Grand eland, springbok child: a work of space, humanity

space

BEAUTY under African umbrellas: An insight into Space photographed by John Hogg.

WHEN SOMETHING SO unutterably beautiful crosses your path, at first you feel awestruck into silence, and once you have caught your breath and gathered your energies, it takes time before you are capable of reflecting on the intensity and pull of that beauty. This is what you experience with Sifiso Kweyama’s Space, a celebration of humanity and the essence of godhead which also reflects tragically on the horrors and broken sacredness faced by the original inhabitants of this part of the world.

Something akin to Sylvia Vollenhoven’s Keeper of the Kumm (2016) an extrapolation of her coloured roots, or composer Peter Louis van Dijk’s Horizons (1995), performed most extraordinarily in South Africa earlier this month by the King’s Singers, Space embraces a tale of colour and identity, one which is also peppered by violence and displacement. But overall, it is a work so sensitively conceived and articulated, you feel the urge to open your eyes and soul wider than what your anatomy will allow, just to hold onto every gesture and visual rhyme you’re exposed to.

Featuring dancers associated with Jazzart, the work does the Cape Town-based dance company proud in the interjections of movement and poetry and how they sync with one another. But there is more – the integrity of design in this work, from sound to simply fabulous costumes, add to how it flows hither and yon against the aural backdrop of poetry in English and Afrikaans, about the loss of land and the horror of discrimination.

Having said that, it is Lewellyn Afrika that will grasp your eyes from the very outset of the work. Not only is he a beautiful persona onstage, who evokes the noble eland in his unconscious sense of potency and quiet magnificence, but he’s an extraordinary dancer, who reaches across the stage with gesture and bottled fire. As you watch the narrative sequence of events in the work unfold, you see Afrika as a cipher of gender potency as he confronts the maleness of the character danced by Shaun Oelf, and the more stereotypical reflections of the three women dancers, Refiloe Mogoje, Thabisa Dinga and Tracey September.

This work is a paean to coloured identity and how it reaches through the interstices of history and war to the San people. The thrust and flow of the choreography with costumes comprising muted hues and dance pants that splay and echo visual and performed values, it’s a piece you don’t want to end, even though the tale is far from happy or comfortable.

While the sound design in the work lacks subtlety and the words are gravelly and thick in a way that sometimes impedes their diction or clarity, the work as a whole is otherwise constructed with a powerful choreographic hand and beautiful cohesion between dancers. This is the kind of work that makes a festival such as Dance Umbrella sing. And the kind of audience experience that makes it very sad that the work occupies the platform for but two days. But it’s also the kind of work that makes everything seem a little lighter, wiser, more forgiving and a lot closer to perfection.

  • Space is choreographed by Sifiso Kweyama with directorial advice from Mdu Kweyama and features design by Max Richter and Radical Face (music), Khadija Tracey Heeger and Lewellyn Afrika (poems), Nkosinathi Sangweni (costumes) and David Hlatshwayo (lighting). It is performed by Lewellyn Afrika, Thabisa Dinga, Refiloe Mogoje, Shaun Oelf and Tracey September in the Wits Theatre, on February 24 and 25 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.
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An exquisite corps at any vantage point

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THE body, perfected. Moeketsi Koena in Corps. Photograph by Denis Rion.

AS YOU SIT down and focus on the internal space created by the vast vertical diaphanous screens that are central to this piece, you might feel that you’re in the wrong seat. And as Corps unfolds, with the play of shadow with dance, video footage with photographic image, you might still get the urge to adjust your seat. But the truth, it seems, is that from which ever perspective you view this sophisticated and deep work, it feels like the proverbial grass may be greener on another seat. This disparity in the work’s structure is at once disconcerting and engaging and it’s both an upside and a downside to the work’s reception.

But it is when Moeketsi Koena and Gaby Saranouffi occupy the stage at the same time, that the energy of the work reaches its unequivocal heights. The love and trust that these two dancers have for one another is articulated with delicacy and fervour, coherence and elegance, in their visual and choreographic dialogues they demonstrate and privilege you, in the audience to see. And the working together of both dancers is unquestionably the central nub of the work.

Forming concentric circles around them are the quotes and gestures of photographic pieces, focused on a range of subject matter from bodies seemingly covered in blood or mud to urban graffiti and landscapes, often too quickly displayed for your brain to recognise and work with; consequently what the overall work loses in detail it gains in texture. Indeed, this is similarly evoked in the use of sound where musical phrase, word and sound are repeated so frequently that you perceive them as patterns rather than meaningful statements, and the effect is subtly hypnotic.

Koena and Saranouffi interface and interfold with one another in a way that makes you forget they are two people. Their movements are measured, mellifluous and austere, yet the confrontation with time and space evoked by image, light and texture is aggressive and fiery. The one aspect of this work, however, which felt ill-considered was the fact that one of the diaphanous screens is a continuous panel, and the other comprises two panels pushed close together. The gap between these two panels became an eyesore in the smooth and considered interface of everything else on stage.

Corps is a tightly formed work that shies from the obvious. It is not easy to watch or to understand from a single sitting, but that splayed nature of values and tastes, texture and direction attune you to the fact that something quite extraordinary passed this way.

  • Corps/Body is choreographed by Moeketsi Koena and Gaby Saranouffi and features design by Seodigeng Keaoleboga (costumes), Nandele Maguni (music) and Denis Rion (lighting, videography and photograpy). It was performed by Moeketsi Koena and Gaby Saranouffi in the Downstairs Theatre at Wits, on February 24 and 25 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.

Chapter and verse of dogma and sex, and a little something to take home with you

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IN control and colonised. Mamela Nyamza and Aphiwe Livi (under the bench) in the work De-Apart-Hate. Photograph by Nardus Engelbrecht.

SELDOM DO YOU find yourself turning to the bible in an attempt to access what you have just seen in a dance festival context. But this is most certainly where the perplexing, abstract but highly skilled De-Apart-Hate by Mamela Nyamza, which debuts in Johannesburg for the Dance Umbrella, presents you with. It’s a tale of the kind of illegal love described in Leviticus chapter 18 verse 22, and unbalanced values cast against a backdrop of austere principles and sexuality.

It’s a work which elegantly combines stasis and violent movement, colour and see-sawing of values and coherence in an engaging and oft-difficult to watch framework. But it’s also one which makes you feel that you are in a church context, given the live recordings of congregations singing that peppers the work with an element of realism.

Think of the one piece of work which American feminist artist Carolee Schneemann is most notorious for – Interior Scroll – where the performance artist has inserted a text into her vagina, and part of the gesture of the work is her extraction of this item from her body and her reading of its contents to an audience. But while you’re thinking of it, grow the notion and develop it under a sophisticated rubric that is less about the shock of nudity on stage and more about the idea of the bible as a text that restricts and deems certain sexual activities taboo – or has, over the years. The place-keeping ribbon in this bible draws you to the gestures of the feminist movement of the 1950s, but in Nyamza’s hands – and between her thighs – it becomes something else.

Having said that, this is not a sexy piece in the smarmy and obvious understanding of the notion. Pulling together the notion of Victorian culture, the work features interaction between Mamela Nyamza and Aphiwe Livi which is as much about social intercourse as it is about sexuality.

It’s a piece about imprisonment and boldness, rules and taboos that will insinuate itself in your thinking with a deliberately gradual flow of energies. It becomes difficult to watch because of the stasis presented, giving an ear to Dance Umbrella critics who reflect on some Dance Umbrella pieces as being conceptually and actually stripped of all movement.

The astonishing thing about this work and the dance gestures and church-evocative chants is that the whirligig of church behaviour it ignited into activity under the rhythm and gesture of the performers. On opening night, audience members became congregants who were unafraid to ululate and extrapolate on the values of God and Satan as they watched Nyamza and Livi move.

This is another important dance gesture for Nyamza. Again, she bravely reformulates herself within the rubric of her dance – at times looking demonic at times looking like a figure from a painting produced in colonial Europe. With a bench that doubles as a see-saw painted in colours evocative of all that the LGBTI movement stands for, to say nothing of the Rainbow Nation cliché, the work is sophisticated and cleanly placed, as it is rich and profound in its thinking. And from day two of Dance Umbrella, the festival is lifted to an important high.

  • De-Apart-Hate is choreographed by Mamela Nyamza and features design by Shiba Sopotela (costumes) and Buntu Tyali (lighting). It was performed by Aphiwe Livi and Mamela Nyamza in the Wits Amphitheatre, on February 24 and 25 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.

Sing a song of ghosts in a museum of torment

Workers CHANT-photo Evans Mathibe

LOOK into the light: Feeding bowls double as light in the sequences danced by SA dance group Phuphuma Love Minus. Photograph by Evans Mathibe.

SOMETHING QUITE TERRIFYING happens when you find yourself among people you don’t know, being aggressively instructed in a language you don’t understand: You just obey. You do what other people are doing. You become frightened to step out of line. Frightened that the guards’ attention will become focused on you and you may be singled out from the pack. And what will become of you? Will you be humiliated? Will you be killed? Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Workers’ Chant plays with power in a way that which might leave you traumatised and emotionally in disarray.

It takes the audience through the passages and interstices of the Workers’ Museum, an eerie odd little place at the best of times, which is part of the Newtown heritage trail and remains a chilling relic of apartheid’s values. Given the anti-immigrant marches that Johannesburg saw this week, it is a scarily prescient work that is as much about mourning and brokenness as it is about singling out people deemed of lesser value than the rest of society.

A little too long by maybe ten minutes, the work hammers home the realities of migrant living conditions in a crudely racist regime, as it glances head on at everything from the children of migrant labourers who cannot be read to at night, to the way in which everything from piss, shit and vomit, to food and sleep are – or were – regulated in this compound. Under threat of punishment.

There’s a loose narrative conflating the two women (Siphumeze Khundayi and Liyabuya Gongo) and weaving a history of aggression with one of tears and loss. Not always completely legible in terms of its structure, the work is achingly haunting, as it brings the song and dance work of miners associated with Phuphuma Love Minus in a way that evokes the ghosts of the men who were hard done by in this dire little compound complex and others similar to it.

It’s a work of insecurity but certainty – you know it’s an artwork and the ramifications of the instructions hurled at you cannot really touch you, but you’re still touched, anyway. It’s also a work of chilling beauty and forcefulness, which resonates with the values cast by Xoli Norman and Sue Pam Grant in the 2009 piece Guard on Shift staged at Dance Factory or Jay Pather’s Qaphela Caesar at the building formerly the site of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 2012.

Workers’ Chant is riddled with contradictions that give it toughness: it’s a celebration of lives in a context of horror and pain, a reflection of the iconic  photographs by Ernest Cole of deprivation and uniformity and a piece capable of creating shriekingly powerful images and contexts, as it is capable of creating a situation which rapidly becomes nightmarish with the screams of a woman in a closely confined space.

You’re not warned of the physical challenges this work brings, as you trundle through the dark and stony surfaces of this museum, but it is the eerie togetherness and spooky site-specificity, wrapped as it is with the traditional songs of the miners that will echo in your head with the whispers of cruel injustices and the dignity with which the men thus inflicted carried it all, sometimes right to their ignominious deaths.

  • Workers’ Chant is choreographed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu in collaboration with Siphumeze Khundayi and Liyabuya Gongo. It features design by Nhlanhla Mahlangu (costumes) and Mandla Mtshali (lighting and video) and is performed by Liyabuya Gongo, Siphumeze Khundayi and Phuphuma Love Minus, at the Workers’ Museum in Newtown, on February 23 and 24 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.

Tales of sound and fury, signifying everything

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BROKEN figures, polluted landscapes. Works by Blessing Ngobeni. Photograph courtesy Everard Read Gallery.

TAKE AN ALREADY angry and energetic approach to art making with a political edge, and exacerbate it with shoddy politics, unethical behaviour and the distressing circulation of the notion of ‘alternative facts’ in the country and the world, and you get Blessing Ngobeni’s current solo exhibition – the seventh in his career thus far – which probes and bashes against the horror of our times, using his intellect, his paintbrush and his anger as part of his tool box.

Ngobeni’s work has a reputation of unrelentingly splicing art historical references together, from across the spectrum, as it quotes and dissects the instruments and politics of our times. Often really crudely. Masked Reality sees an evolution in his approach, and if you consider the gallery space at large before you allow yourself to be sucked into the individual works on display, you will recognise an iconicity that digresses from his former works which boasted less of a clear composition than these.

Still, you see echoes of Bitterkomix and Norman Catherine, of the grotesque sexuality that is present in between-the-world-wars work of German artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit period of Expressionism, such as Georg Grosz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. There are bodies here which like those represented by Hieronymus Bosch of hell, centuries ago, are nothing but big pairs of buttocks farting poisonously into the ether. There are other bodies which boast grotesque breasts filled lumpily with malignant-looking red contusions and lesions. The psychological horror known as vagina dentata – vagina with teeth – is reflected as a green claw with sharp nails.

And the work is also extremely violent in its making. Heavy paint is splashed with purpose across these compositions, chunks of text from newspaper form part of the palette, where heads of characters are premised with the face of a snarling jackal or a fierce pig.

The centre piece of the exhibition is an installation contained by the oval space of Circa with a kind of gothic terror. Queen of Scavengers is suspended from the gallery’s ceiling and extends to the floor, featuring a demonic figure made of what seems to be papier mâché, which has myriads of blind black dolls attached to its fingers. As you enter the space, it feels as though you’ve walked into a horror film, and your adrenalin pumps and urges you to flee. But you don’t. You want to look further.

The dolls – children’s play things made of plastic – are blind because their eyes, too, like the rest of their little faces and bodies, are spray-painted black in the direct and almost haphazard manner for which Ngobeni has come to be respected. It’s a violent cauldron of an image which has tremendous impact, but as you come closer to it and feel it attempt to blind your sensibilities from the two-dimensional works on show, you might question its value.

Unlike the paintings and drawings, the work feels more ostentatiously dramatic. Ngobeni’s appeal has been in the deeply evolved images he creates with multiple references layering one another and fighting for your eye in the same image. This Queen of Scavengers seems out there to make you look. And once you have looked, you must draw your eyes away, to the more evolved material.

Having said that, it’s a Queen emblematic of Ngobeni having the creative stamina to continue reinventing himself. He has established a signature modus operandi and critical respect. Queen of Scavengers is the opening of a new chapter, and makes you both afraid and enticed in your desire to peer into Ngobeni’s future.

  • Masked Reality by Blessing Ngobeni, is at Circa on Jellicoe in Rosebank until February 25. 011 788 4805 or visit circaonjellicoe.co.za

My body, my heroism

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THE reeds and I. Oupa Sibeko’s iQhawe. Photograph courtesy MAP Contemporary Gallery.

THERE’S A DENSE stillness articulated in the tough and unselfconscious photographs of performer Oupa Sibeko in his solo exhibition iQhawe. But as you look, you realise there is considerably more to these heroic images, cast pristinely onto a white background, which situate the artist in traditional reeds or nakedly.

For one thing, it’s an exhibition which comprises not only posed photographs – the works have been choreographed, if you will, by Sibeko, and photographed by Ben Skinner – these confrontational images conflate identity and bring together  cultural secrets with taboos, reeds with heroism in a black body painted white, and not only are they enticing, but they are also frightening. But you can’t readily look away.

iQhawe speaks of the Japanese dance form known as Butoh, where an engagement with the dancer’s body in relation to the dancer’s soul and the context of the dance is palpably intense and thoughtful. The movement is agonisingly slow. It’s like a form of worship or meditation. This is dance that reaches beyond the confines of convention or entertainment. It is dance which reaches back into the atavistic annuls of what dance was about a thousand years ago or more. It was about using the body to converse with the gods; being cognisant of one’s vulnerability, and prowess, of one’s beauty and terror.

Sibeko is an artist who continues to demonstrate a searing lack of fear in pushing the limits and questioning them guilelessly. Staging his performed work as a photographic moment is, of course, a marketing gesture, but it is more than that, too. Like Steven Cohen before him, among others, Sibeko, in capturing this powdery ether of his personal energy and culture, enables you to hold on to it all with the kind of intensity you lose in the transience of watching dance happen.

But also in Sibeko’s works, similar in a sense to that of the work of Ayana V Jackson, there’s a frank and almost deadpan engagement with the brutal structures of historical colonialist photography. Here’s a young man, imbued in his sense of self, in his Zulu culture, in his reeds and his body. He isn’t a specimen for scientific purposes. His photographs exist not for the need to be consumed in a racist rhetoric. He is what he is. A hero. A godhead. An angel. An emissary of his own values. Unapologetically.

  •  Reeds of iQhawe by Oupa Sibeko, is at MAP Contemporary Gallery in Melville until February 18. 011 726 3638 or visit www.mapcontemporary.co.za

The man who could fly

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MADNESS of reason: Godfrey Johnson is Vaslav Nijinsky. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

HE SITS AT the piano and caresses it into life, like a god. Like a demon. Like a godly demon or a demonic god. Sometimes he looks maniacal and deformed at other times, like a sprite, who could at any moment leap the constraints of gravity and fly away. This is Godfrey Johnson in his utterly magnificent portrayal of Vaslav Nijinsky, in a piece of theatre that is aflame with energy from the moment he touches the piano keys.

But more than a focus on the biographical complexities of a Polish dancer in Russia who effectively broke and reconstituted what ballet means by the electricity of his movements and his uncanny ability to pause mid-leap, this extraordinary work paints a portrait of an era. It was the Fin de Siècle. The end of the nineteenth century and boundaries were being tested by creative people across the spectrum – and the text is encrusted with musical quotes from Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky and Diaghilev, from Schoenberg and Berg and more. You get to taste the elegance and the wildness, the conventions and how fragile they were, in the splay of language which reaches and stretches into infinity as it blurs boundaries  and casts choreographic sequences into the ether.

And once you are firmly within the period and its frissons of possibility in a world that was a whirligig of newness and change, you realise something more. More than a celebration of Nijinsky only, this is an essay about the values of the society of the time, where critics held sway and literature had meaning. Proust is present. As is the bitchery between Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. But more than all of this, it’s an astute and sharply honed exploration of madness and growing old. And in this capacity, it is handled with such a sophisticated understanding of poetry and humour, sadness and cruelty that it leaves you breathless, your pulse racing, wishing for more and more… alas, too quickly it is over.

Godfrey Johnson is not a performer who we see often getting the chance to embrace the whole stage and to stretch his skills in a diversity of mad directions. Most recently in Johannesburg he was the accompanist in Pieter Dirk Uys’s Fifty Shades of Bambi. His immense ability to infuse this wild and impassioned script and so movingly interject the music and the dance, by association, into it, brings an ethos of fire and feathers, of unbottled energy that describes the way in which art can beget madness, and which renders this work utterly haunting and uncannily beautiful.

Vaslav is an imminently pristine piece successfully backed with an audio-visual track and effective and simple lighting choices but the stage does tend to be a little cluttered with wire cords connected to microphones and light, which slightly, but not pervasively, tend to bruise the magic that is cast.

The work is not quite a monodrama – the piano, similarly to how it is handled in Zakes Mda’s The Mother of All Eating – becomes a character in its own right. Not in a literal sense, but in the gritty gorgeousness of the musical puns and drama, sequences and masturbatory musical phrases that populate the work. In giving Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune jewel-like haunting prominence, it conjures up associations with the work of South African choreographer Elu, who, too was mesmerised in celebrating the atavistic values where artist meets beast, meets god all in the same intellectual conversation.

  • Vaslav is directed by Lara Bye and written by Karen Jeynes, Godfrey Johnson and Lara Bye, based on the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. It features design by Jon Keevy (lighting) and Joanna Evans (set and costume co-ordination) and is performed by Godfrey Johnson at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 25. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za