Dance Umbrella 2017 is done and dusted, and like virtually every other Dance Umbrella for the past 29 years, it featured the good, the bad and the ugly, and insights into the ‘lucky packet’ syndrome, central to any arts festival, where you’re never sure of the pickings of any evening’s material, as to whether it will indeed be good, bad or simply appalling.
Who could easily forget the sheer magic in Rudi van der Merwe’s Trophée, or the frissons of fierce and vulnerable energy cast by Ana Mondini in In the Heart of the Country, a work co-choreographed by Fana Tshabalala with Constanza Macras. Conversely, happily none of the audience members in Lady, Lady, the much anticipated work by Gaby Saranouffi, Desiré Davids and Edna Jaime didn’t find themselves pitched headlong down the theatre’s steep steps in the dark, as the work began before everyone was seated.
While some works still contained the same kind of mind-numbing repetitive bellow of sound that makes an MRI seem friendly, others have transitioned to understanding the value of music – and better still, the presence of a real person actually playing music, within the work. Unfortunately, in one such piece, the instrumentalist was placed at such a silly and basically disrespectful position that all the audience could see was his or her elegant arm, from time to time, and this served as a major detractor throughout the work.
In Down to Earth, Kieron Jina and Marc Philipp Gabriel delightfully cavorted nakedly with an assortment of arbitrary objects and by and large, except for a few achingly fine gestures in the work’s trajectory, the effect was lovely, but alas, so conceptually flimsy, it never moved from being two naked boys in a room of things. In another work, the archive of contemporary South African dance was splayed with a great deal of humour and poetry, honesty and frankness against the backdrop of memory by Alan Parker, in his Detritus for One. It was unconventional and difficult, but moving and real.
There were the strange faux pas in works in which dancers were so enthusiastic that they began moving before their soundtrack was switched on, others in which the dancers continued dancing in the silence between tracks, and yet others in which screens were erected, but the projected images didn’t coincide. Beautiful dance by Cape Town City Ballet and freelancers under the choreographic impetus of Kirvan Fortuin was so oddly marred because the colour of the floor in relation to the dancers’ socks was not taken into consideration. Featuring uncomfortable lighting, Fortuin’s When They Leave had all his dancers in brown socks. Effectively, this meant that the aesthetics of the work saw them truncated: the socks and the stage floor blended so well, the dancers’ feet were stolen from the audience’s sight.
Site specificity was handled with aplomb and Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Workers’ Chant, conjoined with Trophée, lent an eerie sense of authenticity to physical gestures in the world that were transfixing and unusual, allowing Dance Umbrella its traditional energetic charges of discomfort and unease.
Some choreographers articulated things about life, the universe and everything, sometimes in much more convoluted and lengthy ways than were completely accessible and strictly necessary, and others brought such poetry and magic to the stage, that it made you realise that this is indeed what it’s all about. Life, the universe, and everything, I mean.
The bulk of the festival took place in the three venues of Wits University’s theatre complex, and on paper and in much of the pragmatics of this approach, this was the best Dance Umbrella in years. It didn’t mean leaping in your car and hurtling through the unpredictable streets of Johannesburg between the performance of works. There was only one triple bill, and an immensely satisfying one at that, in which works which resonated with one another were curated together.
Where the venue failed effectively, was in terms of its hospitality. And while many people have vociferously behind the scenes explained the pragmatic reasons for this to me, it’s another issue of being able to explain it to Joe Public, the sometime visitor of Dance Umbrella, that he or she might have to settle for a bag of Jelly Tots for dinner, between shows. Not only was there no food accessible, but Wits University itself is in dire need of having to rethink its theatre as a real, professional venue. It’s not safe to go exploring campus at night – and while the theatre spaces are great, the foyer gives nothing to its visitors: not a bank machine, not a sandwich, not even a clear facade and logical entrance point.
This is a crying shame: the longevity of the Dance Umbrella is such that it deserves a regular venue to contain it, and one that, without excuses and explanations can sate any demands its patrons might have, simply because they’re patrons and shouldn’t be obliged to jump through proverbial hoops or sit on the floor or pretend that NikNaks are a balanced meal.
Having said all of that, and having partly recovered from the helter-skelter pressure of an arts festival, it’s time to congratulate Dance Umbrella under the artistic direction of Georgina Thomson, on another sterling success. Night after night, you might have returned home feeling alive with the magic and madness of this world. You might have returned home feeling appalled at how this type of dance gets international funding. But by and large, you returned the next night for more. And more. Here’s to Dance Umbrella’s 30th in 2018.