For the love of a little red piano

Solemn yet spotty: Rocco and his piano. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

Solemn yet spotty: Rocco and his piano. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

It’s curiously challenging to attempt to pinpoint quite what makes Rocco de Villiers’s work so utterly entertaining and sublimely successful. Not unlike Nataniël, but still holding firmly to his own brand, his is an approach that is light-hearted yet earnest, filled with puffs of effervescent notes yet competent, and deeply hilarious while touching tragic simultaneously. It is also unashamedly lacking in the kind of conventional polish you might believe you need to expect in a revue of this nature.

And indeed, as the show’s title indicates, it is all about the piano – not to mention the indelible image cast into your mind’s eye of a four-year-old Rocco in a white safari suit, upstaging his “unbelievably untalented” music teacher. The upright red little piano sits rather vulnerably centre stage, a counterpoint between de Villiers’s spotted pants and the equally spotted backdrop.  Blending his unique brand of story-telling, which will have you rolling in the aisles, with his piano playing, there’s a vicious sentimentality in his narrataive which celebrates Afrikaans’s delicious barbs, that just don’t bear translation.

Introducing a Kawai piano from Japan, and touching on many things from tango to Edelweiss from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music, to his own sweet, delicate and oft jazzy compositions, de Villiers seduces the audience from the moment he’s in the spotlight. And you fall in love with him, with no hesitation. His show is a brand like no other, and it’s as infallible and unshakeable as any household product.

The actress Lauren Botha performs a kind of “magician’s assistant” role, which lacks development, and adds a “take-it-or-leave-it” bit of spice that could have been hilariously developed or omitted altogether.

All About the Piano, crusted as it is with unabashed cliché and sentimentality, doesn’t pretend to be anything more than delicious, light entertainment, with a bite. You come away from it with a grin on your face and a fresh new positive outlook. It’s all that the popular music of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties presented, coupled with prickly bits of Afrikaans.

  • All About the Piano written and performed by Rocco de Villiers features Lauren Botha. It is at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino in Fourways until April 12.
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Stiff challenges well met in Heidi

The Alm-Uncle (Grant Towers) and Heidi (Megan Rigby). Photograph courtesy National Children's Theatre.

The Alm-Uncle (Grant Towers) and Heidi (Megan Rigby). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

Children’s theatre has the license to take the idea of soppy and stretch it to biblical proportions, which enables adults and children alike in the audience to cry with empathetic abandon, as the characters can declare love for one another with the kind of fierce naïve sentimentality that on a grown-up stage would be laughed out the door on cynical tide.

This happens gloriously in the National Children’s Theatre’s latest production, Heidi in a stage adaptation by Francois Theron. Written in 1880 by Johanna Spyri, the story of the girl from the Alps has been loved by generations of young readers – it was screened on South African TV from 1979, in the form of a Japanese anime series – and is understood to be by far the most popular Swiss piece of literature ever published, but a closer look at it reveals a harsh tale coloured with cruelty and disappointment and the nuances of class in 19th century Europe.

Heidi – or Adelheid, as she is more formally named in smart Swiss society – (Megan Rigby) is a hapless child. Orphaned as a toddler, she is raised by her aunt Dete, who is a governess (Emilie Owen), until she’s about five. And then a job prospect teeters the severe woman into dropping her young niece into the context of her uncle, a man who lives in the Alps with only the goats and the landscape as succour (Grant Towers). The uncle, a big, bearded man has a reputation for being scary, one that he honours with aplomb, treasuring his solitude, as he does.

No sooner is the little girl settled in the magnificent Alps, where she gets to laugh and play and imbibe the air and goats’ milk alongside goatherd Peter (Dale Scheepers), to say nothing of exposing a secret part of her grandfather’s heart, a situation under the stern eye of aunt Dete develops for her: to be the companion to a young wheelchair-bound girl, Clara (Caitlin Salgado), in the posh city of Frankfurt, and once again, the child has to undergo an emotional volte face to confront a whole new world and figure out where she fits into all of it.

While the work is coloured by stereotypes – all the governesses are merciless to the point of sadism – the narrative is conveyed with an authoritative directorial pen. The complexity of the tale is handled with wisdom and an intimate knowledge of the theatre’s audience: whilst it grapples with difficult abstract concepts like death and love, immorality and class discrepancy, it does so adeptly, offering the story in clean lines and balancing it with musical forays, which sparkle with sincerity, but never overbalance into too much schmaltz.

Choreographically and musically, this is a large work, which belies, but doesn’t undermine the theatre’s tiny space. The gestures are wide and generous, the songs sung with a bigness of force and the dancing is celebratory: half close your eyes and you can imagine it all happening on a grander stage.

And challenges of the tale itself aside, once again, the theatre presents a delicious young cast headed by Megan Rigby in the eponymous role opposite Grant Towers as the uncle with a secret inner life. The casting of these two newcomers to South African theatre is absolutely impeccable and both rise to the occasion, articulating the bold emotions, yet three-dimensional sense of spirit of both fairly complicated characters with conviction and intelligence.

  • Heidi, written by Johanna Spyri in 1880, is adapted and directed by Francois Theron. It is performed by Daniel Fisher, Jana Louw, Venolia Manale, Emilie Owen, Megan Rigby, Caitlin Salgado, Dale Scheepers and Grant Towers, and designed by Graham Brown and Stan Knight (set); Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Nicol Sheraton (choreography); and Jane Gosnell (lighting), and performs at the National Children’s Theatre, Parktown until April 12: 011 484 1584.

Ngizwise: a flawless end to Dance Umbrella 2015

Photograph by Val Adamson

Photograph by Val Adamson

They stand in a stripped bare John Kani theatre, which allows your eye to rest on and explore the architecture that has been witness to so much drama over decades. Surrounded by more than 20 plastic crates, some apples and a couple of swaths of material, these four astonishing dancers make mockery of the notion of gravity as they boldly and succinctly explore masculinity in all its nuances.

Easily the finest piece on Dance Umbrella’s stages this year, Ngizwise (a word in isiZulu meaning “let me taste/help me listen”), choreographed by Moving Into Dance Mophatong stalwart, Sonia Radebe, and Canada-based Jennifer Dallas is a work that manifests sheer and astonishing dance polish in all the right places. While it doesn’t over-intellectualise, it celebrates the various contradictions with which the idea of masculinity is historically fraught – from faction fighting to confronting femininity, from being boys to being men. The dancers, Oscar Buthelezi, Teboho Letele, Sunnyboy Motau and Muzi Shili demonstrate a warm camaraderie rendering the work, which is constructed with word, gesture and sound, a celebratory event, easy yet complicated on the eye and the heart.

In an odd and ironic way, this dance work evokes the dynamism between four very different men, as was achieved in Pale Natives, a play staged in this theatre, under the direction of Bobby Heaney some months ago. Like that play, this danced piece probes what ultimately it is to be a man. Is it in the preening gesture of the beautiful musculature of a young, healthy male specimen? Is it in the manner in which a man can raise his voice or the platform of another, to attain a level of superiority? Is it in the brazen expression of bravado? Perhaps it’s in  how a man can wear a skirt and headdress and still not lose the masculine sheen. It’s all of this and much more.

Articulated in isiZulu, the work is not 100% accessible to everyone in the audience, but if you listen to the tone of the language and watch the sway of the gestures, you gather and hold what makes the stuff tick. The work is neither obvious nor crass, but in allowing the jubilant sense of humanity of each of the dancers to have voice, profound tribute is paid to the choreographing and training work accomplished over the years by Sylvia Glasser, founder of MIDM, in terms of how the work is structured and evolves with deliberation and precision.

It is backgrounded by music which evokes the same piano chords being struck with vehemence and resonance, repetitively, hauntingly, not unlike a musical phrase central to Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut (1999). While this could jar the work, it doesn’t, as it offers a serious counterfoil to the movements, allowing word, movement and sound to overlap and interplay with wit and charisma.

Further to that, the use of lighting brings magic into the mix. This is an astute and complete piece of dance, in which Radebe  and Dallas unequivocally demonstrates their developed and convincing sense of authority as choreographers: it is the kind of work which sees Radebe stand out as a professional in the South African discipline, who understands and relishes the poetry and rhythm of collaboration. And the kind of work which restores hope in the institution of Dance Umbrella.

  • Ngizwise is choreographed and conceived by Jennifer Dallas and Sonia Radebe in collaboration with the performers, Oscar Buthelezi, Teboho Letele, Sunnyboy Motau and Muzi Shili. It features design by Wilhelm Disbergen (lighting), Veronica Sham (costumes) and Teboho Letele (music) and performed at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, on March 14 and 15.

The dulling of exotic verve in Fremde Tänze

Photograph by Fred Koenig

Photograph by Fred Koenig

“The work begins outside”, people state as the crowd shifts and flows to the quasi-amphitheatre just beyond the foyer doors, and they are silenced in what is arguably one of the more beautiful, elegant and ironic starting points to this year’s Dance Umbrella. The choreographer/performer Nelisiwe Xaba is dressed in blond hair and a neck piece with donuts peopled by small human characters made of sugar and depicting various cultural groups punctuates her form. She walks majestically, her face utterly dead-pan, to the sound of the triumphal march from Verdi’s Aïda and immediately the tone is cast: a black woman commenting on exoticism and the spilling of racist rhetoric into the contemporary world. The point is clear and the gesture is flawless. The work could have ended there.

And maybe it should have. But for some extraordinary moments which used a parachute-material bivouac as a vessel and a screen, containing whilst it projected image and film and song and words, the work loses its momentum quite quickly and spirals into the soporific, relentlessly and irretrievably.

It’s based on an archive of exoticism in German dance, presenting the work of Sent M’Ahesa, an idiosyncratic and bold performer of the early twentieth century, who became lost to the trajectory of dance history, possibly because it was performed beyond the pale of historical expectations of its time. Looking at the slides of M’Ahesa’s work, you might think of visual artists or performance artists of the same era of the ilk of Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven or Meret Oppenheim. There’s a sense of bizarreness and tradition-smashing. What these women did was alarming and frightening for their audiences: Xaba’s work is neither of the two. It is laconic and ironic — appropriately so, because she’s operating from within a post-post-modernist reference point, but it then skitters into the boring.

The work in the auditorium begins with a brief lecture by Dr Eike Wittrock about this strangeness in European dance, and it has points of sheer elegance, humour and beauty, which blend Xaba’s deadpan expression with historically popular songs from German, Asian and other traditions that present deeply racist overtures, with a resounding innocence. The combination of these disparate emotional triggers is scintillating. But other than a showcase of different odd nuances, it doesn’t reach beyond its own confines in this work.

Unforgivably low points in the work are a set of still images projected to music, and the weak  tailing off of the piece, which finds Xaba sewing what looks like tampons onto her costume. She’s focused on the sewing. You’re looking at her, and slowly but irrevocably, your eyelids begin to droop: it’s not clear what you’re looking at, or why you’re looking at it.

This work was developed in Freiberg Germany, on a residency; while the material seems rich with possibility and expectation, it doesn’t feel like it has been as rigorously interrogated and stretched as we have seen Xaba do in the past. She’s a supremely elegant and sophisticated performer, but this work simply does not deliver on all its promises.

  • Fremde Tänze is choreographed and performed by Nelisiwe Xaba, with videos by Frédéric Koenig, Lukasz Pater and Tasmin Jade Donaldson, with costumes by Franziska Jacobsen and lighting design by Oliver Hauser. It performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown until March 15.

Myself/my father: a danced portrait that will set you afire

Photograph by Romeo Chandiposa.

Photograph by Romeo Chandiposa.

Whoever you are, by virtue of the fact that you exist, you have a father. He might not have raised you. He might not be alive any longer. He might have been the source of sadness or horror, happiness or love. This is not one father we see reflected in Nora Chipaumire’s dynamic Portrait of Myself as my Father, it’s every father.

Danced by members of Zimbabwe’s foremost dance company, Tumbuka, the work embraces the theme of masculinity and fatherhood without slipping into the didactic or obscure. While the narrative is not completely clear, the dervish-like dance constructs designed in a diptych format will sweep you away completely, leaving you exhausted but exhilarated.

The nine dancers lope quietly into the auditorium, dressed in an approximation of men’s suits and bare feet, onto the stage like a troupe of ghosts. There’s a focused sense of efficiency in this work which takes place on a stage covered with soft red sand punctuated by a single shaft of square light: the boxing ring.

The dancers never teeter into this space: lending it a sense of the ineffable, the sacred. Its role in the masculinity narrative is not unpicked and it remains a glorious mystery in the work, that you don’t need to understand, but something that your eyes and mind keep reverting back to.

Catherine Douglas is cast in contradistinction to the rest of the company: she alone articulates the second half of the diptych and while we’re never given the reasoning behind the discrepancy between the two sides of the work, this dancer, physically shorter than the rest of the cast, carries the weight of the whole work with a sense of dignity and authority that makes it really hard to pull your eyes from her. It’s quite an astonishing feat: the movements she makes are not as flamboyant of those of the rest of the cast; they’re humble and gestural, and while you’re wowed by the speed and cohesion of the men and women in the company, you’re silenced by Douglas.

Further to that, the work features live music interplayed with piped music and truly delicious things happen in the Zimbabwean and European sounds that are cast together and allowed to flow through the work. If you listen carefully, you can hear jazz riffs and musical phrases from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. You can hear contemporary dynamics knitted together against a backdrop of Zimbabwean chords.

Arguably, up there with Rachel Erdos and Sunnyboy Motau’s fight flight feathers f***ers and Mamela Nyamza’s Wena Mamela as this Dance Umbrella’s unequivocal jewels, Portrait of Myself as My Father sweeps you on the back of a kaleidoscope of dance values, constructed with a mature sensibility and a developed love of the discipline. Hopefully this country will get to see more of Tumbuka’s work, more of Chipaumire’s material and certainly more collaborations between Tumbuka and Chipaumire.

  • Portrait of Myself as My Father is originated and choreographed by Nora Chipaumire. It is danced by Ndinei Alfazima, Maylene Chenjerayi, Catherine Douglas, Snoden Filimon, McIntosh Jerahuni, Alexio Matambo, Chido Mukundwa, Stanley Wasili, Caroline Yule and Carlton Zhanelo, from Tumbuka Contemporary Dance Company and musicians Fatima Katiji (voice/hosho), Tatenda Mapaso (guitar) and Sinyoro (hosho). Directed by Anna Morris, it features design by Chipaumire (costume and set); Philip White (sound) and it performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown until March 8.

On Seeing Red: Missed opportunities, stuff and nonsense

The money shot: Gavin Krastin burns some cash. Photograph by John Hogg.

The money shot: Gavin Krastin burns some cash. Photograph by John Hogg.

Robyn Orlin could do it. So could Steven Cohen. And the Doobie Boobies under the direction of Mark Hawkins held articulate and convincing sway on this too. What is it that Gavin Krastin and Alan Parker lack in this discipline of rough burlesque and counter-dance? Is it a depth of ironic focus? Is it a lack of pathos? Are they too young? Or too pretty? Perhaps their sense of an evolved self-mocking gravitas is not fully formed. It’s difficult to pinpoint, but their latest work On Seeing Red, push all those audience buttons of disrespect and unresolved sloppiness, while it attempts to describe a framework of counter-seriousness and misses.

Seating an adult audience on the floor is always a bad starting point. It’s ill-mannered and unnecessary and it’s curious as to why the work could not have been contained in a regular seated space. But then, the room, filled with blow up palm trees and lots of shiny purple stuff, explodes with a drunken sense of burlesque introducing karaoke, hammering drag references home with a sense of tawdry glitter and a repetitiveness that makes the opening song of Cabaret into a mantra.

From this point, however, the work degenerates into a horrid and silly miasma of sanitary towels and plastic flowers, spilled custard, burnt money, wine and blood, amongst other things. The work grapples with the idea of light years and the conflation of time and energy in a ham-handed, unconvincing way, as it steps on the toes of territorialism, offering an unsatisfactorily tiny evocation of a work they created in 2012 called Cellardoor.

That work had memorable potential: sadly On Seeing Red doesn’t exploit its gaps, but rather tramples on them. When you read the programme notes after seeing the work and need to check again if this indeed is a description of the cheap and nasty bits of self-indulgence you’ve just seen, something’s amiss.

On Seeing Red doesn’t actually make you see red or feel real anger. Complete with a blow up plastic shark that turns into a frock of sorts, a jumping castle for toddlers that is made to evoke a burning down house, a bit of Piaf and a lot of too long transitions between the work’s components, it makes you physically uncomfortable and irritated. It’s like Steven Cohen denuded of his intent and content and on happy gas. Krastin and Parker’s audiences deserve better. And I’ll never get those 45 minutes of my life back.

  • On Seeing Red performed as part of the Dance Umbrella 2015 at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex on March 5 and 6. It features concept, direction and design by Gavin Krastin, with creation by Alan Parker and Krastin and sound design by Shaun Acker and was performed by Parker and Krastin.

Wena Mamela: Look and listen

The alter ego. Photograph by Zanele Muholi.

The alter ego. Photograph by Zanele Muholi.

She’s already dancing in a milky grey spotlight when you walk into the space. Amid the noise and rustle of an audience settling into itself and talking and laughing, she performs in a curious silence, marked by facial expressions at once comic and a little frightening. There is music: a selection of tuneful classical music played by the former South African National Symphony Orchestra, but it is not played in tandem with her movements and it skirts between European and South African popular tunes.

Mamela Nyamza is one of those performers who work with such an intelligent energy and honed focus that it feels she cannot make a wrong move. There’s an internal ‘engine’ in her focus, a wise and tempered celebration of both what is dance and what is ‘undance’.

This work, Wena Mamela is engaging while it’s thought provoking; it’s beautiful yet ugly; it blends visual humour with discomfort; and crudity with sophistication. And in posing very pertinent issues around identity and colonialism, it never allows itself to slip into too didactic a mould. Above all, it focuses on a level of vulnerability for this sole performer/choreographer onstage that you shiver in the realisation of its bravery. But having said all of that, the work is not balanced or placatory. It grapples with itself and feels unfinished. And yet in being so, it is all the more fierce and real. This is autobiographical dance on a par with some of Lille-based performance artist Steven Cohen’s outspokenness.

Several years ago, performance artist Hlengiwe Lushaba created a work in the foyer of the Wits Theatre which blended impromptu dance with an engagement with her own name and the curious and offensive ways in which white people ask its meaning as they break their teeth trying to pronounce it. The work was astonishing and bolshy and fresh and timeless. Nyamza does something similar here, pushing the insensitive and judging questions that she’s been plastered with all her career: they’re rhetorical in so many respects and invasively probing into her private life, her self-opinions, her decisions.

The concept of the spectacle is always forefront in this work which blends an understanding of exoticism whilst it does not pretend to be anything other than a work onstage. We have pot plants that conjure a jungle and a puppet worn on Nyamza’s back that gives voice and presence to an alter ego, but there’s an engagement with the presence of the camera that evokes a sequence in one of English film director Peter Greenaway’s works, where the act of capturing someone with a camera is metaphorically aligned with the idea of rape.

Armed with a plastic dress, gold shoes, a hard hat and sunglasses and a luminous green bikini, she grins and poses and makes an imitation of the noise of a camera shutter with her mouth. She does it again and again, and a frenetic fever pitch overrides her, shifting the gesture from placid and commonplace to sinister and disturbing.

The puppet she wears presents a stereotypical tribal woman. Bedecked with some acid yellow feathers as a coiffure and with breasts and arms akimbo, this figurine embodies an identity which makes you laugh with poignancy and yet feel that there’s something deeper, something primordial being accessed here. She becomes the essence of the piece and is performed with an empathy that you will recognise and instinctively warm to.

By and large, this powerful and gentle piece sums up so many of this dancer’s personal and political challenges up to this point in her career. It’s roughshod in ways that engage, yet it lends a physical humour to an understanding of stereotypes that is both visually appealing and haunting. It’s the work of a mature practitioner who knows herself well but hasn’t the time to rest on her laurels.

  • Wena Mamela is choreographed and performed by Mamela Nyamza with puppet design by Janni Young, and lighting by Frans Zunguze. It performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown until March 6.