Jazzart is the oldest contemporary dance company in the Cape, if not Africa.

It has been at the forefront of contemporary dance development, administratively and artistically, within the context of democratic practice, serving marginalised communities in particular.

Sonje Mayo opened Jazzart in 1973 as a dance studio specialising in modern jazz dance. From inception, Jazzart welcomed dancers from across the racial spectrum – a factor that was to become increasingly important in later years given the nature of South Africa’s political history.

Sue Parker took over in 1978 and established a small, professional ensemble named the Sue Parker Jazzart Contemporary Dance Company. In 1982, Sue handed over to Val Steyn and the performance group was renamed the Jazzart Contemporary Dance Company.

“The dance is a poem of which each movement is a word” – Mata Hari

By 1986, Alfred Hinkel had raised enough funds to buy the company, change its name to Jazzart Dance Theatre and take over its artistic directorship with Dawn Langdown, John Linden and Jay Pather providing the dancing, teaching and choreographic backbone. In an era when professional dance theatre was the virtually exclusive domain of the ruling white elite, he was forging a teaching and performance ethos firmly based in the populist thinking of the South African political struggle.

Throughout the apartheid regime’s declaration of successive states of political emergency from 1985 to 1989, and on into the socio-political upheavals of the early 1990s, Jazzart’s place in the South African performing arts scene was marked by an increasing politicisation and outspoken opposition to the status quo.

The highly acclaimed Abamanyani (Coming together to create something new) project launched in 1986 – with its multiracial cast, its mix of dance, song and live music, and its theme of struggle and celebration – stands as the precursor to the artistic, philosophical and ideological achievements that have characterised Jazzart’s more recent history.

The company has taught and performed in the most disadvantaged communities in and around Cape Town and beyond, remaining focused on the need for developing the accessibility of the art form and promoting the highest aesthetic standards.

In partnership with Jenny van Papendorp of the Western Cape Education Department, Jazzart was instrumental in having African dance offered as a subject in schools. Jazzart’s socio-political commitment has always translated into artistic ideals. Receipt of the 1990 FNB Vita Award for Best Contemporary Choreography for Bolero (1989), one of the seminal works of South African contemporary dance, is early testament to the company’s artistic success.

In 1992, after two decades as a privately funded company, Jazzart was taken into what was then the Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB) as its contemporary dance department. With the advent of South Africa’s new political dispensation in 1994, Capab’s role was taken on by Artscape, which continues to offer Jazzart the technical and logistical support that has proved vital to the company’s survival ever since.

From 1994 to 2002, funding for the arts entered an extended process of re-evaluation by the current Department of Arts and Culture and the National Arts Council of South Africa. This transformed the hitherto free flow of central government money to the performing arts, which resulted in the loss or contraction of some valuable performing arts companies throughout the country. That meant, however, that new voices were being heard and money could be shared among many more organisations than in the past.

In 1998, Jazzart became a company incorporated not for gain in terms of Section 21 of the South African Companies Act and in 2002, was awarded a three-year core funding grant by the National Arts Council. A major part of Jazzart’s income is now earned through fee-for-service work, which includes contracts to perform at corporate functions, provide administrative services or implement skills transmission programmes.

Today, Jazzart Dance Theatre occupies as important a place in South African performing arts as it did at the time when it made a point of snubbing oppressive racial policies. The company continues to train young dancers for the professional stage and careers in the arts, to perform repertoire works and to create new pieces reflecting current realities.