Deaf dancer is a beacon of hope

Andile Vellem and Thulisile Binda rehearsing choreography by Jay Pather for The Firebird.

Deaf dancer Andile Vellem, from Gugulethu, will be taking to the Artscape stage in The Firebird, from tomorrow, Friday June 24 until Sunday June 26.

Born in Uqumbu in the Eastern Cape, Vellem, 42, performs in a variety of styles ranging from contemporary dance, African contemporary, integrated dance, and his personal invention, sign dance.

Despite his hearing challenges, Vellem will perform in The Firebird before it leaves for its international tour.

The Firebird, presented by Janni Younge Productions, IMG Artist International, and commissioning partners, will unit the Artscape Opera House for only four performances onlu.The Firebird combines music, dance and giant puppetry in a fantastical battle set to Igor Stravinsky’s original score.

Directed by Janni Younge, the production took two years to develop with a team of artists who worked in the War Horse puppet studio. “Evoking themes of fear and passion, inspiration and destruction, The Firebird holds strong resonance with South African society and with the task each one of us faces to find and embrace our own power,” said show publicist, Allison Foat.

Dancing since 2000, Vellem said that he is not only a dancer but also a learner in this production, because this is his first time performing with puppet manipulation. He said he has only participated in a puppetry workshop with War Horse previous to The Firebird.

Also having done miming and acting in the past, Vellem said, “being part of creation of a production that involves puppetry is a wonderful experience.”

“The Firebird takes you on exciting journey of discovering your being and purpose in life and that you will [be] able to follow by the exhilarating choreography and movement,” said Vellem.

Having encountered difficulties in the past with not being hired due to his deafness, Vellem said even though auditioners would love his dance they would ultimately not hire him for not understanding his disability.

Vellem said he can read lips and he is able to feel the music from the vibrations of the floor through his feet. He said this is the best way to “listen” to music.

He urges fellow deaf people to not let their hearing disability define them. He said that even though deaf people cannot hear with their ears, they still have their whole body functioning and to use that to their advantage.

“No words could ever express the feeling I get when I step on stage because I feel like it is no longer about me having the talent to dance but about the other people who are physically challenged out there. Every night I dream about reaching out to them and inspiring them to believe that (there) is nothing that can stand in the way of you achieving your dreams, it just needs you to push so that you can make people see the ability in disability,” said Vellem.

Although Vellem has faced hardships in the audition room, he said that entering the performing arts profession was not difficult for him since he had the privilege to audition at a young age.

He auditioned for a big production called Tshwaragano (in touch) directed by Adam Benjamin from the United Kingdom when he was much younger.

Speaking about The Firebird, Vellem said: “People should come see the show because not only does it cater for every age group but the storyline itself opens your mind in a manner that you as the audience will be able to relate to in one way or another.” After its performance at the Artscape, The Firebird will take off on an international tour performing at places like the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

Vellem will tour with the show and said he is very excited for this opportunity to travel and explore new places.

“When you are a deaf person you get to be very in touch with your feelings, so what I love about travelling is that I get to experience different energies and get [irreplaceable] memories and that fulfils me very much,” he said.

* The Firebird will run at the Artscape Opera House from Friday June 24, at 8pm, Saturday June 25, at 2.30pm and 8pm, and on Sunday June 26,at 2.30pm. Tickets cost from R180 to R200 with special offers available for families, senior citizens, scholars students and Assitej, PANSA, VANSA, and UNIMA SA members. Book at Computicket or call the Artscape on 021421 7695.