Bring back the music


A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy? The eponymous Norman Jewison musical from the 1970s, based on a series of stories by Shalom Aleichem may be high schlock to most contemporary audience members, but it retains its status as a modern classic, for a whole rash of reasons, ranging from the fit of lyrics and music to the way in which narrative touches history.

Having rewatched it again – after a childhood which was determined by listening to the LP a million times – there’s another bit of quirky magic which I believe ties the work ineffably to the traditions of Chagall and Yiddish storytelling, but which also lend it a sense of the unexpected and the unequivocally beautiful and skilled that so little of what we see on our contemporary stages has the ability to emulate. I speak of the fiddler. On the roof. He’s performed by violin virtuoso Isaac Stern in the musical, and the skill and the wisdom of this one little instrument sets a whole huge musical with a million values quietly and directly on fire.

What is it about the commodity of music in a contemporary environment that makes people think that louder is better? I’m not talking of those people who drive little cars with big speakers, leaving the “doef-doef” rhythm all over the street, like a bad smell, late at night. I’m talking of educated artistic practitioners creating a work for an audience to watch. So many of them punctuate their precious, honed, sacred work with noise that, as you sit in the audience, vibrates in your teeth and your bowels. And you take it home in your head like a pall over your face.

No one has been able to explain to me why music for contemporary dance needs to be so very loud that it is actually distorted. I daresay I should be thankful that the trend of doing contemporary dance to ‘white noise’ has passed. Enter the trend of loud music, so overwhelmingly terrible and unashamedly bad that it affects your ability to actually see the work.

Money, theatre practitioners might bleat. We can’t afford orchestras. We don’t get funding. So they put in piped noise attached to speakers that don’t fit properly with the space that it’s supposed to fill with sound. Does it work when the auditorium is empty and do the sound designers forget that a full auditorium resonates differently? It’s a mystery to me. What’s wrong with having one instrument on stage? Like a violin. Or a penny whistle. Or a clarinet? Most of the venues that are used in urban theatre settings in this country have some modicum of acoustics in their structure. But even if they don’t. Why is it that young and sometimes even seasoned practitioners feel the insufferable urge to scribble away any nuances and subtleties in a work with music that has the volume ramped up as far as it can go?

Last year, there was a work on Johannesburg and Grahamstown stages that featured a ‘cello. A simple unadorned ‘cello.  No ‘doef doef’ in the background, no slaughtering of a European composer through bad acoustics in the foreground. It was a ‘cello in all its humble directness. It became a character in the piece, a beautiful monster that moved and swayed with the words that flowed over it. This is a country replete with musicians – many of them do not have regular work – is there a real reason why theatre and dance directors are not able to collaborate or converse with musicians?

Bring back the hypothetical fiddler on the roof, I say. Sanitise him of schlock. Let him be eerie and moving and witty and bold. Let him sit precariously and develop a persona and a voice on stage and allow us, in the audiences the chance to breath and listen and respond to a work and not be flooded out with noise that makes our noses bleed.

Buckland and De Kock tell of life, the universe and everything with a mop in a veil

Like father, like daughter: Leon (Andrew Buckland) and Ginny (Liezl de Kock) share a guffaw. Photograph by Bazil Raubach

Like father, like daughter: Leon (Andrew Buckland) and Ginny (Liezl de Kock) share a guffaw. Photograph by Bazil Raubach

With a hefty dollop of Beckett, some irrepressible clowning and a simple bittersweet tale peppered with absurdities, kangaroos and chameleons, not to mention an extraordinary set that comprises the skull of a gnu, a plastic shopping trolley and doodads that will make you laugh and cry, Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock have woven an intricate story of fatherhood with an insane backstory and context that makes tragedy comical and vice versa. If you’ve ever loved someone to the point of distraction, you will empathise with this niftily written and magically performed production.

Leon (Buckland) is a man who doesn’t commit well. He sidles out of relationships on the pretext of going shopping and from the first vignette, you love him and hate him for being so charming and delicious and yet so unreliable as a partner. In the first couple of sequences, Buckland makes you remember why for decades he had Johannesburg audiences in thrall: he’s an incredibly sophisticated clown who with his face, body and words, pushes the boundaries between tragedy and comedy to a point that is almost unbearable. And then, when you cannot laugh or cry one sob more, he relents, unwinds and starts all over again. Language and gesture are his playground and his tools and he gives life to nonsense, obscenity and blasphemy which in turn make it sophisticated, untouchably hilarious and profound.

De Kock – who plays Leon’s daughter Ginny – is grist for Buckland’s mill: the give and take between the two performers is generous and trusting yet brutal and direct. Where he ends, she takes up. Where he trips, she falls. It’s like watching a complicated game of tennis, but one that involves a mop and rake, lipstick and an absent mother.  They face a nothingness as do Fugard’s Boesman and Lena. They confront dreams in impossibility as do Beckett’s Estragon and Vladimir. Knotted together with one of the most well loved musical standards of all time, Somewhere Over the Rainbow as a theme that runs surreptitiously and delicately through the work, this production has undergone wise and resolute tweaks since last it was staged in Grahamstown.

Crazy in Love is a balm to South African theatre: In its short duration, it demonstrates how many stories can be told in a single burst of creative fire, how the sky is the limit, and how performers can take a basic and simple idea and let it run into a forest of possibilities that touch life and death, tragedy and hilarity, disappointment and freedom with unrelenting quirkiness. It’s an essay on life, love and madness and in the telling it is coupled with some of the most outlandish creativity you could dream up.  By the same token, it gives credence to building a shrine of nonentity as it describes the need for a young person to leave home and strike out on her own.

In touching all these values, the work offers sometimes harsh, sometimes poetic insight into the challenges of loss, of raising a child alone, of alcoholism and numbing poverty. Metaphors aplenty encrust this stage, but the bottom line is the pathos-littered tale of searching for a somebody that can make one’s life feel complete – even if that somebody and that search are exercises for their own sake.

  • Crazy in Love is co-created by Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock and directed by Rob Murray. It is performed by Andrew Buckland and Liezl de Kock and features set, costume and prop design by Jayne Batzofin and lighting design by Rob Murray. It is at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until April 12. 011 832 1641.

In Praise of Dictators with Vision

A giant: theatre director Barney Simon during rehearsals for "Silent Movie", 1993. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

A giant: theatre director Barney Simon during rehearsals for “Silent Movie”, 1993. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

“Compressor Pump” we used to call him, behind our hands, behind his back. Nasty caricatures were drawn of him on toilet doors and in the margins of lecture notes: a man with a big stomach, his nose in the air, a red face. He was the king. We hated him with the petulant and benign hatred young adults use to confront authority. This was Professor Alan Crump: a man who, with a straight-talking tongue and a clear hand defined excellence in the South African visual art world, arguably like no one since has done. He died from cancer on May 1, 2009 and his absence remains obvious and unsurpassed. But his presence in the art world, over the years when he reigned as such, attests to the truth that democracy has its flaws and that dictators with vision – people with the guts to say “no” to people not sufficiently talented – are necessary.

Consider Bill Ainslie, the founder of the Johannesburg Art Foundation, in 1971. A quiet man with a vision of fire. Consider Martin Schonberg, the founder of Ballet Theatre Afrikan in 1996: a brilliant dancer and unrelenting teacher. Consider Jacques Lecoq, the irrepressible founder of a mime school in Paris in 1956, that was immensely popular and influential to a myriad of directors and performers all over the world, including South Africa. Consider Barney Simon, the life blood of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre and priceless mentor that inspired and infuriated hundreds of artists. These individuals, amongst many of their ilk, are or were people of huge vision. Intensely gifted, maybe unpopular as teachers, because they were not considered gentle, but ultimately people who understood the weight of what they were teaching, who they were shaping and that it mattered. These people were the gatekeepers, the line drawers, the nurturers of talent and the individuals with the courage to keep the sacred space of their disciplines sacred and accessible to only a select few.

But all these potent and fiery leaders, with the sense of a movement in their vision, were human. And mortal. And what happens in their wake? Someone must fill their shoes. Or must they? So many of these initiatives were the fruit of the dreams of maybe one person. Put someone else in the driving seat of a project pioneered a generation earlier, and that someone else is at a disadvantage from day one: it’s not their dream. Or their investment. It becomes a mere job. The challenge of driving someone else’s project to a new height is almost bigger than giving your own dreams voice.

Ultimately, the editor who slashes your precious writing to pieces with a blue pencil, deeming it “a pot of shit”, but inviting you to address its errors and redress its red herrings, is significantly more valuable to the developing – or even experienced – writer, than the guy who lets everything through.

I believe that the integrity of the microcosm of our South African art world is under grave threat right now.  In tune with shouting the values of democracy, it seems anything goes and as a result, Johannesburg’s stages, galleries, dance spaces generally hold no bars in allowing material that would never have seen light of day, in years past, to be presented to the unsuspecting and paying public. Not every dancer is a choreographer. Not every actor is a director. Not every artist can teach. Not everyone who can wield a paintbrush is a giant with vision.

Critical arts platforms are weakening and haemorrhaging writers because the newspaper industry seems to have lost its way and so many people with huge egos and scant skills reign because they are not challenged as they thrust themselves forward into a world which is not theirs. And what’s left, by and large, is people too afraid or uncritical to voice real opinion. Who suffers? Everyone – from the readers, to the audiences, to the artists.

The next generation of arts practitioners is budding. Perhaps amongst it will emerge one or two unstoppable voices of conviction: people – call them dictators if you like – with the perspicacity, the vision and the skill, the teaching gift and the largeness to lift our art world from the mire the idea of democracy has given voice to.

And yes, obviously, it’s politically inappropriate to praise a dictator. Democracy is a popular buzzword. But in a contemporary art framework, this is a fake democracy, which fuels mediocrity: when everyone has a say, in fact, no one does.

Photographs that grab you by the history and the heart: Ranjith Kally

kally2An elderly woman sits on the floor separating small stones from lentils. There’s an irrevocable sense of lyricism in her pose, her focus, which makes this mundane activity one of solemn importance. This  photograph by Ranjith Kally of his mother, Rajwanthia Kally, taken in 1947, is a starting point to this astonishingly beautiful anthology of his photographs.

Oddly, Kally’s is not a name immediately recognised by many South Africans.  One of South Africa’s more prolific photographers, Kwa-Zulu Natal-born Kally earned his critical stripes as a photographer through Drum magazine and has been an important South African Indian photographic voice, for the past 40 odd years. A retrospective exhibition in 2004 at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg brought him to the ken of gallery going audiences, but sadly, in the 11 years since, he has not been feted as extravagantly on the gallery or photobook circuit as he deserves to be, by dint of the quality of his work and its historical importance.

In traversing these photographs framed as they are in this elegantly crafted book, you get to see the South African historical trajectory with a different nuance and a very specific depth of focus. Kally’s photographic technique is dense with detail, stark in its iconic nature and has the power to hold you tight and prevent you from turning the page.

The good thing and also the challenge of a photobook is that the order of the images are cast in stone, as it were. Yes, you could rip out all the pages and reorder them, but why would you? The editor’s decision to order the works thus is more unbreakable than that of the gallery curator. Here, generally, chronology is adhered to, and your eyes will devour and your heart will be nourished from one image to the next, the sense of beauty, the celebration of the extraordinary in Kally’s work, which digresses smoothly between posed portraits and photojournalistic shots.

Several images are printed as double page spreads, which is a bit of a Catch-22 in a book of this nature: while you get to appreciate the landscape image much bigger than it would be reproduced across just one folio, you lose something of its sense of moment in the binding.

Kally’s compositional skills knock you in the solar plexus and the gut in virtually every image, and embeds itself in your sensibilities, but it’s not an obvious knock on the head or kick in the stomach: it’s about where your eye is encouraged to logically settle first, and how it skirts with and skitters through the rest of the composition, enabling you eventually to take it all in. And then, to read the caption, which gives you a succinct understanding the historical import of the thing.

From sardine fishers and Tin Town poverty to the activism of people like Fatima Meer and Monty Naicker, to forays into relationships forbidden by apartheid and people like Papwa Sewgolum whose golfing talent challenged the country’s rules, to portraits of Chief Albert Luthuli and Alan Paton, the images engage you and thrust you into the complicated heart of South African stories, astonishing in the telling, that open new passages into preconceived understandings of how things were. There’s humour and sadness, celebration and observation here in balanced yet rich measure.

The photograph of Ma Luthuli and Gadija Christopher Gool, two doyennes of South African struggle politics, who both celebrated their centenary in 1996, is arguably one of the strongest reasons to own this book.  More than a double page spread of two old ladies, it is about the shifts and currents of history in their eyes, and the gentle fondness and deep respect the photographer offers them.


  • Memory Against Forgetting: A Photographic Journey Through South Africa’s History 1946-2010 (Quivertree Publications, Cape Town 2014) is by Ranjith Kally, with essays by Kalim Rajab. It is designed Libby Doyle and edited by Brandon de Kock. ISBN : 978-0-992216-93-1

Lulu’s Page 27 casts crepuscular rays on woman


Just when you think you know who’s hot and who’s not in contemporary dance, just when you’re catching your breath after Dance Umbrella, there comes a showcase work so utterly perfect, that all the parameters shift and you’re privileged to see the bar being raised again. Lulu Mlangeni is back on our stages, and it’s reason enough to celebrate.

Mlangeni hasn’t been on the headlines of dance in the last couple of years. She’s not one of the usual suspects in the litany of dance, and while she’s a senior dancer with Vuyani Dance Theatre, she’s diversified her talents, earning accolades in spheres as diverse as the Naledi Awards, So You Think You Can Dance and Dance Umbrella.

This brand new work, Page 27 is quite simply, astonishing. It’s a diptych, featuring Mlangeni herself in the first part, and the VDT ensemble in the second part. Loosely, it speaks of South African women and the torsion and bruising and breaking they have faced through the challenges of apartheid and in a society scarred by domestic abuse and homophobia. It’s a focus on a 27-page journal, and the celebration of Mlangeni’s 27th year of life.

It casts a moving nod in the direction of Miriam Makeba and Winnie Madikizela Mandela, as it casts a fearsomely fine glance at the universal woman, imprisoned and beaten, victorious and traditional, in a skirt that is a mix of Xhosa fabric and camouflage fatiques and beads that splay traditions old and new, without ever being disrespectful or boring. Mlangeni is oddly androgynous at times, and overwhelmingly feminine at others. She becomes impossible to describe as she flexes and streamlines herself against the very present shafts of light, like God’s fingers through a cloud.

Using text and light as though they are tangible substances, the work is muscular and disarmingly tight, running in satisfying correlation with the music. There are choreographed fight sequences to rival those by Sunnyboy Motau and Rachel Erdos, which we saw a few weeks ago on Dance Umbrella, and there is a reflection of a love-hate dichotomy that is so sophisticated, it transcends verbal description. This is the kind of dance that South African dance audiences deserve: it is beautiful and thoughtful, wise and outrageous, without stooping to foolish gimmicks or obscurity. There is an underlying astuteness in the material: while you are aware of the directorial hand of Luyanda Sidiya you will fight to catch your breath in watching the flow of bodies, light and music. And in the end, the tears and the sweat on your cheeks will be indistinguishable.

This show deserves a full house every night of its too-brief season.

  • Page 27, directed and mentored by Luyanda Sidiya, is choreographed by Lulu Mlangeni and performed by Mlangeni and the ensemble for Vuyani Dance Theatre: Julia Burnham, Roseline Keppler, Peter Lenso, Phumlani Life Mndebele, Otto Andile Nhlapo, Phumlani Nyanga and Keaoleboga Shadrack Seodigeng. It is designed by Oliver Hauser (lighting), Veronica Sham (costumes) and Wesley Mabizela (musical arrangements), using work by Dustin O’Hallaran, Steve Reich and Atomos VII. It performs at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until April 5. 011 832 1641.