On Fire: out of control

Thulani Mgidi in On Fire. Photograph by Manuel Osterholt.

Thulani Mgidi in On Fire. Photograph by Manuel Osterholt.

When you watch a piece as catastrophically chaotic as Constanza Macras’s On Fire choreographed for the gala opening of this year’s Dance Umbrella, you might be tempted to question what exactly a choreographer does. Unlike the previous works we have seen by this choreographer and her company, there is a catch all moment in the work where it seems anything goes and you in the audience are being subject to Macras’s version of pot luck. Did she run out of editing stamina in creating this piece?

Had it been well produced and carefully constructed, you might have been of the opinion that the performers should be allowed to die after the work had been completed: they had done so much with such fervent diversity during the work’s complicated duration. But nay: you cannot say this: there is just simply too much, most of which is crying out for editing snips: The work is too long. The colonialist message is carried across with clarity and even beauty, the first time. But then it is broadcast again and again. And again. With proverbial sledgehammers, considerable narrative sloppiness and extreme loudness. And again some more: to the point where you want to shout ‘enough, already!’

It’s also a misguided message that leaves you, as a South African audience cold: we’ve been through the colonialist discourse a million times. We’ve lived through it. It’s ours. While On Fire has potential and the skill of its cast is simply breath-taking, the work lacks an underbelly of meaningful context and doesn’t give local audiences anything new. Instead, the tired rehashing of apartheid values and a poorly constructed spoof of a soap opera hurts the Dance Umbrella and your personal expectations. It feels arrogant and self indulgent.

They’re words which don’t come lightly. The first half of this work contains heart-stoppingly fine moments which bring the colonial practice of tennis and golf playing and tea drinking onto a strip of veld from which the Hillbrow Tower is visible. In another part, a sheet of paper on the floor and an astonishingly fine dancer convey a sense of not fire, but water, at the work’s outset. The dancers articulate the curious formality of colonialist photography with a wisdom and a level of input that is unique and sophisticated. There’s a give and take with traditional African song that sparkles with engagement.

But then, the work seems to lose its way, and there is too much text and weak story-telling. Too much thrusting about and making horrible noises. Too much time and energy spent in bringing everything from soap opera story lines to Credo Mutwa and Fitzcarraldo’s sound track into the mix. So much so that you could even overlook the collaborative energy that videographer Dean Hutton and photographer Ayana V Jackson have put into the work. Their contribution feels brushed over and disregarded.

Ultimately, you leave with the awareness that this potjie hasn’t been cooked long enough and the disparate parts don’t meld in a way that is convincing. Instead, you might feel a bit insulted by the manner in which these performers who are not from this country mangle and mock us. And above all, disappointed: Macras’s reputation for exceptionally good work just hasn’t been honoured here.

  • On Fire by Constanza Macras | Dorky Park is choreographed and directed by Constanza Macras and features performances by Louis Becker, Emil Bordás, Lucky Kele, Jelena Kujic, Diile Lebeko, Mandla Mathonsi, Thulani Mgidi, Melusi Mkhwanjana, Felix Saalmann, Fana Tshabalal, John Sithole. It is designed by Carmen Mehnert (dramaturge); Ayana Jackon (visual art); Dean Hutton (video); Constanza Macras and Noluthando Lobese (costumes); Jelena Kuljic and Abigail Thatcher (music and sound) and Catalina Fernandez (lighting) and performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown until February 27.
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