Robyn Orlin – dancing up a storm

A scene from We must eat our suckers
with the wrappers on. (Image: Brian Slater,
International Dance Festival Birmingham )

Robyn Orlin – controversial and thought-
provoking. (Image: Fondation Cartier)

Janine Erasmus

South Africa’s Robyn Orlin, one of the country’s most respected choreographers, has received a high honour from the French government for her services to the arts over a distinguished 20-year career. French President Nikolas Sarkozy has bestowed on her the French National Order of Merit in the class of Knight (Chevalier).

The Ordre National du Mérite (National Order of Merit) is an Order of Chivalry awarded by the French Republic to those who have served with distinction over an extended period of time. The only higher award is the Legion of Honour.

Although foreign nationals may be awarded any of the five different classes (Grand-croix, Grand-officier, Commandeur, Officier, and Chevalier) of the Ordre National du Mérite, they may not be admitted into the Order system.

As a knight of the National Order of Merit, Orlin is entitled to wear her blue ribbon and medal on the left side of the chest.

Minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan lauded Orlin’s achievements, saying, “We are proud of her, a South African receiving this prestigious award from France. It is a testimony of the calibre of artists from South Africa that are being recognised internationally.”

Jordan added that he hoped Orlin would continue to reach great heights through her creative efforts.

Provocative artist

A native of Johannesburg, Robyn Orlin was born in 1955 and studied at the London School of Contemporary Dance before starting her professional career at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. In the years since she has built a solid international reputation as one of South Africa’s most provocative artists, teaching as well as performing. She also holds a Masters degree in fine art from the School of Art Institute of Chicago, which she obtained on a Fullbright Scholarship in the early 1990s.

Orlin has garnered a handful of important awards and scholarships for her often controversial performance pieces, which focus on the complex social problems facing South Africans in the current age. These include a British Council Scholarship in 1986; a Standard Bank Young Artist award for Dance in 1990; an FNB Vita award in 1996 for the best choreography of the year; and a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance in 2003, presented by the Society of London Theatre.

In 2000 Orlin won the Jan Fabre prize for the most subversive work at the prestigious Rencontres chorégraphiques de Seine-Saint-Denis (International Choreographic Meetings in Seine-Saint-Denis). The award is given in honour of the controversial Belgian choreographer and plastic artist Jan Fabre.

Incorporating a variety of media such as text, video and plastic arts into her work, Orlin has created a unique style that has earned her the respect of the international artistic community. Through her City Theatre and Dance Group she also contributes to the artistic development of young dancers from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.

She is renowned for the quirky, yet insightful titles of her works; among them are If You Can’t Change the World Change Your Curtains; Daddy, I’ve Seen This Piece Six Times Before and I Still Don’t Know Why They’re Hurting Each Other; and We must eat our suckers with the wrappers on.

The latter, which stunned audiences at the 2008 Birmingham International Dance Festival, is a stark and honest – often aggressive – look at the threat of HIV/Aids, one of South Africa’s most pressing issues.

“I made this piece with the group,” commented Orlin, “when we needed to present an end of year piece as part of their course at the Market Theatre Lab. All of us felt that we needed to understand the loss and pain that was happening in our lives and around our lives. For me Aids is one of the illnesses that is enshrouded in denial – not only in Africa, but also in the UK and in the world.”

In her works Orlin has tackled other difficult issues such as the rights of women, social abuse, homelessness, and tolerance. She divides her time between Johannesburg and Berlin, where her filmmaker husband is based.

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