​An image of Gregory Maqoma on stage with his hand drawn out to the side.

An image of Gregory Maqoma on stage with his hand drawn out to the side.

Photo by Lolo Vasco.

Gregory Maqoma is Retiring but He Won’t Stop Moving

Though the South African choreographer and dancer may be hanging up his dance shoes, he still has more to give.

On the occasion of his 50th birthday, this past weekend, Gregory Maqoma hosted a weekend of celebrations to fundraise for his biggest passion—his dance company, Vuyani Dance Theater. The festivities marked his milestone birthday, but they also marked an inflection point in the life of the performer and choreographer.

Maqoma always said he wanted to retire when he was at the pinnacle of his career, and he believes that time is now. Seeing him on stage, as New York will get to do so this coming weekend in Broken Chord—a production that’s part of BAM’s Next Wave–is one of the last few opportunities to experience all that has made him one of this generation’s most acclaimed artists.

“I feel like I’m completing a circle, in my dance journey and my career,” he tells OkayAfrica, ahead of the Brooklyn shows. “I feel very strongly that this is the time to retire.” For Maqoma, performance is sacred and to be respected, and requires its own energy, time and dedication. “Hence I said that once I feel that I’ve hit my peak, it's time for me to to hang up my dancing shoes.”

A career full of highlights

In getting to this moment, Maqoma has scaled many heights, among them collaborating on award-winning theater productions with James Ncgobo and the late Hugh Masekela, being head choregrapher for the FIFA World Cup Kick-Off Concert in 2010, and earning a host of accolades, including the Dance Manyano Choreographer of the Decade Dance Award and France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Arts and Literature) Award.

\u2018Broken Chord\u2019 is the last production Gregory Maqoma will be performing in.‘Broken Chord’ is the last production Gregory Maqoma will be performing in.Photo credit: BAM.

Maqoma’s been looking back, but also, “moving forward in a way that humbles me because I have had an incredible journey.” He’s sharing his story with the release of two books–a memoir, titled My Life, My Dance, My Soul, and a children’s book, called The Joy Dancer, recalling how it all started as a young boy growing up in Soweto, who lived close to a hostel. As a nine-year-old, he would witness mineworkers perform their traditional dance, and that, together with seeing the likes of Michael Jackson perform on a small television his family had at home, inspired his love of dance. It has remained at the root of his life and his journey, as he went on to train at Moving Into Dance Mophatong, before dazzling audiences both at home and abroad with his magnetism on stage as he fused traditional and Western movement.

But it’s not quite over, though; Maqoma still has much he wants to do. And of course, he still has the Broken Chord performances to go.

Bringing ‘Broken Chord’ to the U.S.

In the production, Maqoma worked with composer Thuthuka Sibisi to wonder out loud what it was like for a South African choir that traveled by boat to England in the 19 century to raise money for a school back home. After performances in Europe and Canada, he brings the piece State-side.

“What is embedded in the story of Broken Chord is the issues of migration, of displacement, of the collision of cultures and traditions, but also very much close to my heart, to my own experience, is the history of colonial powers, and the creation of borders and the continued pushback by the West,” says Maqoma. “We've seen it at play during the COVID times, we've seen it at play during the war that is currently happening, in Palestine, in Israel, including the war that's happening in Ukraine. So those kinds of issues have really resonated with the story of the first African choir that traveled to the U.K. in 1893.”

Broken Chord: Next Wave

Maqoma, together with Sibisi, imagines what it could have been like at that time, to travel from the continent, by boat to arrive in England, the colonizer’s country. Thinking of the documented pushback the choir experienced, from interviews and writings that have been published about the time, the production seeks to uncover the racial undertones that existed along with the euphoria of the unknown.

Broken Chord is based on the raw materials gathered in an exhibition that Maqoma saw at the Apartheid Museum. He’d worked with Sibisi on William Kentridge’s The Head and the Load, so there was already a language developed, and Broken Chord allowed them, as collaborators, to dig deeper into that. The challenge proved to come from choosing to work with the gaze, the confrontation that exists in the line that divides between Black and white. “Performing this piece is not easy,” Maqoma says, “because it's almost like you are repeating the very deeds that we're trying to erase.”

A lifetime of traveling and performing

Having spent years himself touring outside of South Africa, Maqoma believes, has deepened the empathic themes of his pieces. “Every time I come back into creating a new work it goes further into the issues we're dealing with as human beings,” he says. “I continue to realize every day that we’re such a difficult and stubborn species. We continue to create these atrocities around ourselves, and the message has to be amplified. We have to go deeper into it.”

But it takes its toll. As the conduit for conveying some very troubling feelings and experiences, Maqoma’s own body has been through a lot. “It is through dance that I channel trauma, and it is the body that has to deal with the complexities of that trauma. So as much as it’s about releasing that, I'm also taking it on and reliving it.”

While Maqoma won’t be performing after Broken Chord, he will still be putting himself out there–researching, mentoring and choreographing. Among the greatest gifts he’s received for his 50th birthday, he says, is seeing his dance company being able to stand on its own, without his face being in the work it creates. He’s also proud of the example his story, of using dance to escape the political turmoil of apartheid South Africa, has set for budding young dancers.

“For every child who is sitting in a war-torn country, for every child who's sitting in the most difficult circumstances, in the most rural areas of southern Africa or of the continent, who is dreaming of becoming something more,” he says, “my hope is that through my story they can see to fight for that or to live for that dream.”