At ArtsEmerson, we greatly appreciate when an international company comes to our city and inspires us to rethink the way we experience art. Isango Ensemble performs South African reimaginings of uCarmen and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in English, Zulu, Xhosa and Tswana with no surtitles. For many of us, we live in a world where English is the default. Labels, books, films and other imported goods are translated for our understanding – but what do we gain when we have to look beyond words to understand a story and feel an experience? Music Director Mandisi Dyantyis shares Isango Ensembles thoughts on language, why they don’t use surtitles, and how to celebrate art not in your native tongue:
“Language is culture. Language is lifestyle. Language is literally demographics – where you come from. People are connected by language.
That is why Isango Ensemble starts with language. We want our work to communicate with a wider audience – to reach more people. And we believe that everything we do onstage – the direction, the music, the ambience – is equally important as the language. Nothing is less important.
But also, we want a representation of us within the story. As a company, we are all different. We are South Africans but many of us come from different cultures and speak different languages. So it is important to reflect this – us – in our work. When you speak your own language, you become your true self. It’s who you are. It allows you to tell the story and allows people to be grabbed by the story. That is why we do not choose one language to be more important than another, in surtitles or on stage. Because once we do that, it would mean that we are saying the people who own that language are more important.
We respect you, our audience, so much. You have a job to do; you have so much to piece together and experience. It’s what’s fun! You may not understand all the words, but the music, the movements will you tell something. If you can take something away from this experience that means something to you, without fully understanding it, that is what we want for you. That is the power of art.”