IN THE EARLY 1990s, if you wanted to bring South African flavour to the table, particularly if you knew nothing at all about this country, you were safe with a generic bit of Ndebele-ness. The symmetry, the easy geometry and the clean colours based on that community’s traditional wall painting and beadwork were disseminated willy-nilly across the marketing landscape from the time that BMW made Esther Mahlangu a celebrity. Ndebele dolls proliferated everywhere; they were bastardised in ways that were so appalling they were fascinating. But now, under Mamela Nyamza’s watch, the material is taken and wrenched and stretched into a new and utterly mesmerising direction. As are the dancers. And the effect? Ndebele clichés will never be the same again.
Comprising a dizzy mix of plastic, including corrugated swimming pool pipes, plastic armbands and the like, the adornments of the six dancers in Phuma-Langa echoes with a Ndebele doll aesthetic as you watch the performers move with exaggerated stiltedness. Add to the mix blindness and chalk, plastic rifles and the notorious Bok van Blerk De La Rey song which sidled with a military and racist veneer into South African culture ten years ago until the mantle of aggressive Afrikanerdom, and you have the kind of discomforting concatenation of values for which Nyamza is so respected.
It’s an immensely uncomfortable work to watch, as it must be. In focusing on the province’s bloody history, Nyamza draws on the complexities of expression. And on the utter arrogance of crudely taking someone’s name in your mouth and mauling it, without taking the time to discover how it should be said. It’s not a new idea here; it has been tossed with aggression at South African dance audiences by the ilk of choreographer/performer Hlengiwe Lushaba, some years ago. In this work, Nyamza’s dancers contort over their own names in a way that is almost out of control, blending Butoh facial ethos with an almost physical humour. But it won’t make you laugh.
Control is the work’s essential ingredient: While some challenges presented resemble a kind of extreme team-building exercise, where the contestants have to push their breathing, balancing and fumbling skills to the max, peacefulness pervades almost contradictorily. In this rigorous, punishing work which borders on the nonsensical, Francesca Matthys, Lorin Sookool and Nomfundo Hlongwa each embrace the discomfort of her costume, the difficulty of the choreography and the challenges of singing and blowing pipes with a statuesque stoicism that makes you weep.
This is an astonishingly fine work which brings together disparate values, touching on everything from the province’s name, to the traditional African musical instruments played in the region, with a guttural and sophisticated sense of authority. It looks playful and easy, but isn’t. It touches the fabric of the culture in Mpumalanga with an urgent intimacy that will not allow your focus to abate or disperse. And in the 19-floor-descent of the building’s elevator, as you try and puzzle out that all that you saw in this piece, so do you realise it reaches deep into that stuff of culture that makes you, you.
The venue offers underground parking in the garage on Jorissen Street directly beneath University Corner; don’t forget to remind the guard who lets you in that you will need to be let out as well.
- Phuma-Langa is choreographed by Mamela Nyamza as a part of her residency at Ebhudlweni Arts Centre, Emakhazeni, Mpumalanga under the aegis of the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collective. It features design input by Sasha Ehlers (costume and set) and Thabo Pule (lighting). It is performed by Nicholas Aphane, Nomfundo Hlongwa, Francesca Matthys, Thulani Lathish Mgidi, Shawn Mothupi and Lorin Sookool until September 16 at Emakhaya Theatre, 19th Floor, University Corner Building, Braamfontein. Contact Neli on firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations.