“I Think of Dance as My Most Honest and Purest Form of Expression . . .” An interview with Christelle Dreyer

Christelle Dreyer1

Credit: Marike Van Wyk

Christelle Dreyer is a freelance graphic designer and dancer who lives in Brackenfell, Cape Town.  She took up competitive ballroom and Latin dancing in 2004, then moved onto contemporary dance in 2010, performing in Dance Joint produced by Jazzart Dance Theatre and choreographed by Jackie Manyaapelo,  Infecting the City, choreographed by Tebogo Munyai, and Unmute Project, choreographed by Andile Vellum. She has worked on projects with various dance companies, including Jazzart Dance Theatre, Remix and Unmute. She recently performed in No Fun ction alL anguage, at South Africa’s National Arts Festival 2016 in Grahamstown.

Gaele Sobott: How did your passion for ballroom and Latin dancing initially develop?

Christelle Dreyer: As a child I loved listening to all kinds of music and watching people dance. I can`t really recall exact dates, but Jazzart Dance Theatre came to my school and I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the kids to be part of a performance. It opened me up to realising that I actually could move and not just be on the side admiring people as they danced. After that I started Ballroom and Latin dancing.

GS: What then led you to contemporary dance?

CD: I started taking open dance classes as a way to keep fit and do something different. I enjoyed it so much I never stopped.

GS: How did you become involved in No Fun ction al Language?

CD: I received a phone call from Danieyella Rodin who works at The Chaeli Campaign, the organisation that produced No Fun ction al Language. She asked me if I’d like to audition for the show and then emailed me all the relevant information. I contacted Jayne Batzofin, the director, who was conducting the auditioning process over a two week period. So I auditioned and got a part in the show.

GS: Who are the other performers in the show?

CD: Andile Vellem Daniel Mpilo Richards, and Iman Isaacs are the other dancers. Dave Knowles is the musician.

GS: Tell me about your experience of working on the show.

CD: No Fun ction alL anguage has been an exceptional experience and an amazing opportunity. From the start of the creation process to the final production and the moments in between it’s been an incredible process of growth and discovery.

Jayne Batzofin and the cast, everyone involved, have been so open-hearted and open-minded. Some of them, before meeting me, hadn’t had any interaction with a disabled person but the way they approached the idea of disability is no less than amazing. I would like to think that we have become a little No Fun ction alL anguage family. I feel blessed to be part of the team. Together we created a work that has stimulated discussion around what happens if we don’t have the right words or any words to share our thoughts, discussion about our desperate search for meaning and about inclusivity for all members of our society. Each chapter of No Fun ction alL anguage encouraged different thought processes and emotional dialog within me. It was great being in a position to explore these things through performance. The response from audiences has been more than overwhelming.

GS: How did you contribute to the choreography of the piece?

CD:  When Jayne choreographs she uses a theme then allows us to improvise our body movements in relation to the theme. So we generated new movements and material. These were then incorporated into duets or into the larger choreography.  In chapter five of No Fun ction alL anguage, for example, that entire solo was created by me, and Jayne refined and detailed some moments.

GS: Please describe what Chapter Five is about.

CD: Chapter Five was about deception. How you experience deception, what it means to us. I looked at the emotions we feel when we are deceived and when we deceive and worked on translating that into movement. So Daniel explored the act of deceiving someone. His character was saying, “I love you” but not meaning it. Andile and Iman looked at how you can deceive yourself, and I worked on how sometimes you want to believe the deception. You know you are being deceived but you want to go ahead, for example, you believe that person loves you. So the choreography I developed was communicating that process of trying to hold on to what you know is not true but what somehow is pleasurable. Well it would be pleasurable if it was true. You try to hold onto that pleasurable non-reality for as long as you can. So my choreography was very quiet.

GS: How did you translate quiet into movement?

CD: Slow and controlled, under the radar.

GS: I think it was Silence, the chapter where you were on your back and moved your leg up very, very slowly.  That was a powerful moment.

CD: Yes that took extreme concentration, and the right breathing.

GS: Do you have control over your safety during the creative process?

CD: Complete control. If my body doesn’t want to do something, I don’t. But I try new moves. If that doesn’t suit me, I say so. I know what my body is capable of. Anyone who works with a disabled dancer knows that there are certain traditional ways of dancing that may be impossible. It’s a fine line between a director knowing when to push and when not to push you. At the same time you don’t want a director to be patronising and not get you to push boundaries.

From left to right, two male dancers, one standing facing audience, the second lifting his arms and one leg high over the third dancer who is seated in a wheelchair. She leans away from him and holds her hands on her head. The last dancer, a woman, stands facing the away from the other dancers. They are all dressed in casual pants and tee shirts in various shades of grey.


GS: How do the themes of language and communication addressed in No Fun ction al Language relate to you personally?

CD: For me communication takes on many different forms. I think of dance as my most honest and purest form of expression and communication. In those moments of dance, the movement and the spaces between movement, I find what I really want to say to the world. I also communicate as a graphic designer. My work tends to be minimalist, which I feel expresses my easy-going personality.

I think the way I communicate with others is largely determined by the circumstances I’m presented with. For example, the way I communicate with Andile Vellem, who is Deaf, is different to how I communicate with the rest of the cast. My sign language is very bad, but somehow it’s often easier to convey information to him than to someone who can hear, other times we have big gaps in communication. I really need to work on my SASL (South African Sign Language). As far as spoken language goes I am fluent in English and Afrikaans. Not really sure about fluent as my vocabulary is not that large, in my mind at least. I find it difficult to learn new languages. But also I realise the value of discovering new forms of communication and maybe just maybe, I will be putting pen to paper more often.

GS: Afrikaans and English. How do these languages figure in your life? Do you consider either of these languages as your first language or mother tongue?

CD: Both languages are equally as strong as each other in my life. My parents raised me speaking English and I went to an English-speaking school but my family, my parents, aunts and uncles, also speak Afrikaans, and my community.

 GS: Afrikaans has historical significance in the context of the ant-Apartheid struggles and the 1976 student uprisings against the Afrikaans Medium Decree. Do you think the language still represents an oppressive force for some people? Tell me more about what the language means to you.

CD: I was a bit too young to fully understand what it was like during Apartheid. I don’t really have the experience. My parents are the ones who know about what happened then. But from what I observe now Afrikaans is becoming a more general language in Cape Town. There are a lot of Coloured people who speak Afrikaans but it’s a bit different to the way White people speak the language, not pure like in the text books.  Coloured people have their own slang, and it’s more musical. Also the humour in the way Coloureds speak the language is different. I enjoy that humour.

GS: What are the elements of your identity that have remained steadfast over the years, what has changed?

CD: Well my identity is not something I really think about in great depth. Apart from the more obvious things like the fact that I am a Coloured disabled artist. I think I have always been open to experiencing different things. Perseverance and persistence is something I’ve always had and I have a feeling that will not change anytime soon.

I never understood myself as unique. That was partly to do with me being a twin. I am a twin but actually my sister and I are completely different.  My immersion in creative processes demanded that I explore my sense of self. So that definitely helped me realise and embrace my uniqueness.

GS: I was recently at an event where the writer and journalist, Sylvia Vollenhoven was talking about her book, The Keeper of the Kumm. She said, you can be Zulu or Xhosa and it defines to some extent your history but Coloured is a more general term. She feels that people who identify as Coloured are largely excluded from the narratives of nationhood that South Africa is now constructing. What does this part of your identity mean to you?

CD: There are lots of divisions and classes in the Coloured community. The way you live as a Coloured person, where you live, the way you identify, the way you’re brought up. Generally yes, a Black person has a very strong sense of identity. The backstory of being Black or the backstory of being White is usually solid where they know their granny’s granny’s granny.  Many Coloured people haven’t answered the questions, Who am I? What is my history? Where do I belong? Like what exactly is a Coloured person? Yeah, it’s complex. I don’t think Coloureds really know how to define themselves. They don’t have resources to draw on. Like me, I don’t know the history of my grandparents or beyond them.

GS: Why do you think that is? The reasons why you don’t know?

CD: Maybe because the past has been painful and people haven’t wanted to talk about it. But I’m lucky at least I knew all my grandparents. I only have my grandfather left. He has dementia now so I can’t really ask him about our family history. My father’s parents died many years ago. My mother’s mother, Ma Yvonne Lopes, played a big role in encouraging me to be confident and proud of who I am. She was an amazing grandmother. My mother too, she instilled certain values in me and I don’t give her enough credit for all my successes. I am content with who I am and where I am in my life. My friends and family keep me grounded.

GS: Elaborate a little on your identity as a disabled artist?

CD: I was diagnosed with OI (Osteogenesis Imperfecta) when I was a baby. My sister also has OI, I mention this because I always get asked since we’re twins. Because of my OI I spent many of my childhood years with broken bones or in hospital. My mother has lost count of the number of operations I’ve had, at least twenty.  The amount of times I’ve broken my bones seems endless. My tolerance to pain has become so high that most of the time I don’t realise I have a broken bone and in some cases more than one.  I was born and grew up in Cape Town with my parents. I’ve always been surrounded by family and friends so apart from OI issues I’ve had a very normal childhood.  OI is one of the many layers that shapes who I am. I Matriculated in 2004 and started studying Graphic Design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in 2006. I graduated with a Baccalaureus Technologie in 2011. During my years as a university student I never stopped working on my dance goals and dreams.

GS: Can you describe any barriers you have encountered as an artist with OI?

CD: The strangest thing to me is that artists are generally more open to individuality and people expressing their uniqueness. But somehow when people see disabled artists they have this preset idea that disabled people cannot produce the same high quality as them. I am not saying it is all arts practitioners and audiences but that bias is there. Yet in many cases the standard of work produced is of equal quality or even better.

I have experiences where I would go for graphic designer interview and I’d be told they could not hire me because I was not what they expected but I have a very good CV and portfolio. I don’t put the fact that I am disabled in my CV as that should not be the measure as to whether I get the job or not. Of course they know they can`t say to my face it is because I am disabled that they will not hire me, so they come up with polite and creative ways to tell me. It really is not fair.

It’s very satisfying when I get to prove people wrong and exceed their expectations of me as an artist. Like after performances of No Fun ction al Language when audiences are left not only in awe but with different perspectives of disability.

GS:  How did you find disability access at Grahamstown National Arts Festival 2016? What changes would you like to see?

CD: I feel that disability access was not taken into consideration at the Festival. This is really disappointing as there where disabled artists on the festival program. There is so much said in South Africa about human rights and treating people as equals, yet the basic needs of people using wheelchairs, deaf people, blind people are not being considered. I’m blessed to be able to walk for short periods of time, but what about disabled people who can`t walk at all and need their wheelchairs to get around? Access is not just needed for artists but also people attending the festival, audience members. It’s a national festival, disabled artists and audiences should be welcomed, not excluded.

I think disabled people are standing up for themselves more than in the past and that they are being integrated as part of their communities so much better. There is still however a long way to go.

Grahamstown National Arts Festival 2016 – No Fun ction alL anguage Trailer

This interview was conducted 21st July 2016

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“I Think of Dance as My Most Honest and Purest Form of Expression . . .” An interview with Christelle Dreyer by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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