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.
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