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.