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.