Contemporary dance

Johannesburg: a dancework pock-marked by rebellion and verve


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
  • See my review of In My End is My Beginning here

2 replies »

  1. Thanks Robyn for your insightful review…even though I wasn’t there it gave me a good idea of the work. Long live the wonderful MIDM dancers! Warm Regards,

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