Look for the love in the Bram Fischer Waltz

David Butler is Bram Fischer. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

David Butler is Bram Fischer. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

More than anything, this monologue celebrating Bram Fischer, arguably one of South Africa’s more curious and interesting characters, is a love story. The unabashed love between Bram and Molly Fischer is the aperture in this tight bricks and mortar tale of the apartheid regime’s cruel spite and malice towards a turncoat; it is this love that allows you to see the heart of the character and the performer in a way so compelling that the threat of text heaviness of the rest of the work shimmies into place.

The brash honesty in David Butler’s performance is completely disarming. Arguably one of South Africa’s most dignified and empathetic performers who has embraced Herman Charles Bosman’s stories as he has mastered the difficult craft of monodrama, Butler is always a performer worth watching. He becomes Bram Fischer, in his dusky shirt and trousers, with his heavily rimmed spectacles, engaging with the indignity and sadness of being imprisoned and the cruelty and terror of apartheid.

The language is gritty and alive in its construction and embrace of nostalgia, from the manner in which Fischer celebrates the stars to how he expresses his love for his Molly. The denouement of the tale happens in the third quarter of the work, which sees the accidental death of Molly, and heralds the dizzying vortex into which Fischer’s sense of self stumbled from that point.

The historical realities of Fischer’s life are well documented. The heroic status of this Boer pimpernel remains a sore point in the litany of Afrikaner values, pointing at his demise from cancer and the cruel decision of the government to not allow even his cremated remains to be kept by his two surviving daughters, and yet, yet the character, under the pen of Kalmer and the performance of Butler attains a sexiness that comes of authenticity and credibility. This is a real man who suffered real torment but who was, like Nelson Mandela, prepared to die for the anti-racist values he espoused.

While the work itself is riddled with too many stage-darkening transitions and there are elements of the set – by way of miniature cages – that are not engaged with at all, there’s a simplicity of form to the work which is quite beautiful. Everything is, however, held together with the gutturality and the heart of Butler’s rendition. In the hands of a lesser performer, the nubs of the tale, the love and the humanity may get overshadowed by the political narrative.

  • The Bram Fischer Waltz is written and by Harry Kalmer, and performed by David Butler, with the voices of Amanda Strydom and James Whyle. It is designed by Butler and Kalmer (lighting) and Larry le Roux (set) and performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, until October 15. (011)832-1641.
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Dean Simon: turning great political circles with the humble pencil

Tribute to Peter Rezant and the Merry Blackbirds, a pencil drawing by Dean Simon. Photograph courtesy Dean Simon.

Tribute to Peter Rezant and the Merry Blackbirds, a pencil drawing by Dean Simon. Photograph courtesy Dean Simon.

You might remember Dean Simon’s intense photorealistic pencil drawings of Litvak Jewry, marketed in calendars in the 1980s. This Johannesburg artist who became one of South Africa’s few military artists whilst in the army recently explained to My View what he’s been up to.

Considering the progress of his art career as backwards in comparison with most artists, he concedes he has had the curious advantage of having been able to by-pass galleries. “One of my clients, Ivor Ichikowitz, is a big art collector. He approached me to record people who’d made a dramatic positive influence on SA. For me, this idea was boring. I’ve been doing portraits of the ‘usual suspects’ for years.

“We kicked the idea around a bit and decided the idea was not to show the version of history in text books.  It asks questions rather than gives answers. Answers are never simple.”

Simon works in pencil. “It’s an unusual, difficult approach. You throw your mistakes away. Working from light to dark, the work comprises layers, thematically and physically.”

He works on high linen content, archivally impeccable paper, a need he learned in the army. From the 1980s, he had wanted to be a cartoonist. “At the time, veteran cartoonist Dov Fedler told me I would struggle in this country, because there was not much scope for this type of work.”

He studied architectural design. Before he was snapped up in a job, the industry invited him to freelance. It was a feather in his young cap: he never did work full time in the field, but learned to skirt around it armed with his drawing skill.

“Just before I went into the army – call up was compulsory for white males at the time – I watched a tv programme on military art. It really impressed me. I contacted the Military Art Board. It was an impossible job to get. They had only had three military artists since the Second World War. This art’s tradition reaches back to Thomas Baines’ Eastern Cape border war art.”

In the face of almost insurmountable possibilities, Simon actually did get the job. “I learned to create the perfect photograph without a camera, summarising what was happening, what I saw.”

On his return from the notorious border war in the late 1980s, Simon was approached by the publishing house LJ Venter, with a commission to document the Lebanese war in Israel. “But it was enough war for me,” he said, speaking of a bout of malaria he’d suffered, but also a sense of too much violence, bureaucracy and rules in his life. Simon now wanted to focus on his Jewish roots; thus the calendars came into existence.

“The Nazis just wiped out everything: they didn’t want to only destroy the people, they wanted to wipe out all memories. The perception was that Jews are always wealthy, manipulative, capable of destroying the world. But the reality is that Jews of the time of the Russian pogroms were very poor. There is a census of poverty in Europe prior to the First World War. The poorest people in Europe were the Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement.” My grandmother died the day that project saw light of day. “It was about where the people had come from and where they went.”

“I have been very fortunate,” he digresses to discuss his contemporary work. “I’ve gone back to front in my career. I got the support of the big collectors before I went to the galleries. It’s a double-edged sword, however: many of my collectors don’t want their work in the public domain. I have to get their permission before I can publish their names as owners of my work.

Simon feels strongly that his current series of drawing which will comprise some 30 works, must be shown at Cape Town’s SA Jewish Museum. Ichikowitz, a well known businessman with strong government connections, is funding the project, which is about repopulating SA’s history archives. “In his private capacity, Ichikowitz has commissioned these works, but he says the work is too important to be privately shown.”

“I am inundated with commissions, but am not building a profile. My challenge is to break that mould, by exhibiting.  It will give me freedom to do what I want to.”

Doing it for the Boys with Dance for a Cure

Yolandi Olckers. Photograph supplied.

Yolandi Olckers. Photograph supplied.

Dancing is the finest shortcut to happiness. So says ballet dancer Yolandi Olckers, who headlines this year’s Dance for a Cure – the annual cervical cancer awareness show. It’s billed this year as ‘Let’s do it for the boys’ as part of an initiative to highlight awareness of the human papilloma virus (HPV) as the primary cause of cervical cancer.

But boys don’t have cervixes, you might argue. Indeed: but given the fact that boys can be carriers of the virus that can lead to cervical and other cancers; and given the fact that government roll out in support of the HPV inoculation for pre-pubescent girls happened when they promised, the annual Dance for a Cure initiative has changed its own take, somewhat.

Coined in celebration of the life of Sharon Humphreys, a dancer who succumbed to cervical cancer, Dance For a Cure remains an annual diary fixture for dance lovers, and was formed into a NPO organisation in 2008.

Olckers is one of the headline dancers in this year’s concert. When she was four years old, she ‘AWOLed’ from her nursery school responsibilities to start pointing her little toes and stretching her little body.

“I said my mom said I could do it. After a month, the teacher phoned my mom, to mention that there might be some fees involved, to say nothing of shoes. More than 26 years down the line, having enjoyed her formative years under the tuition of Martin Schönberg and Ballet Theatre Afrikan, she has come into her own.

“I was a founding member of BTA,” she explains. “I started with Martin when I was 12. And there was no question after that, that this was my career. I don’t think I could have done anything else.

“While it is an elite art form, ballet is so pure. Martin made well-rounded dancers – as did choreographers Christopher Kindo and Adele Blank. Martin may have left this city and the company he started, but he is still in my bones and my brain.”

BTA disbanded due to a lack of financial support some eight years ago, and Olckers joined the then SA Ballet Theatre, based at the Joburg Theatre. Three and a half years ago, she is freelancing, doing what she loves most: teaching, dancing, flying.

“After leaving SABT, I decided to ‘hang up my shoes’, but it was such a lie for me! Ballet is my life. I did some aerial and strength work. I love the adrenalin of it all.

“I am doing ‘Me and You’ this year at Dance for a Cure. I danced this signature Christopher Kindo work many years ago, with Kitty Phetla and Thoriso Magongwa. This year, we’re dancing it for a very special reason. Christopher is currently undergoing chemotherapy for oesophageal cancer, and he will be benefiting from the production’s takings.

“Being a dancer all his career, there was never money for medical aid. There have already been various benefits for him. This wonderful man has been so formative in my career. I just had to be able to celebrate him in this manner.

“It’s a big ask,” she continues, explaining that all the dancers performing in Dance for a Cure are doing it free of charge. “In Me and You, there are 13 performers and it has been such an important and happy experience, with a deep heart and an important raison d’etre.”

Thanks to the work of BTA and other dance companies, Me and You is recognised as a standard in the litany of South African choreography. It is historically celebrated for its infusion with the diversity of Kindo’s cultural and artistic influences, as well as technical brilliance. Its vocabulary weaves together Kindo’s contemporary and classical training with overtones of Indian movement.

To date, Dance for a Cure has raised over R2 million towards immunisation against HPV. “For the last seven years, after the Dance for a Cure event, they take a group of underprivileged pre-teen girls and they vaccinate them against HPV. Right in the beginning, the government said we are looking at sponsoring this inoculation; it’s going to take about seven years, and they were completely accurate about it.

“After last year’s show, the government came through. It’s quite a process, involving two or three vaccinations. They honoured their promise. And this has given us a little bit of leeway this year in terms of what we can do with the money raised. Our decision was to keep it cancer aware. Half the takings for the event will go to help Christopher with his chemo expenses.

“And, there is a vaccination for little boys for the HPV virus, to which the other half of the show’s takings will go. Boys can become carriers of cervical cancer. Because it is a very sensitive subject, we don’t want to blame boys. We decided that this year is one for the boys. They also need help.

She mentions the celebration of Adele Blank’s 70th birthday on this forum two years ago, and the frequent presence of dancers like Camille Bracher, now based in London with the Royal Ballet in this project. This year’s programme is cropped down to one hour, with no interval.

Dance for a Cure, featuring dancers from Kelsey Middleton’s Pretoria-based KMAD dance company, as well as pole dancer Tracy Simmonds, Kristin Wilson and divas Sibongile Mngoma and Lisa Goldin and a group of tap and hip hop boys, who will be telling the boys’ story of dance.

“Giving back is important for dancers,” she brushes aside the surprise that professionals who give of their all, should do it free. “People always have this idea that dancers want, want, want because we get so little, but that is not true. We want to be able to give back.”

Every year when this project comes around, people tell me I am mad to get involved again, but I cannot move beyond that ‘what if’ reality. What if I can save the lives of five young people through this concert? What if I really can make a difference with my work?

  • Dance for a Cure is at the Lyric Theatre, Gold Reef City in Ormonde, on September 24, at 15:00. Tickets, available at Computicket are R200.

Constellations and the games people play

Janna Ramos-Violante and Ashley Dowds in Constellations. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

Janna Ramos-Violante and Ashley Dowds in Constellations. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

This play is about cosmology and bee hives; it’s also about life, loss, love and death; taking chances and letting go. It is about the games people play. But above all else, it is about celebrating the veteran directing chops of Alan Swerdlow, revealing him at his most intelligent best.

In Constellations, he directs two of this country’s arguably more underrated performers: Ashley Dowds, who never seems to age and who has recently served as an eminently watchable foil opposite the ilk of Brenda Sakellarides and Keren Tahor; and the charming Janna Ramos-Violante, who we’ve oft fallen in love with in her capacity as director and performer over the years.

Honoured as the London Standard Weekly newspaper’s play of the year in 2012, this quiet, wisely pared down work grapples with relationships with a rapier-like pen that casts its words in a curiously unusual rhythm, which quickly disabuses you of the promise of a soppy love story. It has that illusion of cynical lightness that director Sylvaine Strike achieved with Pregnant Pause in 2009, but also that touch of magic conveyed by Athena Mazarakis and Craig Morris in Attachments (1-6), a danced essay about love.

Neither dance piece nor pregnancy romp, Constellations is about the brain’s frontal lobe as the seat of language. It touches the terror of genetic inheritance. It is constructed through a series of exchanges, which in the vein of the technique of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett are repeated and re-used as a metaphor for the kinds of games people play in conversation and the things they say and say and say again, without ever saying what they mean.

The medical curve ball in the work’s denouement will grab you by your humanity. The tentative conversational choreography around marriage and life and death and communication are handled with a devastatingly subtle hand. Suddenly, you are forced to look at both Mary Ann (Ramos-Violante) and Roland (Dowds) in new and increasingly more sophisticated if not tragic lights. It’s not very different from watching a cast pebble make rings in a puddle.

But it is the light directorial hand, the presence of an off-pink cardigan, a bench and a trellis and the gentle diversion from logical chronology that doesn’t let any aspect of this tight work run away with you. It’s almost farcical in its repetition of lines, almost annoying in how the give and take rests on a few words re-articulated, but it never reaches farcical proportions, nor annoying ones. It holds fast onto the issues at hand. It contains all the elements: happiness, cruelty, confusion, pain and horror, but it enfolds its contents with a sympathetic yet acerbically sophisticated knowledge of the interface of humour with tragedy, leaving you at peace and sated. A beautiful, beautiful work.

  • Constellations by Nick Payne is directed by Alan Swerdlow and performed by Ashley Dowds and Janna Ramos-Violante, at The Studio, Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, until September 28.

Bash: A Flawless Contemplation of a Flaw-Riddled Society

Daniel Janks, Jessica Friedan, Ashleigh Harvey and James Alexander in Bash. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

Daniel Janks, Jessica Friedan, Ashleigh Harvey and James Alexander in Bash. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

You don’t frequently come across a theatrical work so elegant and uneasy in its entirety that it makes you remember why you go to theatre. And why it exists as a discipline, altogether.  Bash, by Neil LaBute, a play which debuted in 1999, was not awarded a Gold Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year for nothing: it’s a flawless and riveting contemporary indictment on ghastly flaws in the moral fabric of our society, bringing together the cream of young local performers by way of James Alexander, Ashleigh Harvey, Daniel Janks and Jessica Friedan.

It also celebrates collaboration. The name of the lighting professional does not appear in the programme, but the manner in which subtleties play over the two red plastic tub chairs on stage show the mark of a sophisticated hand: never does the set, conjoined as it is with a filmic projection, become bland or two-dimensional or easy.

It’s an unusual play, set in the conceptual rubric of a filmed interview. It comprises three stories, unconnected on any level, but stories through which a sophisticated narrative voice runs with smooth, crisp and golden cohesion. The first and last stories are premised on the values cast by Greek tragedies, each told directly to the audience, with astonishingly vivid and beautiful words rather than re-enactment.

In the hands of Janks, the work’s first part, Iphegenia in Orem, and in the hands of Harvey, the work’s third part, Medea Redux are brought to horrifying life. There’s a touch of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in the latter, and a bit of an insight into Pistorius’ conundrum in the former; they’re immensely difficult monologues in which the monstrosity of the primarily characters are insidiously brought to bear: and the performer has only her- or himself and the audience to toss the story around with. And when they are done, and you have caught your breath in the wake of the hairpin bends of their respective stories, you want to kiss their shoes. This is what tour de force performance is all about.

In the second work, A Gaggle of Saints, James Alexander and Jessica Friedan (who readers might recall recently directed the marvellous Gogol production ‘Government Inspector’ at Wits University) don’t look at each other at all. And the impeccable manner in which the other two stories are directed is articulated here too. This device of having the two protagonists tell their side of a story from their own perspective makes the work that much more intense, but also exposes the horror in each side of the tale, clothed as it is in a contemporary garb with values of relationships and love that you and I can access. Because we are human. The device of two performers opposite each other lends the telling of the tale more latitude and manipulability, but that horrifying volte face which happens three quarters of the way through, makes your hair stand on end and increases your blood pressure. And you realise you’re sitting in the face of truly projected evil, in the embrace of truly great art.

Each performer really shines like a gem in this immensely difficult but eminently heart-changing piece. In less capable hands, the work might judder into being text heavy or too intense: for a third of the work, the spotlight is on one performer who holds the responsibility of keeping you entranced and focused. You emerge with your head spinning with the horror and beauty of Greek tragedy and moral chasms in contemporary values told with wisdom and poetry and hard-hitting haunting indictments.

As each vignette is developed and brought to closure, taking the colloquial word ‘bash’ and splaying it relentlessly and unequivocally in several associative directions – as theatre practitioners like Lionel Newtwon and Sylvaine Strike recently did with ‘Greed’ – your gaze at the performer becomes irrefutably coloured and three-dimensional with a sense of increasing horror. In many respects, this foray into central taboos, from killing of one’s own children to breaking the bodies of those whose life-choices differ from your own, is a post-modern horror story: there’s no gore; it is all internalised into a fiercely elegant piece of theatre.

You emerge with a sense of universality and one of dread of the heaviness of moral culpability, but with the understanding of privilege in having seen something completely magnificent.

  • Bash, written by Neil LaBute and directed by Megan Willson is performed by James Alexander; Jessica Friedan; Ashleigh Harvey and Daniel Janks, at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until September 28, (011)883-8606.

Too much virtuosity hurts Lonely Together

Gregory Maqoma and Roberto Olivan are Lonely Together. Photograph by Albert Vidal.

Gregory Maqoma and Roberto Olivan are Lonely Together. Photograph by Albert Vidal.

 

It’s a completely astonishing privilege to watch both Gregory Maqoma and Roberto Olivan perform. They gyrate like whirligigs, they contort and jetee as though they have quicksilver in their veins and fire instead of bones. They are mesmerising in their beauty, in collaboration and individually.

The work’s title offers you insight into the nuance projected by and contained in it, but as you sit and focus through its hour of intensity, you find yourself working quite hard to pin a resonance with the title with what you are seeing here. The title of the work implies some kind of relationship with the world, and with each other, but more than about togetherness or aloneness, it’s a piece about virtuosos doing their thing, casting in-house jokes and reflecting underdeveloped narrative ideas to audiences who love them anyway.

The work judders to a standstill conceptually a few minutes in, when the dancers stop dancing and begin a conversation which is not audible to the audience. It feels puerile. And conjoined with a bit of clowning, under the pall of music so loud and trance-inducing you can’t hear it, it feels insulting to the monumental start to the piece.

Sadly, after this interregnum, the work’s momentum is contorted and while the dance remains beautiful, it lacks a logical cohesion or a narrative line which is clear to the non-dancer in the audience. You don’t know when it ends why it has ended, or why it didn’t end earlier. And the break in focus makes its hour long duration seem like three.

Maqoma and Olivan clearly had a lot of fun putting this piece together, but one strict outside directorial hand or eye is lacking: this piece deserves narrative punch, nuance, darkness and light. As does its audience.

  • Lonely Together is choreographed and danced by Gregory Maqoma and Roberto Olivan, featuring music composition and interpretation by Laurent Delforge, dramaturgy by Roberto Magro, lighting by CUBE.BZ and costumes by Black Coffee. It performed at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex on September 3 and 4, programme 4 of the Dance Umbrella 2014.

Les Nuits: Something perfect passed this way

A scene from Les Nuits. Photograph by Jean-Claude Carbonne

A scene from Les Nuits. Photograph by Jean-Claude Carbonne

The thrilling thing about Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ draughtsmanship is its sense of utter luminosity. In looking at the work of this Neo-Classical painter, you can feel the texture of the skin with your eyes. His line work is so succinct yet tender that there’s nothing superfluous. It is like he is stroking his models’ bodies with his paintbrush or stylus. It is this level of sophistication and sheer skill that distinguishes the work of Angelin Preljocaj, one of the headlining choreographers of this year’s Dance Umbrella.

Indeed, Ingres’ work is cited amongst the stimuli for the piece, entitled Les Nuits (the Nights) which draws from and concatenates with the classic anthology known as The Arabian Nights – first published in English in 1706 – but this polished and awe-inspiring work is not just an extrapolation on Neo-Classical painting and storytelling from the East. There’s a sense of nuance, which slides insidiously into contemporary politics in a way that is alarming yet inescapably compelling.

Six male dancers all in black with black balaclavas intervene in the fleshy nuances of the first sequence, brought to bear by 12 scantily clad female dancers. They drag the women away, by a leg, an arm. There’s a level of sexual violence evoked here, which makes you think of the current atrocities happening in the Middle East under the hand of terrorist organisations like ISIS. There’s a cruelty to the choreography and a discomforting interplay of death images with sexual ones.

Call it the eros-thanatos discrepancy of classicism, if you must, but several elements to this work resound with references to Sharia law. Indeed, in one sequence it seems as though a beheading is about to occur. As the work unfolds, that level of almost intolerable grimness becomes a touchstone to it. In turn the piece becomes colourful and filled with shadow. There are beautiful sexual encounters between dancers and while the work is tightly balletic, it is deep and unabashed in its eroticism.

With all of these cross-hatched ideologies and triggers, this 90 minute long work is unspeakably polished in its articulation. This mix of horror with beauty is dangerously mesmerising: it’s almost hypnotic. The dancers are choreographed in a framework which forces you to look with great care at not only the individual performers, but the bigger picture and how the bodies interface, at times resembling a great fleshy insect; at times making you disbelieve your eyes, given the taut movement of bodies against the challenging light.

While the storytelling is often blurred, the hugeness of the visual impact of this work rocks your equilibrium. You leave the space shattered, yet smiling because political and violent associations aside, and overlooking the overweening emotional coldness of the piece, this is as perfect as choreography gets.

  • Les Nuits by Angelin Preljocaj features design by Azzedine Alaïa (costumes), Natacha Atlas and Samy Bishai (music), Constance Guisset (set), Cécile Giovansili-Vissière (lighting) and Dany Lévêque (choreologist). It was performed by Sergi Amoros Aparicio, Virginie Caussin, Aurélien Charrier, Margaux Coucharrière, Léa De Natale, Marius Delcourt, Natacha Grimaud, Caroline Jaubert, Jean-Charles Jousni, Émilie Lalande, Céline Marié, Nuriya Nagimova, Fran Sanchez, Nagisa Shirai, Anna Tatarova, Cecilia Torres Morillo, Yurié Tsugawa and Nicolas Zemmour, on September 2 and 3, at The Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein. Programme 3 of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella 2014.