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Actress, choreographer, performance poet and "Frances the Frog"

Michelle McGrane in conversation with Ntando Cele

Ntando Cele was born in August 1980. She works as an educator, writer, director and actress. Ntando started acting when she joined a local children's theatre company, Odd Pair of Jeans Productions, which toured at the Grahamstown Arts Festival. She went on to study drama at Technikon Natal, where she directed Objection, a third-year project which travelled to the Grahamstown Arts Festival. After graduating top of her class, she worked behind the scenes at the Barnyard Theatre as bookings manager.

In 2003 she worked with Hooked on Books which toured KwaZulu-Natal schools, and played Ruth in Gamma Rays directed by Garth Anderson. The same year she created Black Auction for Redeye's fifth birthday and choreographed Sakubona, which showcased at the NSA Gallery as part of the Jomba Dance Festival. In 2004 she worked for Arepp Theatre performing educational theatre at schools all over South Africa. She also created Unveiling as part of Republic, directed by Jay Pather as part of the Jomba Contemporary Dance Festival.

This year she participated in Bravo, playing different roles in an opera extravaganza that was performed at the Playhouse in Durban. She was also invited to perform in Le Cargo, a dance festival which took place in Paris, creating a collaboration, Silhouette, which will tour to the Dance Umbrella next year. Ntando teaches part-time at the Durban Institute of Technology and is studying towards a Post-Graduate Diploma in Higher Education.

Ntando, tell me about growing up on the Bluff in Durban.

Well, there isn't much to tell. My family moved to the Bluff from Port Shepstone when I was doing Grade 9. It was so quiet. I remember feeling scared to walk on my own coming back from school. It's one of those bushy suburbs where, out of boredom, teenagers get together and do naughty things. I had my own hangout with a small crew of boys and girls looking for something to do.

You're a happy person. Is that at all to do with how you were raised?

No, finding happiness is something I have set out to do. I don't remember too much from my childhood. My father died when I was ten. I only realised recently, when I was about 23 or so, that he was not actually a nice guy at all. I realised this after being involved in a couple of relationships and understanding myself as a female; a lot of things started to make sense in my life about family and how we were raised. My grandmother raised me and I was the eldest in my family. I had to cope with a lot of pressure about being a good example, sitting with my legs closed and polishing my shoes: "What will the white people at school say if you arrive looking like a slob?" I think I've always taken the world seriously.

When did you realise you had a gift for performing?

I got into drama by mistake. I was taking my sister to a choir audition at her school, Brighton Beach Primary. The drama teacher suggested we both audition for a children's show they were taking to Grahamstown that year. The rest is history. I started singing at school, impersonating teachers and adding performance to my English orals. At high school I thought school was such a waste of time. All I wanted was to be on the stage.

Who have been the most influential people in your life?

Being older and wiser, my grandmother. She was a strong woman with an interesting view of the world. I think it has a lot to do with her generation and how she was raised on a farm, kwaMaphumulo. My mother, because of her survival in an abusive marriage with my father. People I've met who have seen my potential and inspired me to go on and said, "Why not you" when I asked, "Why me?"

You're a graduate of the Durban Institute of Technology (DIT) Drama Department where you majored in both acting and dance. What did you enjoy studying most?

When I got to tech I realised I was in the right place. I indulged in everything as much as I could in my first year: street theatre, drinking, and partying till the early hours of the morning. Acting is my first love, but I struggled with doing the norm. I always felt as if I needed to push a character in a certain direction. I was always searching for a different way to portray a character, but didn't know how. I had a light-bulb moment after watching Dogtroep, a company from Europe that came to South Africa when I was in my second year. It was performance using larger than life characters, script, costumes, props and staging; using every form of expression in one performance. Studying dance under Jay Pather gave me a chance to explore the relationship between space and performance. The dance platform seems to be the only space I use to create my own work, as my works are not usually long enough to be plays in a theatre and include movement.

How has contemporary culture and tradition influenced your performance style?

My generation excites me. I feel like there is so much going for us at the moment. I'm in an age of hip culture, in a period where we are struggling with our identity and trying to find new ways to define ourselves. My style is influenced mostly by what I see around me, trying to be as real as I can in every situation and pushing expression to the limits.

Which performers inspire you?

Kettly Noel, a choreographer and dancer from Mali; Boyzie Cekwane; Bheki Mkhwane and Ellis Pearson.

Tell me about the time you spent in the United States in 2002 doing workshops on storytelling and creative movement. What did you bring away from the experience? What impressions did you get of American life in the two months you were there?

It was a difficult time in my career as a performer. I joined a group of performers who had already been involved in the project and were doing final rehearsals before leaving the country. I had to learn isicathamiya, gumboot dance and several plays in a very short space of time.

I saw some really rundown places in Buffalo NY that could have been anywhere in South Africa. The only difference is that you can get a 2-litre Coke for 99c and almost every student has a laptop they can plug in anywhere around the university.

I found American life empty. I felt and saw the separation of the different ethnic groups, but they seemed to sympathise with me as an African. The American winter made me grumpy and fat, and I got back before the peak of winter! I'm thinking that maybe next time summer would be a better option; perhaps I'll see things differently.

You created Black Auction for Redeye's fifth birthday. Tell me about that.

This was my first creation after leaving technikon. The theme was "five". Frustrated by the curator of Redeye, I came up with Black Auction, five black men painted black (almost naked) to be sold to the highest bidder, from 5 cents to 5 trillion. You bought them as a package, each with a function: sex slave, maid, carguard, bodyguard and house patrol, all trained by the CIA.

What inspired your work Sakubona, which was showcased at the Jomba! Young Choreographers evening in 2003? Can you describe it briefly?

Sakubona was inspired by the Zulu greeting. As part of my upbringing a greeting is an acknowledgement of your presence and asking how you are, including your family. It's okay to reveal you're having a bad day and your neighbour was sick last week. I felt that regardless of what happens in my life, life goes on. Flowers bloom, people die, we move on. Sakubona means "we see you". I created a character that gets introduced as a butterfly. She wriggles out of a cocoon in front of the audience, to climb up stairs and perform on a high level with the audience looking up at her. There is also an ongoing video projection of a busy street, but you only see feet moving up and down the street. Pity butterflies live for only a couple of days.

You've been holding workshops at Westville Prison. How did you get involved?

This started as part of Poetry Africa. I agreed to be involved in workshops that would form part of the big picture. When Kobus Moolman, who does them every year, asked me to jump on board, I said yes without a second thought. People close to me thought I wouldn't be able to handle it. To me it was just another teaching job, just to older women who could be my mother or aunt. I looked at the world behind bars once a week for four weeks.

Tell me about the different roles you played in the opera extravaganza Bravo at the Playhouse in Durban.

Ohhh darling, it was glamour! I even had a dresser. I didn't know this was how other artists lived. I was in La Traviata where I got stabbed in the face and screamed like a mad thing and my biggest highlight … I can't remember what it's called … I'm blinded by the designer satin gown that I wore which was splashed in our local newspapers (that says a lot about me, darling).

In June this year you flew to Paris with Mlu Zondi and Siyanda Duma to present your collaborative work, Silhouette. Tell me about Silhouette.

Silhouette is a work in progress dealing with relationships between men and women. The mind games we play to tune into each other. It touches on the said and the unsaid about black identity, how we see ourselves as individuals and how others see us.

I bribe them speaking black English this is my country black country, ruining my rivers and my seas. I'm a charmer selling to the black market they call me a black mark throw me into a black maria I attend black mass like a black Muslim stuck in black whole. Shit I have black eye!
This is also part of what I wrote for the show:
Panty tied penis wowed words roll off my tongue paralysing my taste buds like saliva washes the taste if ubacikile, finding words to describe the true flavour bursting in my mouth. Sex cross warm boy penetrating my thoughts, cosy with tenderness I bribe my body to surrender to the full freedom of sweaty cries, dry of affection and red with licking. Nobody does it better.

It plays with perceptions about each other.

What was it like performing at the Centre National de la Danse during Le Cargo Festival in Paris?

It was an honour. I was impressed by the availability of space and equipment for the artists. As an artist working in that building, you can actually live there. There is a library, internet access, a restaurant, and nine rehearsal venues with video, DVD player, television sound system and lighting rig. Did I mention a huge theatre to top it all? We used live video as part of the show; we had two brand new video cameras available to us. Need I say more?

What feelings did you want people to experience after watching your performance?

We played on the stereotypes of African identity, using a lot of clichés. We wanted to be looked at differently as intelligent art practitioners or choreographers. None of the performances were African musical extravaganzas with topless women shouting "ugaqa! qa! qa! uga!". The whole festival was thought-provoking and challenged European audiences to look closely at any sort of prejudice against black skin.

Did you enjoy working with Mlu and Siyanda? What did you learn from them?

Yes I did. I learned to be patient; I learned about the implications of collaboration. I've worked a lot with Mlu at Redeye, so we've had long discussions about creating work and where we wanted Silhouette to go. Having Siyanda on board brought a different angle to the show. Mlu is a visionary and everything is calculated to the utmost detail. Siyanda is spontaneous and operates in the now. I had to just go with the flow.

Did you have an opportunity to see much of Paris?

I had to do the Eiffel Tower thing otherwise I couldn't have said I'd been to Paris and I must say I didn't think I'd be impressed, but I was. I went to a sex museum, Moulin Rouge, Pompidou where there was an African Exhibition (dis was da bomb) and Notre Dame. I tried to see as much as I could, but we had such a tight schedule. I was always thirsty for South African water and had sore feet the whole time I was there.

Define slam poetry. What do you specifically love about it?

As far as I know slam poetry is poetry that is unbound by anything. It can be performed anywhere and by anybody. I understand it originated to bring the word poetry back to the ordinary man after poetry was defined as only for the wealthy and educated. I think I never got over rebelling as a teen, so out of refusing to write a certain way I wrote my own stuff using songs between or writing in rhythm. I didn't think it already existed in the world and it's called slam poetry. The poets that do slam poetry all have a different view of what it is, so I'm still gonna go with the flow. I like the performance side of it. Other people even use costumes and props as part of the performance.

How did it feel to represent South Africa at Poetry Africa this year? Did you ever think that you would come so far, so quickly?

It was a privilege for me to be part of Poetry Africa this year. I have very little to do with the path I am on. I can only connect the dots from my past. I don't know what my future holds. I thought I'd win an Oscar but Charlize beat me to it, so I'm in search for another award where I'll be the first black South African female to win.

You won third place in the Poetry Africa Slam Jam competition. Tell me about the night. How was the slam competition organised?

There were five contestants. Two of them refer to themselves as hip hop heads (rappers), the other two guys, one is dj, the other a Sotho Muslim slam poetry champion, and then there was me, a virgin in slam poetry competitions. We all had different performance styles and material. The judges were five audience members sitting far apart from each other, who were given score cards from 1-10. We each had two rounds, a minimum of two and half minutes to impress the crowd. They tallied the score to come up with the overall winner.

Did you spend some time with the American National Poetry Slam Champion, Celena Glenn? What did you think of her performances?

Yeah! I do I think she's very good at what she does. Her live performances turn poetry into something spontaneous, fresh but also hard hitting. It's not about how much dough she has.

Are there exercises you do before you go on stage to perform to an audience?

I do a voice warm-up, tongue-twisters and practise my vowel sounds:

Red lorry yellow lorry She sells sea shells on the sea shore Isosha lisesha useshi Leroy's reliable lorry rentals, Lorelee speaking, right Mr Le Roux a red lorry (from a tv advert)

Ntando, for the past two years you have joined "the frogs" at Durban's Botanic Gardens as Freddie's sister, Frances, during the holidays. What's the best thing about performing for children?

They are honest about your performance. If you suck you find out soon enough. I enjoy children's theatre because every performance is different, especially in an environment like Botanic Gardens. A child may decide to sit on the stage during the show or walk on to attack the bad guy and sometimes fathers read their Saturday newspapers during the show. There's never a dull moment.

What can we look forward to next? Are you working on something new?

At the moment I'm rehearsing Snow White, a pantomime to be performed in December. Unfortunately I'm not Snow White, but I play the prince's friend, an ex-pirate, Zanzibar Jack. Then I start preparation for Silhouette as it is going to the Dance Umbrella next year.

If there was one thing you could change about theatre in South Africa what would it be?

There isn't a lot I'd change except maybe theatre done by black South Africans. I would change its direction and give it a better vision; make it contemporary in its concepts and performance. I think theatre is a powerful form of communication. It can be used to restore black identity and pride for future generations. I don't think we as black South Africans have tapped into finding innovative ways to tell our stories that will interest the younger generations or the international market (not music extravaganzas).

How are you currently earning a living?

I teach here and there. I've been teaching drama part-time at DIT and as a teacher assistant at Crawford Prep Durban. I must say it's a lot of fun. Earlier this year I put on my own children's show.

How do you maintain a balance between your career and personal life?

What balance! My live-in lover is also an artist, so I feel like my career is my personal life. I get family on weekends, do coffee with girlfriends, most of them are involved in the industry somehow.

What music do you enjoy listening to?

At the moment I'm jamming to Kanye West, "Golddigger". I listen to Busi Mhlongo, Nina Simone - I've even named my little car Nina. I also listen to D'Angelo and Al Jarreau. It depends on whether I feel like Eryka Badhu or Lauryn Hill.

What is the best thing about living in South Africa at the moment, for you?

"I am black, female and come from a previously disadvantaged background." At first I had issues when someone said this to me. I've decided, "So what if I am … I don't doubt my ability when faced with a challenge. If that's what it takes, then hell yeah!"

Would you consider relocating anywhere else in South Africa?

At the moment, nope … There is still a lot for me to do in Durban. I don't yet own a famous theatre company and I haven't sold Ntando Cele, the brand as much as I'd like to.

Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

Driving a Jaguar, about to move to Cape Town to start new adventures and take over the scene.

Thanks so much, Ntando.

LitNet: 13 December 2005

Did you enjoy this interview? Have your say! Send your comments to webvoet@litnet.co.za, and become a part of our interactive opinion page. Or submit your own poetry to Michelle McGrane for consideration.

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