Interview/review: Popping stereotypes, memory in enthralling multidisciplinary dance piece, POP, which premiered at the 2022 National Arts Festival, Makhanda, 2022

On June 23, 2022, the National Arts Festival, Makhanda, began with an unexpected pop. It was announced on opening day of NAF, that the mask mandate had been lifted in South Africa and that venues could be seated at full capacity. Amongst the popping of everything opening up, there I was attending POP, a multidisciplinary dance piece, choreographed and danced by Thamsanqa Majela (South Africa) and Matthieu Nieto (France). It was my first show at NAF 2022- staged in the Rhodes Box Theatre.

POP premiered at NAF, on its Curated Programme. I had been wowed, watching Majela, performing in 2021, on the Fringe at NAF in Mommy, mommy, with Tebogo “Artslave” Gxubane. Mommy, was live streamed from Makhanda, as shortly before festival lift-off in 2021, South Africa went into another Covid lockdown, which brought the curtain down on live performance. Mommy mommy surprised and mesmerised me, through its harrowing and stirring narrative and was beautifully conveyed on screen. I was thrilled when I heard that Majela would be back at NAF 2022, live, on the Curated Programme, collaborating with Matthieu Nieto, from France. Watching POP was an extraordinary experience. It is dance theatre with a distinct verbal narrative, vivid characters (Matthieu Nieto and Thamsanqa Majela- as themselves) accompanied by a potent visual and soundscape and vivid overlapping monologues –intense personal diaries overlaid against the dance. Majela: “Text in POP is as if it is going through a memory lane, reading someone else’s diary….” But the darkness is lightened by moments of whimsy – such as bubbles. Bubbles represent happiness, lightness for me, so the inclusion of those is necessary.  We included Balekane Legoabe’s digital drawings, with the bubbles.”

I was unable to post a review on TheCapeRobyn website, during NAF, because of hectic loadshedding (power outages) in South Africa and then I decided to wait for the artists to finish the interview I was conducting with them, via e-mail and WhatsApp. At NAF, I wrote a quickie review on Facebook TheCapeRobyn:  “Wow! POP- a beautiful, sad, wistful piece of dance theatre, grappling with shame and through excavating of personal diaries – moving with grace to healing and acceptance. There is music, song (listen out for the riff of Non, Je Ne Regrette RienNo Regrets, the haunting Edith Piaf song) and exquisite dance duo. The choreographers/dancers -Thamsanqa Majela and Matthieu Nieto are together and apart, “looking for love, amongst the lost circles [of existence- especially on social media], but you don’t always find love in strange places.”

POP was influenced by popular culture, by artists, Yayoi Kusama and Keith Harring. Prior to NAF, the team told me: “Like the installations of the Japanese performer and visual artist [Kusama], these moving, abstract, psychedelic and colourful landscapes depict the movements of the mind in the face of trauma and mental disorders. We invite performers and spectators on a surreal, inner journey where time and space intertwine in a hypnotic way.” POP is hypnotic and unspeakably sad as it excavates through the pain that these artists have experiences, through their lives, particularly when they were young and taunted at school. There is a refrain in the piece: “Are you okay/are you gay.” The school yard is conjured up in POP, with scribbles and videography and reverberates very much in terms of Kusama’s mirrored rooms – populated by polka dots and other images. The artists reference Keith Haring through their bodies – fractured shapes and figures – violated bodies; embracing bodies, balancing and being displaced.

After the show, they spoke with me about the difficulties of coming out to certain people and how they have carried that with them, through life. They have been doing workshops and residencies and post NAF, they have been on tour with POP. Watch the video on Facebook TheCapeRobyn:  Matthieu Nieto: “POP is the title, as in popular culture, as Thami was explaining, but it also like a sense of movement – the inner explosion and outer explosions–things that cannot be contained – so it is popping out- but it is also urban culture… POP!” Thamsanqa Majela: “I think that we need to pop bubbles – our own emotional bubbles – so we don’t contain and become depressed and be in a depressed state. Emotions need to be expressed – to be popped out……” Nieto: “There is something about popping; vulnerability …which warms mental health ….I think that we should stop pretending.” Majela: “Ja, stop pretending – like face masking… “Read on about POP and how two artists – from South Africa and France- connected through dance theatre and how they are activating for change and understanding, against homophobia, with the youth groups that they are working with, around the globe. Matthieu Nieto and Thamsanqa Majela, in conversation, with TheCapeRobyn:

Staging two parallel trajectories

POP is a two-hander. Does one say it is a duet, in terms of dance speak?

Matthieu Nieto: “I would say POP is staging two parallel trajectories; two individuals going through similar intimate journeys. There are many ways of choreographing a duet and it definitely goes beyond the traditional idea of a pas-de-deux. We are evolving in the same space, often within the same material, but there is a sense of loneliness that we couldn’t escape from experiencing and showcasing. It shows a lot about our collective isolation, our difficulties as human beings to find support when we are dealing with trauma and mental health issues.”

Thamsanqa Majela: “I definitely I agree. It is more than a duet, or how we perceive a duet in dance.“

Two creatives connecting – from South Africa and France

How did the two of you connect? How did your collaboration come about? Have you worked together before?

Matthieu Nieto: “We met in 2012, when I was visiting Johannesburg for the biennale, Danse l’Afrique danse. We instantly clicked, even celebrated Pride together and stayed in touch since then. I saw Thami, again in Paris in 2015 when he was on tour. We started talking seriously about a collaboration at the end of 2020. It took us a year to organise the production. And then we in Makhanda, premiering the work at the National Arts Festival 2022.”

Thamsanqa Majela: “Yes we met in South Africa and our connection was formed then, till now. Funny enough, our connection has been maintained by technology -social media- checking on how one is doing in life. Our collaboration has now made us connect creatively and enabled us to experience our relationship, outside the social media. That has opened a lid to a lot of realisation about ourselves – and our work.”

Confronting mental health issues related to homophobia realities in a sensitive manner

POP is described as a “multidisciplinary dance piece- grappling with mental health issues related to homophobia” Can you talk about how your own experiences – the “brutal” realities you have been faced with and how this has have filtered into the work- your struggles with mental health – arising out of dealing with people who have perhaps who have not been accepting of your choices and how you have transmuted that into POP?

Matthieu Nieto: “I had just been through a traumatic event when we started brainstorming about this collaboration, a Grindr hook-up gone wrong I could say. I didn’t know how to process what had happened but I felt the need to unpack the roots of this event in order to heal. Thami had interests in trauma and maybe that’s where we found a common site by addressing marks left by homophobia and femmephobia. Personally, I experienced it from a very young age as I was being bullied at school. I internalised homophobia, which resulted in a series of bad choices that were rooted in shame and self-hate. When you don’t accept yourself for who you are, it is obviously creating huge inner-conflicts and it’s reflecting in your relationship with other people and your ability to succeed in whatever you do. I wouldn’t necessarily label everything I have been through here, but all I can say is that it takes a lot of willpower and patience to heal from trauma to finally being able to cultivate self-love and self-care. And being gay is not a choice.”

Thamsanqa Majela: “I believe the lockdown period was a necessary period for everyone to evaluate where they were/are mentally. Personally, it made me realize the internalised emotions from the past. Lingering emotions, have a way of creeping out and affecting one’s life. I always struggle with having to be a different person, in terms of the exterior. Coming from Bloemfontein, where it is still a little bit hard to be ‘free, maybe it’s all in my head. However family traditions can affect one’s freedom, acceptance and “coming out”. So there is a lot of masculinity energy that dominates, from my experience. There is no sense of recognizing that men can possess a Feminine energy and that can be visible within our community. POP allows us to talk about these confrontations and realities in a sensitive manner. It allows us to visually present our experiences through moving images, led by emotions. I think there are some experiences that we share that it’s not possible to articulate them, however, through watching the work then it is impactful.”

Facing dark moments, collaborating on POP

You have said that with POP, you “are approaching deep, sometimes brutal issues, as choreographers we wish to infuse a sense of lightness in the performance by staging a pop and fantasy world echoing our inner fantasies and fictions.” Can you talk about POP and the use of imagery to lighten and provide release?

Matthieu Nieto: “We both faced dark moments within this collaboration.  Obviously, it can be triggering to dig within one’s trauma and reactivate some of the shit we have been through. I believe that humour, bright colours and pop music are precious tools used by the queer community worldwide as a way to create hope and cope with tough realities. Being cheesy, dramatic or overly colourful has been an historical strategy of survival and a political statement to disrupt the order. Let’s not forget that people at the frontline of the LGBTQ+ revolution for equal rights were — and still are — gender non-conforming and trans people, drag queens and dikes, and of course black and brown folks. The impact of African-American people on Americanised global pop culture is huge, and in the piece you can see how we have been influenced by R&B, by Voguing and the ballroom scene or by Krumping. These forms of expressions are sites of liberation where you can be yourself or embody your fantasies and alter-ego, but also release your emotions. For me there is lightness in allowing yourself to go through something raw, something real, sensitive or vulnerable, and turning it into something beautiful.”

Thamsanqa Majela: ” I think most of my subject matter is heavy, especially with Mommy mommy. I enjoy heavy, realistic issues that reflect on the situation of our community our communities go through a lot of turmoil. So, lightness is necessary, it is needed. Our LGBTQQIA+ presumed as “comic relievers” and we forget that the “clown” has emotions. I think we relate more to images, before text and sound. In this work, POP, we take an experience and look at the imagery within that situation and then start imposing sound, composed by Chesney Palmer, Digital art by Balekane Legoabe. The image becomes alive and experiential and not imposing.”

Creating POP- the– title – popping and releasing the pressure-cooker lid

How did the two of you come up with the concept and title, POP? Did the two of you conceive this work together or had one of you had the idea before?

Matthieu Nieto: “I would say that POP is the result of long conversations, negotiations and physical explorations as we both came up with different visions of what the work could be. As for the word POP, it has many layers, which is something we wanted for the piece. Obviously it references popular culture, but it’s also a verb used in many urban expressions such as make it pop, pop it or pop out.  It can refer to an explosion or an implosion, something that cannot be contained anymore. It can be loud and fun, dramatic, sexual, violent or light. When you say POP, it already creates movement.”

Thamsanqa Majela: “POP! Matt actually proposed the name and said we can change it later. I loved it… it is also a bit mysterious in terms of not fully giving away what we are going to take you through.  But yes, POP has so much layers and it speaks globally for me. I think of the Ballroom culture, Brenda Fassie, PJ Powers, Simon TsekoNkoli (anti-apartheid, gay rights and AIDS activist in South Africa), to mention a few in SA. It speaks about people who went through their own struggles, in order to spread a message, especially in our LGBTQQIA+ community. POP for me, represents something that needs to happen. We need to be releasing our emotions, especially Men! POP the pressure-cooker lid- and release.”

POP- referencing popular urban culture

You say that in POP- you “explore a hyperchromatic aesthetic by revisiting”, from your own perspectives, “the heritage of two emblematic artists of the Pop Art movement: Yayoi Kusama and Keith Harring.”  Yayoi has lived for most of her life in a mental health institution – voluntarily – and created her own alternate world to be creative. She has lived life – as an artist and person on her own terms and despite extraordinary mental health pain – she creates fantastical installations – with fun and whimsy for viewers. Please comment on your referencing Yayoi and Keith Warring and how POP unfurls for viewers?

Matthieu Nieto: “These references were potential starting points and are now diluted within the work. We worked with the idea of shape and figures referencing Keith Haring, and saw how we could make them move. There is always a sense of movement and very strong political and social messages in his work. For me it was an invitation to think of how each pose and each shape are built from the inside-out, a necessity to connect with the somatic realm of the body-mind to bring a shape to life. As for Yoyoi Kusama, we explored textures and repetitions of patterns with digital animations and mapping. Her work was an inspiration to create an atmosphere on stage that could represent our inner movements, the voices and the images that live in our subconscious mind.” 

Thamsanqa Majela: “Firstly for me these people (Kusama and Harring) represent what POP is, especially Yoyoi Kusama. Her works are so playful and evoke happiness. Kusama’s work for me evokes the sub-conscious mind: I wondered how my subconscious mind would look like if I had to be there. One of her quotes, which lives with me now is –‘Polka dots can’t stay alone’- really altered my thinking and imagining how we could think about the work. I found it intriguing that from sadness can emerge something beautiful, sensitive and recognizable.  I’m interested in minimalism, surrealism and these people represent parts of those. Keith Haring with colours and shapes… I was interested in his use of cartoon art, how it is so politically driven as well. I love talking politics now, especially knowing we are affected.“

Narrative with movement

POP is a dance piece but there is dialogue and a narrative. I am thinking back to Mommy mommy and how dialogue was used in the piece. I think of POP artists and there was a lot of use of stylised bubbles- like comic strip bubbles and mapping with words.

Matthieu Nieto: “The narrative elements present in the piece, is conveyed mostly in our use of words and theatricality situations. We first thought of having a voice-over dialogue but then it transferred into two monologues that are somewhat interlinked and reflect on each-other.” 

Thamsanqa Majela: “We use text, through recorded conversations. Mommy mommy, was more theatre approach for me, so there’s a lot of drama! Lol. It is deliberate drama and melodrama at times I find. LOL. POP needed to be different, sensitive, not too melodramatic in terms of spoke text. The text needs to be inviting and not to demand attention. We created an environment which would also make us feel past memories in order to utter the words or memory. Text in POP is as if it is going through a memory lane, reading someone else’s diary. Bubbles represent happiness, lightness for me, so the inclusion of those is necessary.  We included Balekane Legoabe’s digital drawings with the bubbles. There is a lot of audio text, from an individual point of view however, if you listen carefully you realize how much of a ‘duet’ through text there is. Characters from Matt’s stories are visible in mine and I believe the same with my stories.”

Working POP – in Africa

Did most of the creative process take place in France?

Matthieu Nieto: “We actually started the work in Tanzania instead of South Africa due to Covid restrictions. It was meaningful to begin this project in a country where LGBTQ+ people still have no legal rights. We were lucky to meet several local activists, facilitate a workshop with Tanzanian Trans Initiative. Then we had several residencies in the South of France in Occitanie where I am from, and in Paris, where I have been based the past few years. Then we finished the work in Makhanda at the National Arts Festival.  It was a chance for us to meet with different audiences from different cultures and backgrounds throughout the process.”

Thamsanqa Majela: “Yes, it was a beautiful journey to commence in Tanzania, hosted by Muda Africa. The work took shape in outside South Africa and I think it’s special that it drew a lot of information during the research from different places, Africa and Europe.”

Designing POP

Can you talk about the design (lighting, costumes, sound), video mapping, animation and sound and how the design, music, animation is integrated with the dance and movement to tell your story?

Matthieu Nieto: “POP is a multimedia dance piece where the choreography is in a dialogue with intimate testimonies through texts that we wrote and recorded, music created by Chesney Palmer, digital animation hand drawn by Balekane Legoabe, video mapping, created by Madani Touré and lighting design by Mandla Mtshali. The gender fluid costumes are white so that they can be porous to the different colours projected on screen. Like our bodies, they are being informed and transformed by the context. We really wanted to create something immersive for us and for the audience. It is like evolving in a dream, travelling through the mind.”

Thamsanqa Majela: “So, with our collaborators we also wanted to give them freedom of expression with our themes. Give them a voice through their art, through that then the collaboration is achieved. I’ve worked with Palmer a lot, his sense of translating a state for me is amazing, through use of natural sounds. Balekane Legoabe [digital animation] brought a sense of play into the work, however there is something that lurks in her work, a message that needs to be talked about. Mandla [Mandla Mtshali- lighting/video mapping], was great in coming up with beautiful proposals and also the freedom to say –‘No, It doesn’t work!’ LOL. I love that.  It was great to see and learn from Madani Touré.”

POP, going forward

After NAF, you presented POP at the Vrystaat Arts Festival in Bloemfontein [July 12, 13 and 14, 2022]. In September [2022], it is back to France, at the CDCN of Roubaix and le Ring-scène périphérique in Toulouse. And then- where does POP go?

Matthieu Nieto Matthieu: “Hopefully, this is just the beginning!”

After POP: Matthieu Nieto (France) and Thamsanqa Majela (South Africa), June 23, 2022, chatting after the opening performance at The Rhodes Box Theatre, of POP on the Curated Programme at the National Arts Festival, Makhanda. Regarding the costumes, Nieto says: “The gender fluid costumes are white so that they can be porous to the different colours projected on screen. Like our bodies, they are being informed and transformed by the context. We really wanted to create something immersive for us and for the audience. It is like evolving in a dream, travelling through the mind.” Pic: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.
Video immersion: POP references popular urban culture and expressions, by artists such as Yayoi Kusama and Keith Harring. The production is stunningly imaged by digital animation, hand drawn by Balekane Legoabe, video mapping created by Madani Touré and lighting design by Mandla Mtshali. Pic: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

✳This interview has been marginally edited for length and clarity. Featured image- Matthieu Nieto and Thamsanqa Majela- enjoying the standing ovation at POP, opening night, June 23, NAF. Images of POP and Matthieu Nieto and Thamsanqa Majela, taken at the Rhodes Box at National Arts Festival, Makhanda, June 23, 2022. #NAF2022 #ItWillChangeYou

Image credits: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: