Polished fireworks for ballerinos and plastic girls

The Last Attitude - Mamela Nyamza- photo by John Hogg_ (2)

ME AND MY PLASTIC GIRL: Mamela Nyamza in The Last Attitude. Photograph: John Hogg

Silence is a complicated medium to use in contemporary dance. As is ballet. Particularly if it is being put under a rich loupe filtered with a deep understanding of gender binaries, 19th century European frills and trills and crazy little mannerisms that have become something looked up to with God-fearing respect by loyal audiences.

Veteran dancers who both started their careers in classical ballet, close to 20 years ago, Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza have pooled their considerable energies, talents and inner fires to create a fantastic piece of deeply polished work that unashamedly and relentlessly rips into the vulnerable underbelly of European culture and all the pretentious nuances it represents. They do so with the kind of sophistication, savvy and wisdom that doesn’t rubbish or disrespect the genre, but instead holds it – and our society – up to a telling and incisive mirror.

The Last Attitude teases out an understanding of the role of both genders in classical favourites like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote and La Bayadère, and in doing so, it makes biting fun of the insipid, almost ghoulish female ensemble, and the emotionally piffling but physically taxing role of the male leads, but there’s a twist in the tale that opens up questions about gender and to a lesser extent, race, most compellingly.

European classical ballet brings with it relentless rules and a sense of order which is respected by dancers across the board as the most rigorous and fundamental training. Many of them have been outspoken in describing it as the best formative structure a dancer can get. But it brings with something else, that is equally rigid: Gender binaries. Whether you are a boy or a girl, ballet has a very specific uniform and characterisation for you. If you’re neither all boy nor all girl, but have a talent and a yearning for the discipline, what do you do?

While The Last Attitude has the kind of levity and wisdom that keeps even the most restless of audience members focused, it never stoops into a sense of victimhood: Taking a reflection on the politeness of ballet and ripping it to haunting shreds, Nyamza and Xaba are effectively doing what France-based performance artist Steven Cohen did in 2000 – only they’re working from within the ballet conventions and not from a position of “undance”.

They’re working from within the safety of the formal stage and not constructing their piece as dance guerrillas, and yet, the fierceness and the antagonism toward a whole litany of tradition that they articulate with their bodies, their costumes, their plastic mannequins and their gestures is made of the same kind of dynamite as Cohen’s.

The Last Attitude is an important work, not only for Dance Umbrella, but for the genre of contemporary dance. Along the lines of what Dada Masilo is doing in her oeuvre with the questioning, twisting and stretching of great classics, this work opens doors, asks questions and throws out exclamations. And yes, it’s very technical in how it is rendered, but the mesmerising presence of both dancers is simultaneously so pointed and poised that you hesitate to breathe as it might break the work’s impeccable silences.

  • The Last Attitude is choreographed and performed by Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza. It features work by Boyzie Cekwana (dramaturge), Oliver Hauser (lighting design), Carlo Gibson (costumes) and music by Tchaikovsky and Minkus. It is also performed by Amy de Wet, Samkelisiwe Dlamini, Megan Gottscho, Nthabiseng Modau, Jade Morey, Chanelle Olivier, Nicole Oriana, Kemelo Sehlapelo and Celia van Tonders. It performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown, until February 28, as part of Dance Umbrella 2016. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za

Johannesburg: a dancework pock-marked by rebellion and verve

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SANGOMAS IN SEQUENCE: A still from Jessica Nupen and Sunnyboy Motau’s Rebellion & Johannesburg. Photograph courtesy Tana Hall.

A YOUNG MAN dances emotionally and with great muscularity with a giant black plastic cloud in a moment framed with footage of the inside of Ponte Tower in Berea, Johannesburg. He is physically threatened, dominated out of his context by several dancers wielding buckets – or using a bucket as a pedestal prompted into movement by the force of friction and gravity. And this quintessential play with life, death and utter fantasy encapsulates the fascinating and messy heart of Rebellion & Johannesburg, the work which opened Dance Umbrella 2016.

An exuberant piece from start to finish, R&J seems like a politically correct opener for this, the 28th Dance Umbrella. Featuring dancers from Moving Into Dance Mophatong and choreographed by local choreographer Jessica Nupen who boasts South African, British and German choreographic credentials and dance experience, it is a work which ticks all the boxes in terms of sating the sponsors, filling the auditorium and setting the festival’s buzz afire.

Aside from all the superlatives uttered in voice and gesture and the dance sequences designed to make you smile in their satisfying whirligig rhythms and collective sequencing, the work is an engagement with the messy exuberance of the city of Johannesburg. Like Sunnyboy Motau’s astonishing piece In my End is my Beginning, R&J is a deliciously inchoate reflection of a society, bringing together all the elements from corruption amongst the populace to the ever presence of death and love, and the way they interfold.

Very loosely based on the tale of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the work sees some novel eccentricities in a set of hula hoops and hangers, with a mirror ball and a series of street headlines. It features some truly beautiful video work as a backdrop, and there are echoes between the live dancers and the video sequencing which is both engaging and satisfying.

Blending township jive with a whole range of dance quotes, the piece evokes Robyn Orlin’s Beauty, but doesn’t have the aggressive and confrontational framework that lent it its edge. It also suffers from thinking that is at times so enthusiastic that the proverbial baby is lost with the bathwater: almost everything fallS into the piece’s focus, from members of the Economic Freedom Front upsetting Parliament’s proceedings, to a taxi narrative, threaded through with fairly lame jokes about corruption on the streets of the city. Shakespeare references pale into invisibility. Rebellion & Johannesburg is a work which clearly has gone through all the motions – from its title to its actuality, it has clearly been brainstormed carefully with the cast and choreographers, but what it lacks is cohesive vision.

The casualty is at times the focus of the piece, and at other times, its structure. All in all, it feels too long. But everything is forgiven when you look at how extraordinary the individual dancers are. These young men and women can render a simple two-step, a master gesture, with their agility, wit and charisma. Without question the dancers of MIDM may well redefine Dance Umbrella this year.

  • Rebellion & Johannesburg is conceptualised and choreographed by Jessica Nupen with assistance from Sunnyboy Motau and it features design by Spoek Mathambo (music composition), Anmari Honiball (costumes and set), Ed Blignaut (film projection), Lars Rubarth and Felix Striegler (sound). It is performed by Oscar Buthelezi, Tebogo Gilbert Letle, Eugene Mashiane, Thabang Mdlalose, Sunnyboy Motau, Asanda Ruda, Muzi Shili, and Thenjiwe Soxokoshe. It performs at the UJ Theatre in Auckland Park, until February 26, as part of Dance Umbrella 2016. Visit www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za
  • See my review of In My End is My Beginning here

Welcome to hell

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COME FLY WITH ME: Hlengiwe Lushaba takes the floor in this thoughtful essay on urban homelessness. Photograph by Neo Ntsoma.

It was Mary I of Scotland who first stated “in my end is my beginning”, a comment uttered on her imminent death, and her quest for immortality. It’s a strange and yet completely fitting starting point for this great monster of a dancework, choreographed by Sunnyboy Motau, which meshes values as it draws on clear influences and sidles up to a reflection of the bitter cruelty that urban society brings the homeless. And as you drive home from the experience, every glimpse you get of a vagrant on the street pushing his monumental load of rubbish, or settling in for the night with the cold comfort of the pavement at his cheek and the hostile context of a sleeping city at his back, will ring with echoes of the work.

Blending stories with stories, movements with movements, people with one another, In my end is my beginning, evokes complex pieces such as Argentinean choreographer Constanza Macras’s magnificent Hell on Earth, which was performed in Johannesburg in 2009, or the interstices of paintings like Hieronymus Bosch’s scenes of hell in his Garden of Earthly Delights of 1480, in which it balances interruption with equilibrium and is rendered with violence and gentleness, deep sadness and immense joy, because of all the things that are going on at the same time.

Curiously, it is backgrounded with a busy urban soundscape, but also live guitar music, composed and played by Matthew MacFarlane, which lends it a gentleness that breaks very valuable ground of its own and forces the gesture and the experience into a new and as yet unexplored sense of possibility in this dance environment.

While it rests, narratively, on the bleeding bloody miasma of uncertainty that a homeless person has to face in the absence of the safety net of family, society or even police on a day to day basis, the work features choreography that will make you gasp and a veritable catastrophe of gestures that intermingle seamlessly.

Your eye is torn hither and yon as you focus on this one-legged beggar with a duck that dances, that woman who carries a boulder of plastic on her head, as she sweeps away books with her broom; that woman who, dressed in a celebratory array of plastic bags sits monumentally on an improvised throne with bubbles ejected all around her; the guy who solemnly sits at a swing, using the seat as a desk-like surface. Ultimately the stories amalgamate into a texture rather than a metanarrative and you find yourself floating on the sense of mad freefall conveyed by the context.

The stage set is dark. It’s complex, with projections of graffiti and urban wildness cast across the rude space of the Laager Theatre, with its quasi-industrial raw concrete architecture, the wire mesh fencing and the fire escape ladder central to the space all flowing in tune with the work’s dynamic. You expect to smell the odour of dank dampness and dried urine: it feels as though you, too are part of this basement-like space where companionship is sought, love found and unfound, where death is ever present and despair the backdrop to the insanity that shows its face.

With several nods in the direction of Robyn Orlin, the work does stands on its own and reflects the work of some potent young performers, as well as the well established performance methodology of the utterly magnificent Hlengiwe Lushaba, whose singing voice and witty, sometimes terrifying, but overwhelmingly dignified stage presence, is arguably the work’s binding ingredient. She speaks to God through a baking powder tin as she sings with such abandon that the real God must hear her.

Reaching closure in a most glorious yet haunting gesture of hope that is fragile and bold simultaneously, In my end sees Motau drawing from the litany of teachers he has grown under, but demonstrating he has a very clear and bold choreographic voice of his own.

  • In my end is my beginning is choreographed by Sunnyboy Motau mentored by Mark Hawkins featuring design by Wilhelm Disbergen (set and lighting) and Shadrack Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes). It is performed by Jaques de Silva, Thabo Kobeli, Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, Tshepi Mashego, Given Phumlani Mkhize, Shawn Mothupi, Sonia Thandazile Radebe and Nosiphiwo Samente, with Matthew MacFarlane on guitar. It performs at the Laager Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until February 28. Call 011 832-1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za.

Electric mix of frisky youth, ancient tragedy

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FOR THE LOVE OF A BROTHER: Nyakallo Motloung is a feisty unforgettable Antigone. Photograph by Sabelo Ndumo

Taking on Sophocles with electric abandon might not be the dream of just any drama graduate. The material is difficult, linguistically, morally and chronologically. The language is complex and bloody and some of the issues it embraces are impossible to get your head around without your heart (or belly) wanting to explode. But clearly none of this has daunted the young cast of seven – some of them in their professional debuts – in this absolutely astonishing work, which immediately raises the bar for theatre of this nature.

Just Antigone clocks in at under an hour, but the mesmerising focus and the sophisticated balance between contemporary gestures, asides to the audience and the horror of the moral double crossing of the original  plunges you into not only the internecine and devilish politics of ancient Greece, but also the tragedy of human frailty in the sight of ambition, power and one-upmanship.

The cast switch and change roles and genders as the generational tale, replete with the interjections of a chorus, unfurls, and the context of Oedipus, the father of Antigone, who tragically lands up killing his father and marrying his mother, is described with clarity, levity and wit, which never teeters into disrespect for the tradition or the circumstances. There is a resonance in this work with the meshed cultural texture that Neil Coppen achieved in his recent production of Animal Farm, blending time and idiosyncrasy in a way that hones the legibility of difficult material, but Just Antigone slips in and out of contemporary political phraseology and reference. It doesn’t hurt the work. It keeps you engaged.

Antigone (Nyakallo Motloung) is a loyal sister and a feisty challenge to her egotist uncle King Creon (Jóvan Muthray), who is at times so wrapped up in his own sense of authority that he becomes emotionally blind and quite frightening. Muthray’s delivery of this role is polished and convincing. And opposite him, Motloung is articulate and passionate. There’s a balance achieved here which is so fine and so much about trust and a sense of artistic authority that it takes your breath away.

In many respects, the unequivocal star of this work is Mlindeli Zondi – who you may have seen in Making Mandela – as the hapless Haemon, son of Creon and lover of Antigone. Torn between loyalty to his father and an understanding of his father’s deep moral flaws, not to mention his love for his girl who has dared to challenge Creon, he is left no alternative but to die at his own hand. The emotional and spiritual torsion central to this character is articulated with a great sense of finesse, never overacting, but oft overarching as a profound and intelligent catalyst to the tale.

But it hardly seems fair to isolate only three performers. The full ensemble feels dangerously beautiful in its concatenation of text, gesture and sinister nuance. Individually and collectively, they rise and soar with one another, dancing on the edge of the scripted text and expressing horror and catastrophe as they intermingle and dovetail. It’s a beautifully directed piece of work, and while the screaming which is necessary in the tale fills POPArts’s smallish tight space with harsh metallic fierceness, that might make you want to flee, the cast engages with the monumental reality of performing something as old as Sophocles with thoughtful wisdom.

Neither paralysed with respect, nor awash with hipness, under the directorial hand of Mahlatsi Mongonyana and Billy Langa, the cast offer Sophocles’s words, thoughts and reflections – and his indictments cast on the immorality and filth of society – in a palatable and fine context that is accessible and provocative, making you realise there is nothing quite as fine as a spot of Greek tragedy in central Johannesburg on a week night.

Arguably, this company of performers has what it takes to develop into the kind of repertory theatre that is capable of defining the industry. Watch each of these names: they have a great future ahead of them.

  • Just Antigone is adapted from Sophocles’s Antigone by Mahlatsi Mokgonyana and directed by Mokgonyana and Billy Langa. It is performed by Binnie Christie, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Jessica Meas, Nyakallo Motloung, Jovan Muthray, Star Tlali and Mlindeli Zoni at POP Arts Theatre in central Johannesburg until February 21. Visit popartcentre.co.za
  • See my review of Mlindeli Zondi’s previous performance in Gauteng here.

Olga Kern and the love for music that stays

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GOLDEN FINGERS: Russian-born pianist Olga Kern performs with the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra. Photograph by Ivan Korč, courtesy www.olgakern.com

SHE’S BEAUTIFUL, SHE’S blond and, on a certain physical level, she fits a Hollywood stereotype, but Moscow-born concert pianist Olga Kern is not just a pretty face. The product of “many generations” of classical music, Kern won the prestigious Texas-based Van Cliburn International Piano competition in 2001 – the first woman to do so in more than 30 years – and she is today recognised as one of her generation’s finest performers. On Saturday she will play for the Johannesburg Music Society, as part of a three-week long South African tour. Last night, she spoke from Cape Town to My View about her history, her career and her irrepressible love for music.

“After Johannesburg, I play in Pretoria, then Knysna, then Durban,” she rattles off. “On March 1, I’m accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, before I go to California, South Carolina and St Louis.”

She explains that up to 150 engagements a year all over the world for a concert pianist of her calibre is fairly commonplace. “That is why winning the Van Cliburn at 25 was really perfect for me. I was not too young, and not too old. The management and recognition that winning such competitions brings a performer are very important, but what comes with the opportunity is a big responsibility to perform consistently and frequently. If you are not up to it, it can break you.” The winner of 11 international piano competitions (including that presented by Unisa, in 1996), she acknowledges how important fitness is for the lifestyle.

But it’s not only about keeping to a tight itinerary. Kern’s ancestry is rich with music: her great-grandmother Vera Fedorovna Pushechnikova was a mezzo soprano and a great friend of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), and he would often accompany her. But that’s not all: one generation earlier, Vera’s mother and Kern’s great-great-grandmother, Palageya Safronovna Pushechnikova was a good friend of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and the family owns many unique letters and photographs of the composer.

But in spite of these illustrious roots, New York-based Kern, who grew up in Communist-torn Russia at the time of the Perestroika remains humble as she speaks of the magic of performing. “The first time I played with an orchestra onstage I was seven years old. The energy that comes from the audience made me realise that this was my place.” The recipient of an honorary scholarship from the President of Russia in 1996, Kern studied under Professor Sergei Dorensky at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory and Professor Boris Petrushansky at the Accademia Pinistica Incontri col Maestro in Italy.

It is unthinkable, she says, for her to have pursued any career but music: “I started hearing music while I was in my mother’s belly,” she speaks of the mysterious ease with which she learned Rachmaninoff’s notoriously difficult third concerto. “My mother told me she was  always playing this work when she was pregnant with me.”

She, in turn, used to play Schubert and Brahms whilst she was pregnant with her now 16-year-old son, Vladislav, who has just won the recital section of the Tureck International Bach Competition for young pianists. “Today, Schubert and Brahms are his favourite composers. That love for music stays.”

Currently in the process of launching a music competition in her own name, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Kern speaks of the thrill of finding “rising stars”. “Winning the Olga Kern award will come with lots of opportunities for engagements and recordings,” she says. She will serve as artistic director of the competition and president of its jury.

Kern, with her brother, the trumpeter, conductor and composer Vladimir, has set up the Aspiration Foundation, to assist young concert performers financially and artistically with instruments and even clothes for concert performance. “A young performer needs to wear something extraordinary onstage; many can’t afford to,” she says.

But speaking of dresses, she considers what it means to her, to be a top woman concert pianist, given that the piano is historically considered “male”.

“I was taught how to make a big, round sound on this huge grand instrument,” she says, acknowledging that it takes great physical fitness and emotional robustness to make the piano sing, and  generally the world of concert pianists is still traditionally a man’s terrain, but she ponders a moment and reconsiders: “Whilst I was at the school and the conservatory, it was not about being a man or a woman that fed my love for the instrument.

“But being a woman concert pianist comes with its own challenges. My suitcase is heavier and bigger than that of any man in my job,” she speaks of her New York dress designer and how she selects her gowns depending on the music she will play. “The big gowns are very heavy. But, challenges aside, I am so lucky I do this. If you love what you do, everything is equal.”

Her current SA tour is arguably the dying wish of music impresario Schalk Visser. “He asked me to do an extended South African tour in February this year; it took a bit of haggling for us to agree on three weeks, not more. But sadly Schalk passed away suddenly in December.” Kern has dedicated her Johannesburg concert to the memory of Visser. “He was such an important person for me and for many other artists,” she said.

Digressing from her usual repertoire of traditional Russian music, for her Johannesburg concert, Kern plays Classic and Romantic pieces, including one contemporary Russian piece, by Boris Frenksteyn that was composed for her.

“I begin with several Scarlatti sonatas which I first heard in a life-changing performance when I was eight years old. The pianist was the great Vladimir Horowitz. It was in Moscow and my grandfather had one extra ticket and he asked me to come with.”

She’s played Schumann’s Kinderzenen – which features in the recital’s second half  – “since my son was a baby. The work offers such a moment of peace.”

The recital is long, she says, but “so exciting.”

  • Olga Kern’s concert at the Linder Auditorium in Parktown is on February 20, for the Johannesburg Music Society. Visit www.jms.org.za for further details.

Squeak like a mouse, roar like a lion

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WHAT WOULD YOU do if you discovered a great big cuddly lion with a penchant for roaring loudly at times of great emotion, in your local municipal library? This fabulous little yarn created by Michelle Knudsen and brought to musical life onstage under the directorial hand of Francois Theron debuts at the National Children’s Theatre as its current touring production, will set many a junior primary school child alight with the magic that one can find all quietly tucked into the books of the library.

Designed for a three-to-six year old audience, the work is bold, with clear-to-understand songs and a narrative to make you laugh with its sheer solemn sense of possibility. Showcasing siblings Tlotlego, Tlhopilwe and Tlholego Mabitsi as Kevin, Michelle and Jenny respectively, the three young library users who make friends with this great big somewhat bewildered beastie (Gamelihle Bovana), the work is supported by an utterly ingenious set by Stan Knight, which lends itself to simply casting library mystique over the context of the NCT’s stage in Parktown as well as any regular classroom in any primary school.

And supported by strict rule-keeper librarians Mr McBee (Kabelo Lethoba) and Miss Merriweather (Kayli ‘Elit Smith), who are strident, competent and shrill in their rule abiding way, as grown ups should be, if you’re three years old, the work enjoys the catalyst of the storytelling lady, played by Veronique Mensah, and the inimitable lion himself. It’s a fabulous foil for snippets of tales from the Aesop’s fable involving a lion and a mouse, to C S Lewis’s The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, not to mention many an angry, or hungry or naughty lion that crops up in children’s literature.

While teetering very slightly towards the text heavy before interval, the work is sprinkled lovingly with song and dance, but it is Bovana’s characterisation of this great and gentle, curious and respectful, but by and large wordless king of the jungle with such humanity and empathy that points irrevocably to the moral values caught in the upper reaches of this play.

What you come away with is not only an appreciation that some rules can be bent under specific circumstances, and that knowing why rules exist is a tremendous stimulus for being able to honour them, but even more than that, you in the audience are left reflecting on the point of view of the outsider – he may be a lion, but he may also be a child with different physical needs, or a child who doesn’t speak the language, or a newcomer. He needs to be embraced.

And more than all of this is the celebration of the humble institution of the library. It’s certainly something that needs this society’s attention. Rather urgently.

  • Library Lion based on the eponymous 2006 book by Michelle Knudsen, is adapted for stage by Eli Bijaoui and directed by Francois Theron, with design by Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Drew Rienstra (music direction) and Nicol Sheraton (choreography). It is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Kabelo Lethoba, Veronique Mensah and Kayli ‘Elit Smith and a child cast comprising Tlotlego, Tlhopilwe and Tlholego Mabitsi, as the touring production of the National Children’s Theatre, until February 28. It is touring to primary schools in Gauteng and performs at the NCT in Parktown on Saturdays. Call 011 484 1584 or visit www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

The perfect pleasure of Tobacco

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TAKING YOUR BREATH AWAY: Andrew Buckland is the hapless yet powerful Ivan. Photograph courtesy www.netwerk24.com

AS HE WALKS onstage, you know you are in safe hands, and that the evening will not only be completely impeccable, but that it will take your heart and wring it out in a way that you won’t readily forget. Arguably the single play that defined the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2014, Tobacco, and the harmful effects thereof is finally at the Market Theatre, and it’s no less of an utterly perfect theatre experience than it was two years ago.

Ivan (Andrew Buckland) is a nervous man who has been asked by his Wife (Toni Morkel) to do a public talk for charity. And premised on this simple do-gooder idea, there evolves a most extraordinary tale of love and hate, claustrophobia and the feathers of a golden eagle, the discomfort of a picnic with 20 children and the tenderness of a couple who know each other well – and everything in between.

A fine and wild monster of a text crafted by William Harding, Tobacco rests on the almost eponymous Anton Chekhov play of 1886 – or, rather than resting on it, it uses the Chekhov as a quirky starting point. With the aid of an incredibly clever set, comprising a very special purpose-made lectern, a wooden box and an old record player, as well as a pair of plastic noses, the work takes astonishing and brave leaps into the terrain of owls and pussy cats, Mozart and bizarre metaphors that smash grammar and logic aside, yielding an experience which takes you on a surreal and bizarre journey through not only tobacco and its harmful effects, but a whole life of complicated domesticity that is haunting in its brilliance.

Buckland and Morkel together articulate a level of clowning sophistication which makes you remember what perfect theatre is all about. With authoritative focus, they make you laugh at something tragic, and cry at something ridiculous: armed only with their bodies and their skill they invest poignancy into clumsiness and incredible poetry into a hen-pecked middle-aged man in his underpants with a necktie around his sweaty head.

But more than all of this Tobacco boasts a structure that evokes a scored piece of choral music. Tobacco is present everywhere, but it appears like a refrain in a text that is about anything but tobacco. The language has a musicality to it and a flow which is unstoppable, building physical theatre into a momentum that will keep you at the edge of your emotion, throughout.

Under the directorial hand of Sylvaine Strike, this is a remarkable play, beautifully cast and put together with such love and laughter that it sings. If you choose to have one theatre experience in your whole life, make it this one.

  • Tobacco, and the harmful effects thereof based on Anton Chekhov’s one act play, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco is adapted by William Harding and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features design by Chen Nakar (set) and Sylvaine Strike assisted by Ali Madiga (lighting) and is performed by Andrew Buckland and Toni Morkel, in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until March 6. Call 011 832 1641 or visit www.markettheate.co.za
  • See my review of this play from the Grahamstown Festival in 2014 here.

Kitchen sink provocation

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WAITING FOR DREAMS TO HAPPEN: The programme cover for James Ngcobo’s production of A Raisin in the Sun

FEBRUARY IS BLACK History month and the Market Theatre proudly touts this international commemorative energy with arguably one of black America’s most poignant hard-hitting plays. Written in 1959 at the height of racist issues of the time, A Raisin in the Sun compares unequivocally with Arthur Miller’s inestimable Death of a Salesman (1949), in its reflection on success, the fallibility of dreams and the power of money.

It’s an almost flawless production, featuring design that will take your breath away in its simple brilliance. Essentially, this is a kitchen sink drama that takes place in poor tenement housing. With some down-at-heel kitchen cupboards and furniture, and an enormous fabric backdrop, designer Nadya Cohen has constructed everything that apartment life in suburban poverty could mean. The set is gestural, the nuances it contains are rich with the evoked stink of oppression and making do.

Enter Ruth (Lesedi Job). Wife to Walter (Paka Zwedala), mother to Travis (Hungani Ndlovu), daughter-in-law to Lena (Trena Bolden Fields) and sister-in-law to Beneatha (Gaosi Raditholo), she’s a tragic character by definition. Job embraces the role with such a sense of potent energy, her Ruth recalls the mute sense of the tragic conveyed by British actress Julie Walters in so many of her roles. This is no blood and guts emotion, but rather a more subtle and sophisticated reflection of utter disappointment and impotent rage. Job embraces the stage with a tenderness and a sense of resolution, which resounds across the auditorium even when she is silent, her back turned to the audience, as she weeps whilst washing dishes or ironing.

The work’s narrative surrounds the maturing of a policy in the wake of a death that could lift the oppression from this hapless family, but it is structured in such a way that you realise it is a lot more than money that is necessary to alleviate their indignity, which is bruised by poverty but deeply scarred by blind racism and the senseless repositioning of goal posts.

Zwedala admirably offers a deeply emotional Walter: A man who is not afraid to dream or to weep at his mother’s feet, but one who is stunted in his potential to fly or actualise those dreams. It is not through faults of his own that he’s the brunt of his family’s mockery and his friends’ betrayal, but ultimately, he’s the character that shoulders the emptiness of loss in weathering and patching broken dreams.

As Trena Bolden Fields comes on stage in the role of the family’s matriarch, Walter’s mother, your knee-jerk reaction might be to disbelieve her in this role because she seems too young and her smooth skin and beautiful physique belie the white-powdered hair, but as the role unfolds, this American performer sways and surges with the rhythms and nuances in this text so well that she becomes Lena, unforgettably – feisty and hard working to a fault, a woman with adult children who understands the passage of time and the shifting of generations but also one who knows her children and their dreams and flaws, better than they think.

Lena’s daughter Beneatha is the most conflicted and complex role in the work. She’s beautifully cast and feels completely appropriate as Walter’s fiery younger sister also all wrapped up in the family’s circumstances. Swept off her feet by completely different suitors – the wealthy young George (Lebo Toko) with his poncy accent and white shoes; and the politically astute young Asegai (Khathu Ramabulana) with his Africanness and exoticism – she has a fire in her belly that she will not assuage.

The child, played by Hungani Ndlovu, is, like all the other roles in this work, effectively a cameo. Ndlovu does seem too old for the role, given that he’s meant to be a mere 11 years, but this doesn’t seriously hurt the plot.

The curious thing about this work is both its staging and the choice to choreograph dancers around it. The stage in the John Kani Theatre is three-quarters in the round. The production is streamlined to face in a certain direction. While this doesn’t hurt the work, you may have a completely different experience depending on where you are seated in the auditorium.

Dancers are choreographed to give a sense of life in the tenement housing around the Younger family and from the back seats of the theatre, you cannot see them with clarity, but rather the poetic play of shadows of limbs and beautiful movement offer that light sense of energy that is completely and deliciously sufficient. Whether their more full-bodied presence would hurt a reading of the play remains moot. Instinctively, it does seem, however, that the introduction of dancers on top of all the other dynamics that the play presents, is just too much, which effectively would overwhelm rather than hone your view.

All things considered, the eagle-eye view from the back of the theatre allowed for an experience that was not only deeply moving but also sophisticated and provocative in its focus. This is an important work; beautifully crafted, it reaches into the nub of ugliness in black-white dialogue. Don’t miss it.

  • A Raisin in the Sun is written by Lorraine Hansberry and directed by James Ngcobo. It features design by Nadya Cohen (set), Mandla Mtshali (lighting), Lesego Moripe (costumes), Fana Tshabalala (choreographer) and Jurgen Meekel (audio-visual). It is performed by Trena Bolden Fields, Charlie Bouguenon, Lesedi Job, Hungani Ndlovu, Gaosi Raditholo, Khathu Ramabulana, Khulu Skenjana, Lebo Toko and Paka Zwedala and dancers Tshepang Maphate and Teresa Mojela, in the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until February 28. Call 011 832 1641 or visit www.markettheatre.co.za
  • For a broader overview on how A Raisin in the Sun touches contemporary South African communal values, read this.

Strings that can move heaven and hell

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“IT’S HELL TO try and get a concert ready in such a short period of time, but it’s important that we are a part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival,” says Rosemary Nalden, the founder and conductor of Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, arguably South Africa’s most important musical incubator which, based in Diepkloof, Soweto, trains youngsters to perform beautiful music.

Taking a break from rehearsal in the Reformed Presbyterian Church on Mphatlalatsane Street, Nalden, a graduate of London’s Royal College of Music and the University of New Zealand, who enjoys a passion for early instruments and recorded as a violist with conductors of the ilk of Sir Roger Norrington and Sir Simon Rattle, during the 1980s, spoke to My View. The work on the table was one of Bach’s Brandenburg concerti. The focus: timing. The atmosphere: intense. The contrast of Soweto with the exuberance of Bach under the fierce concentration of 10 performers: tears-inducing.

“Selecting them was a bit of a headache,” Nalden speaks of the performers you will see on Saturday. “Our viola section is at the moment not very strong. The thing is, sections come and go, in rather a random way. We have waves of people with preferences for different instruments … a few years ago, actually a lot of years ago, we suddenly lost our ‘cello section and we had to build it up again.

“Those viola players you saw in the rehearsal are actually fiddle players. Khotso Langa is our first viola player. He’s a very talented fiddle player – he’s a very talented boy altogether – and he kept sort of coming to the rehearsals and he’d learnt the music, but he didn’t have a part to play. And then our principal viola left a rehearsal early for some reason a couple of weeks ago and Khotso was hanging around, so I went and found him a viola, and he’d really never played a viola before, you know, it’s a different clef. And I said, ‘Oh come on, Khotso, just do it.’

“He’s really good and he’s got the job. He’s keen and he’s at that sort of adolescent stage – he’s 16 – that he just wants to pretend it doesn’t really matter, that he’s very cool about everything, but you know, he feels intensely he wants this.

“When a child comes to Buskaid for the first time, you really don’t know what potential they have. Most of the time you can sort of tell with some of them it’s going to be a real trial.” Armed with a passion for performance practice and teaching, Nalden uses the teaching technique pioneered by Paul Rolland and developed by Sheila Nelson.

She speaks about a 12-year-old who came to the space just before last Christmas. “He’s become my personal project. And it’s been just mind-boggling. He came into this space out of curiosity. He came and sat and watched regularly. Until I asked him if he wanted to learn.”

A light comes into her eyes. “The other day, he was holding the bow, and I said to him, it looks so good. Does it feel as if you’ve done this before? And he said ‘yes’. That’s sort of a funny little trick: for some of them it feels as if it’s familiar because they do it so well and so easily.”

As a mentor for black adolescents since starting Buskaid in 1997, Nalden, who was awarded an MBE in 2002 and is one of five musicians worldwide to have been awarded honorary membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society, has probably experienced all the emotional trials she could’ve imagined, some of which still surprise her. At the mention of the idea of agony, she eloquently covers her face. “But when they get together and the music just flows in the way you just heard, it’s worth everything.”

This year’s Buskaid concert for the Johannesburg International Music Festival features not only work by Johan Sebastian Bach and Philippe Rameau and a selection of kwela music, as is Buskaid’s tradition, but also Kol Nidrei, a piece of music composed by Max Bruch, which is unequivocally the most important – and most recognisable tune in Jewish culture.

It’s a curious tale that brought it to this repertoire. Nalden’s personal family history rests on Jewish connections, but this is not why we will be hearing Kol Nidrei, the opening song for the confessional festival of Yom Kippur, the most significant of all Jewish observances, in Saturday’s concert.

“Tiisetso Mashishi, the violist and Gilbert Tsoke, the ‘cellist simply fell in love with it,” Nalden explains. “Tiisetso came to me and said he wanted to do a viola arrangement of it. Gilbert heard this and said, ‘Hang on. You can’t do this. This is a ‘cello piece. I want to do it.’

“So there was this conflict going on. We auditioned both of them; they will share it. And that’s not all, Kabelo Monnathebe then asked me where he can find it arranged for violin. They adore it.”

It’s a bit like musical history repeating itself. Nalden muses: “Bruch was not Jewish and he really didn’t write this work for religious reasons. He just took this melody – or rather, all of these melodies, there are a few of them – and just used them, because he loved them.”

Jewish music is not foreign to Buskaid. “Some years ago, we did a Jewish suite of songs. We were playing works by Ernest Bloch. I took five of them to a Friday night service at the synagogue in Glenhove Road, in Oaklands. I’m hoping we’ll get a bit of a Jewish audience, for this concert.”

Grahamstown and Singapore are on Buskaid’s wishlist for 2016, the latter to play with pianist extraordinaire Melvyn Tan, a friend of the project who played with them at last year’s Mozart Festival.

“I raise the money for all of these trips by mainly going to corporate sponsors, but on the whole we enjoy really scant support from the government. It’s so silly. These are ambassadors”, she gesticulates towards the performers. “There’s a perception about young black men in the international world, which could be refuted, and these youngsters have the capacity.”

Nalden continues making dreams come true. “I’ve no idea how many local graduates, we’ve had, but we’ve sent seven to the Royal College of Music, three of whom have graduated; others have gone into other professional directions.”

Referring to the recent scourge of racist accusations in South Africa, she recalls: “When we used to scrape away in the foyer of the Linder Auditorium many years ago, we used to get these elderly (white) ducks, who were coming to hear Richard Cock conducting Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra; they used to say things like ‘what are these people playing this kind of (European) music for?’ It used to make me terribly cross. These kids are far more talented and sensitive to the nuances in the music than the kids I taught in Hampstead. This kind of racism is nonsense. It’s rubbish.”

  • Buskaid under the baton of Rosemary Nalden performs a chamber concert, at The Edge, St Mary’s School in Waverley on February 6, as part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival. Visit join-mozart-festival.org and www.buskaid.org.za
  • Read more about the experience of visiting Buskaid here, and what Melvyn Tan had to say to My View last year, here.

Blinded by Kentridge

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ORDINARY MAGNIFICENCE: Kentridge’s polyptych of birds in flight make this exhibition something to see. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

AS SOON AS most gallery visitors and those who boast an interest in the creative industries announce that there’s a William Kentridge exhibition in town, a sense of respectful silence embraces the conversation. It’s like a declaration that God has landed in Johannesburg and may be seen on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Kentridge, who started showing his work at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg in 1989 has unquestionably become South Africa’s biggest arts celebrity. He has exhibited all over the world and his achievements boast not only a meteoric rise in the popularity and collectability and prices of his work, but also a work ethic that is genuinely second to none. But when it comes to critically engaging with Kentridge’s work, you’re up against such a powerful brand that has been so successfully marketed that you’re robbed of opinion as you stand in front of the pieces.

You shouldn’t be, however. While Kentridge’s drawing skill in this exhibition remains unequivocally magnificent and surprisingly quiet in a beautiful polyptych of a bird in flight, rendered with a fat brush and loose ink on disused ledger pages, this exhibition’s central piece is a videoed tour de force which closes out a regular visitor who hasn’t done sufficient homework.

Academic art at its most dangerous, this Kentridge installation is violent and an assault on the senses. Lots of things happen in this utterly impeccably made three-channel experience, which is punctuated by words and phrases like bullets from guns, as it is supported by the faux-military and vaguely threatening pomp and circumstance of brass band music, with a sense of quirky and revolutionary malevolence.

You’re not sure if these slogans are Kentridge’s own words, or ones which draw from Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book or a combination of the two. A gun-toting Dada Masilo, in a red beret, a guerilla-evocative skirt and traditional pink satin ballet shoes, features considerably, as do other performers in surreal contexts. But there’s a level of ominous undercurrent that is difficult to read with clarity, refuting the basics of the opera tradition.

Is this an opera? Is it an embryonic gesture toward an opera in the tradition coined by Monteverdi in the 17th century? Or should it be seen to conflate with the rudiments of Chinese opera that stretch to the Zhao Dynasty in early Chinese culture? That it’s Chinese is obvious. This work  premiered in Beijing and is currently on show in Seoul and it speaks with impeccable design and digital articulation of the contradictions in modern China. You’re left not really knowing where it all fits together, but infused with a sense of awe that you have been in the presence of the master, that is actually blinding.

You don’t have to believe this – but you do have to read the supporting material, where you will glean that Kentridge’s Notes toward a model opera is informed by a lecture Kentridge delivered in 2015 in Beijing about Chinese culture and what it is currently undergoing. How you, as a Johannesburg gallery visitor, get seduced by this material, is a different issue. Without focused immersion into the underpinning literature, you’re left with an overwhelming after-image of a cosmogony of beautiful birds, aggressive filmography, dance and collaboration which is exhaustive.

  • Notes towards a model opera, an exhibition by William Kentridge is at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until February 12. The exhibition features contributions by Dada Masilo (choreography), Philip Miller and Johannes Serekeho (composition), the First St John Brass Band and members of African Immanuel Assemblies Brass Band (music performance), Zana Marovic and Janus Fouché (video construction), Yoav Dagan (video installation), Gavan Eckhart (sound mix) and Greta Coiris (costumes). It is performed by vocalists: Joanna Dudley, Tlale Makhene, Ann Masina, Moses Moeta, Thato Motlahaolwa and Bham Ntabeni; instrumentalists: Waldo Alexander (stroh violin) George Fombe (tuba), Adam Howard (trumpet and spoons), Charles Knighten-Pullen (guitar),Tlale Makhene (percussion) and Dan Selsick (trombone); and performers Dada Masilo, Tlale Makhene, Thato Mothlaolwa, Bham Ntabeni and Thabane Edwin Ntuli. Call 011 788-1113 or visit goodman-gallery.com