2001 I publicly announced the struggles of white existence in a country where reflective sentiment towards whites was political taboo. How dare a white woman announce her psychological trauma that has a strong political base? Will it ever become a considered notion that whites also have a soul? Will a truth and reconciliation commission as culture ever include the nightmares of a white person in the apartheid era? Is there truly a place for whites in Africa in this future where the uncanny strangeness that has always been felt as a personal epoch, never to be heard but where the strangeness now gains definition through reversed racism? I delivered the creed: “I am not an African”. OPUS, the name for the performance, was called so as to not compromise the absence of identity that accompanied this “restoration of white integrity in Africa”. It was a raw and exposed display of the disappearing soul of whiteness, as if it was the last straw for whites, in a society that has replaced, among other, a designed racism, a sad, and worst nightmare that we all grew up with. The undoing of white identity and the discovery of the immense vulnerability of whiteness in Africa, the hopelessness of the struggle for freedom and the enhanced female embodiment of this time, entailed a risk to myself that I have never experienced before.
“Van Tonder had developed a reputation for imagistic dance theatre that stretched the envelope of what South African audiences expected from dance performers. Her resolution to remain true to her own creative instinct brought both accolades and vilification […] at the forefront of South African socio-political discourse.” (Mail & Guardian 6-12 April 2001.)
In subsequent work with dancers where the dance, the aesthetic, merged with a shamanistic expression that entered African spirituality, a black male dancer, 25 years on stage is quoted to say:
“’I’m not sure if I’m ready to put myself in front of an audience yet […] Our work with Tossie has taken us into a level of improvisation where you cannot lie. It’s been frightening going to such a place!’” (Mail & Guardian September 21-27, 2001).
In 2001 I performed at the FNB Indaba Dance Festival in Cape Town where the performance acted as a rite of a passage, supported by an African musician, a traditional healer (sangoma), and a ceremonialist trained in American Indian ritual. The improvised nature of the work invited all current consciousnesses harbored by the performers. Amongst others themes, one included the event of 11 September 2001, the bombing of the twin towers in New York. This work was transformative through the collective relationship between self and other and between inner and outer lives.
In 2002 the politics of Africa took on new dimensions, new promises, with the global significance of ecological and humanitarian issues. I challenged my ability to embody Africa, her demise in the international list of priorities, and my commitment to dance the truth of this particular death.
At the back of this document I include an extract of the narrative to which I performed Unnameable, which was also performed at The FNB Dance Umbrella Festival in Johannesburg at the beginning of 2002. For this work I was given a special award.
Art making in Africa was not a concept any longer. Any attempt to portray myself as woman, white, Afrikaner, South African, mother, African, in Africa with a trail of flawed knowledges and continued hatred at the core of identity had to be bravely admitted to as a closed book. The unknown, where I shed the self’s powers, is mostly accessible to me alone. In public it could be experienced as self-sacrifice. And the prayer for guidance is the dance that can destroy me when I enter my own dark night of terror.
Today I am still teaching adults and children in the art of moving and being moved by the self and its environment. Accessing the self publicly, in the face of severe criticism and even ostracism forms a strong part of my writing and performances. My work continues to be studied by various tertiary institutions and I strive to not allow this process to become an historical one, but rather one that challenges art-making by students to cross personal thresholds and reveal visceral honesty. I assist young theatre directors with the discourse necessary to explore the edge of the current knowledge of our socio-political paradigms and how to give form to these. I continue to perform rites of passages for myself, my son and South Africans for whom western forms of access to the psychological and mythical self has failed them. This work proves to be strongly challenging of personal biographical destinies and their contexts.
Extract from Unnameable, performed March 2002 in Johannesburg.
“Forgive me for disappointing you: In order for me to embody my world as the dancer, I am less and less capable of becoming this world. I cannot any longer become the violence of conquest, genocide, slavery, debt and bondage, extermination of indigenous cultures, poverty, military economies, the loss of any semblance of law and order, terror, the emaciation of the female body that should bear life. I cannot truly dance this.
My dances can therefore no longer be said to be inspired, or as expressions of art.
Like the musician who asks, what is the nature of the sound that would reflect the times that I live in, the dancer in me does not only ask, how am I to dance? But rather, am I still to dance? What and who am I dancing ---for? Like the rain coming from a rain dance how would my dance be useful to you as my community, and my world if I am to be the dancer of today?
So I guess I hereby have to admit that in this world, today, the dance has become too powerful for me, the dancer. Often this admission is so unbearable that many dancers become spiritless, banal, they sell their souls, they destroy the only body they have, some spiral into intoxicated oblivion in an attempt to call on the spirit of the dance, or the ancestors---to dance them.
I’d rather dancers were a raging pack affirmed by their escalating dances immaculately contained in robustly disciplined bodies: dancing rebellions against inhumanity, against reckless waste, dancing the end of all times, invoking great acts of soul and courage and urging those who lead to become true warriors for one moment of honorable work, dignity and truth. My tribe of dancers would raise the spirit of justice as a revolution, and hopefullywe would survive.
At the end of the day, my dances are my rites of passage that must be danced because I am changing so rapidly, that it is only by dancing that I truly know how… I am changed. My body must encapsulate the spirit that has moved on.
Whether or not my body can sustain the crucial meeting point of the times I live in remains to be seen. But I am trying to find my self between the beginnings of the self and the chaos of my strongest feelings, as South African, as woman, white, strongly afraid.
My desire is for Africa to re-embody herself again. If this dance could restructure reality itself, expand and deepen the capacity to re-inhabit her body without shame, subjugation, without plunder or famine, but humbly, with great fear and wonder for all that she has delivered, only then would I call this dance a work of art.
With each step I take on this land, the fine dust of medicine settles into the mysterious festerings of my own wound scabbed with Africa, upon Africa, upon Africa. This medicine prepares my body for that estranged and vital being human, called a South African. I am becoming a sprawling ghetto of medicine, the South African diaspora: the bow, the wound, the becoming because this is where I live and nowhere else in the whole world is the medicine, the becoming….this…strong.
I no longer ask what I can do for my country, but look at me, look what Africa has done: I am a language-less being, with a specific sense of life, a desire for a change most definitely unnameable, dissolving all false barriers to celebrate great and unknown continuities.
I find the shape of Africa pleasing to the tip of my fingers, gentle on my eye, uncannily balanced, a liquid consciousness. I have never heard the name Africa being said carelessly. Africa is the name that my ears only hear as the great neutrality between exuberance and disdain. With my love I instinctively protect all her possible meanings. I hear only that which bears an endless ribbon worn at the entrance of every household---humble and less humble. A ribbon for everything that we understand of Africa. The rest is still, unseen, unheard, unknown, unmoved…., unnameable”. (End).