It’s an ordinary morning at the 24th Street BART Plaza, except that three highly trained male dancers are circumnavigating, in graceful effortless unison, the perimeter of the plaza. As they dance, one or another of the street people joins them for a few moments. The three men are the Ntsoana Contemporary Dance Theatre from Johannesburg, South Africa, here as guests of SFMOMA, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Galería de la Raza.
On March 14 and 15 at 7 p.m., Sello Pesa, Humphrey Maleka and Brian Mtembu will perform the outdoor piece Inhabitant on the 24th Street corridor and BART Plaza. Ntsoana Artistic Director Pesa and South African conceptual artist Vaughn Sadie created Inhabitant to be performed in urban spaces that, like the Mission, bear the charged tensions of economic changes and population shifts.
Originally performed in Johannesburg, the piece molds itself to each specific site. Therefore, Maleka says, “We came here to 24th Street the evening we arrived, Februray 21, and we’ve been here every day since.”
Pesa explains their way of preparing the performance: “We suss out the space, find out who occupies it, introduce ourselves.” Maleka adds: “We let people know we don’t want to invade their space.”
With a dancer’s sensitivity, Pesa describes the slow creation of the piece by attending to the body’s knowledge. “We absorb the space and allow things to happen,” he says. “The body is there to tell you things that your eye cannot tell you, that your brain cannot tell you.”
So the dance on the Plaza was not a rehearsal but “an exercise.” Maleka says, “When we came here, the people were welcoming. They are the ones who own the space. Sometimes when we were doing our exercises, they would come and participate or ask questions.”
In the actual performance, Pesa, Maleka and Mtembu will blend in and out of the crowd, inviting passersby to join in, and draw subtle attention to the everyday encounters and movements of diverse people through the 24th Street corridor.
The performance, says Pesa, makes people “aware of what they already know.”
Inhabitant forms part of the YBCA/SFMOMA exhibition Public Intimacy: Art & Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa. YBCA Director of Visual Arts, Betti-Sue Hertz, says that the Ntsoana Company is “adapting the Johannesburg performance to our situation, and engaging with the public in a very direct way about things that matter to us.”
Frank Smigiel, producer of the event and Associate Curator for Public Programs at SFMOMA, explains, “We wondered what it would mean to bring to San Francisco a group who think very clearly about public space and about the intersections of the different people in it, and to see what kind of new eyes could they offer us.”
Ntsoana invites people to gather at 6:45 p.m. at one of two points: Arizmendi Bakery, 1268 Valencia Street or Taqueria El Faralito, 2950 24th Street. Hinting at the connotations for tensions between the old Mission and its new gentrification, Sadie says that these two places might “quietly split the audience so they will have to renegotiate and reshuffle” during the performance.
A reception at Galería de la Raza will follow the Saturday performance.