French honour for Robyn Orlin

2 March 2009

Renowned South African performance artist Robyn Orlin has been acknowledged for her choreography and contribution to the arts by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy has made Orlin a Knight of the Ordre national du Merite – the French national Order of Merit.

“We are proud of her, a South African receiving this prestigious award from France,” said Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan in Pretoria last week. “It is a testimony of the calibre of artists from South Africa that are being recognised internationally.”

Controversial and provocative

Robyn Orlin is one of South Africa’s most controversial and provocative choreographers and performance artists, redefining both forms of the art in the country through her involvement in the field over the past 20 years.

She has worked in diverse media, including television, film, theatre, dance and opera as a choreographer, producer, dancer and teacher.

Orlin spends her time divided between living in Berlin, where her husband Oliver Schmitz makes films, in her hometown Johannesburg, and on the road touring with her work.

Fulbright Fellowship

Orlin started off working in downtown Johannesburg’s Market Theatre precinct, a hub of artistic life in the city, especially among anti-apartheid activists. She joined the Federated Union of Black Artists’ Academy, where she created a contemporary dance section and choreographed and facilitated works during the 1980s.

In 1990 she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in the USA where she attended The School of Art Institute of Chicago. She returned in 1994 and joined the Market Theatre Laboratory, where she taught youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds.

She has won several other awards, including the AA Vita Award for choreography in 1985, 1988 and 1990; a British Council Scholarship in 1986; a Foundation of the Creative Arts grant in 1995 and 1996; FNB Vita Award for the best choreographer in 1996; the Jan Faber Award for the most subversive choreography in 2000; and the British Theatre’s Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance in 2003.


According to her official website, Orlin is very good at titles, for example: If you can’t change the world change your curtains (PACT Dance Company, 1990) and If the whole population of China jumped up and down at the same time, the earth would move (Napac Dance Company, 1989).

She sometimes even has a theme running through her works, such as animal themes in Naked on a Goat (Market Theatre, 1996) and With astonishment I note the Dog (PDC, 1996).

Orlin built up a reputation for working on difficult and complex current issues in South Africa, and has engaged and fought for the condition of women, social abuse, homelessness, awareness on HIV/Aids, and for tolerance and inclusivity.

SAinfo reporter and BuaNews