As Tossie van Tonder mentions old age, she indescribably transforms her entire being into a pillar of dust that disintegrates with a soft exhalation. The image is exquisitely haunting and a masterful expression of the subtlest nuance.
One walks away from only 60 minutes with Tossie feeling like you have known her for years and intrinsically connected to and curious about her work. Her alternate Xhosa clan name, Nobonke (“she of all people”), is the original title under which only 200 signed copies of her book were published in 2012. It is now titled My African Heart and available to the public at large. Van Tonder spoke openly with old friend Justice Edwin Cameron in a talk at the Nun’s Chapel on Sunday. She shared deeply and openly – laughing, crying, speaking of the hilarity that can be found in exploring the different kinds of crying, and constantly expressing herself eloquently through both her words and her body.
Tossie explained how it took four years to process the past 20 years of what she described as her “obsessive journalling” into the three intricately-woven perspectives of the author as an apartheid child, as a pregnant mother and dancer, and her in-utero child. These three threads are woven against the colourful and complicated fabric of South African history to “form one facet of this complexity of heart and soil”. In her journeying “towards the essence of herself as South African, white, Afrikaans, dancer, lover and mother”, Tossie gifts us with a comprehensive and vibrant piece of the elusive essence-of-being-South-African puzzle.
Her sincerity and honesty to self is inspirational. Traveling to spaces of profound self-exploration and vulnerability, Tossie engages with the deeply private, personal and revelatory processes felt and experienced from the sober, honest and confused transformation into motherhood.
Tossie spoke of the influence of Butoh on her life and the extensive role dance has played in every facet of her experience. Using the ancient art of dance and expression through the body as a means of unlocking the unconscious is nothing new, she says. What is unique however is her own personal exploration of the medium and way of guiding others to “feeling infinite” (as one of her students observed) through movement workshops. She stressed the power of dance in aiding us to make the necessary step to being present, here, in this moment, now – surrendering to the unknown and ever-changing experience of life and thus relinquishing to a full embrace life.
To Tossie, dance, and art in general, are a matter of survival – a means to incorporate and process the visceral experience and ugly struggle of life. The arts are all too often associated with leisure, portraying only the beautiful and so becoming wrapped up in the striving to constantly prettify the unsightly within and around us rather than deal with it. This is not true of Tossie, staring and stepping unflinchingly into the excitement of the unknown moment of the present. “Where I’m taking myself can’t be taken for granted. You have to go there with your whole being.”
Tossie take on the conundrum artists face between creativity and terror seems to be diving head first into life – embracing the honour and humbling experience of being human. Her words resonate on multiple levels – “We should not win anymore, we should get used to losing.”
Creativity, seeking the self, seeking higher answers, the (drum roll please) meaning of life is “not about being ‘sure’ or having the ego in control, but the unknown, the terror of the unsure. To dance is to do this – the ultimate embodiment of presence within the body with your mind acting in the moment with you rather than against you.”
My African Heart, which was described by Cameron as “unsettling, disturbing and inspiring”, promises to be a wonderful read. The queue that gathered to purchase the book, get an autograph, to hug, talk to, and thank Tossie, was a tiny testament to the singular and remarkable author.
As her book begins “…let the heart complete the pattern” (from Always Coming Home by Ursula K le Guin).