BWW Interviews: Bucking Dance Trends with BOK and Steven van Wyk

Henk Opperman in BOK

Steven van Wyk and Underground Dance are back at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown with a new dance piece, BOK. Previous presentations that have involved Steven and the alternative dance company of which he is a key player include KEEPSAKE MINUS 3 and PLASTIC, which have won Kyknet Fiesta and Standard Bank Ovation Awards. As the National Arts Festival kicked off, Steven found time to sit down me and chat about BOK, how Underground Dance fits into the landscape of South African dance and how his anthropological background feeds into his theatre-making and choreography.

David Fick: When did you start dancing?

Steven van Wyk: I started dancing when I was 16 and realised that I really wanted to dance professionally so I started taking ballet classes at the University of Cape Town's School of Dance. After school, I did a year of full-time studying at the Waterfront Theatre School, after which I went to UCT to do a Bachelor's in Social Sciences. At UCT, I majored in Dance and Anthropology and my approach to dance seems to be interwoven with anthropological ideas, which is something that becomes more and more apparent when I look back at pieces I have choreographed. After graduating, I danced with Bovim Ballet, was apprenticed to Cape Town City Ballet for a while and worked at the Cape Dance Company.

DF: How did Underground Dance come to be?

SvW: Towards the end of 2010, I sat down with a group of like-minded people - Thalia Laric, Cilna Katzke and Kristina Johnstone - whose work I liked with the idea of making a piece, and making the type of work we wanted to be in. The kind of work that Pina Bausch and DV8 create, stuff that isn't just dance or just physical theatre, but work that is at the meeting point of the two, which breaks boundaries and can include text or classical styles and so on.

Henk Opperman in BOK

DF: Where did you go from there?

Around the same time, Thalia and I approached Nicola Elliot, who is this year's Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for Dance, to create a piece on us. That ended up becoming KEEPSAKE MINUS THREE, which was a programme of three new works and won a Standard Bank Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival as well as a Kyknet Fiesta Award in 2013 for Best Dance Production, something I never dreamed would happen given the other incredible work we were up against. Next we created PLASTIC, which consisted of two pieces, including "Skoonveld", which was choreographed by Thalia and I, which was awarded a Standard Bank Special Silver Ovation as well as the 2014 Kyknet Fiesta Award.

DF: And now you have created BOK, in collaboration with Cilna and Kristina. Where did the idea originate?

SvW: We had created a programme with three pieces, then one with two and now we wanted to create one full length work. I had lots of ideas, but was most interested in some thoughts I'd had about the ballet, "Afternoon of a Faun" - the idea of the human within the animal and the animal within the human. The original ballet is not overtly about that - it's a stylised, decorative piece that caused some controversy because the faun masturbates at the end. I was also inspired by a quotation by Alexander McCall-Smith which said, "The boundaries between the animal and human worlds are indistinct and fluid."

DF: That begins to ties in with your anthropological interests.

SvW: It made me think about a time in my early 20s, when a guy I knew became a sangoma. I went to watch his initiation ritual and was intrigued by the hierarchy we use in rituals, with animals at the bottom, then humans and then spirit, and the way we use animals in the lowest level to access the spirit in the highest level. I thought there was an interesting dichotomy there. When you look at rituals, there is a liminal space in which is a transformative space, and animals are used in that space, either by imbibing some part of them or wearing them to access the spiritual realm.

DF: And those ideas all feed into BOK.

SvW: Yes. BOK is structured as a kind of triptych. The first movement focuses on the human part of our existence, looking at the relationship between what's human and animalistic - there's a huge emphasis on grooming - and it starts to ask questions about where the line between the two lies. The second part, which uses the original Debussy score from the original ballet, focuses on the animal, looking at our evolution from the landscape, to amoeba and then to animal, with the dancers eventually standing and soaring. There's a clear sense of the two sides of evolution, looking at both how one grows and leaves things behind, and one of the dancers also kind of devolves, following the process in reverse to achieve that duality. The last section focuses on the spirit, and ideas around burial rituals, spiritual tokens and what carries on once the body is left behind.

Henk Opperman in BOK

DF: Who is in your cast?

We have a fantastic cast, including Henk Opperman from QUEEN AT THE BALLET, William Constable who did really well in SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE?, Aviwe November and Martin Harding, whose roots are at the Cape Dance Company and who also dances for Bovim Ballet.

With a busy schedule at the National Arts Festival this year, Steven had to leap back into BOK, as well as the two other shows in which he is appearing, BEARABLE BROADWAY and YOU BET YOUR LIFE! For more information on Steven's shows and performances, you can follow him on Twitter (@stevevanwyk1), while Underground Dance can be followed on the handle, @UDTheatre.

BOK opened at the National Arts Festival at PJ's on 7 July and will be performed at on 9 July at 8pm; 10 July at 12pm, 11 July at 10am and 12 July at 4pm. Bookings can be made through the National Arts Festival website.

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