Stretched wishbones and backbones


A man who could sprout wings at any time: Vincent Mantsoe in his work Gula Matari. Photograph courtesy Dance Umbrella.

THE OPENING NIGHT of Dance Umbrella 2018 was one filled with gasps. Gasps at the formal announcement by its artistic director Georgina Thomson that this, the 30th iteration of the contemporary dance festival was to be its last. And gasps in response to the quality of work curated for the festival’s first day. It was dance to make your hair blow back and stand on end; historical dance that made you remember why this genre peaked so rapidly in this city, from the late 1980s. Dance Umbrella served as the platform to make things without meaning in the rest of the world, grow wings, become heroes and redefine values.

But wrapped carefully in these headlining events of the evening was something else. A glossing over. Will the dance fraternity be able to resurrect a project as focused and fierce as this little festival which has in all its 30 years of existence not once been allowed the luxury of not having to fight for its life, to hustle for its daily bread? It’s a reflection on the fickleness of the broader industry that sees initiatives wax and wane, come and go and nary a real helping hand offered in this often grotesque battle for survival. All too often, people and institutions whose doors have been knocked on again and again, who leave a project to die an ignominious death, turn into the proverbial bystanders, who mourn. They could have helped. They didn’t.

All of these values made the works, Gregory Maqoma’s Mayhem and Vincent Mantsoe’s Gula Matari, particularly prescient choices for the festival’s opening night.

If you perchance to visit the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, you will see a miscellany of angels painted in frescoes on the churches walls and ceiling by 13th century Italian artist, Giotto di Bondone. These are not just any common or garden angels. They are emotionally distraught, emotionally focused and sophisticated angels. Some weep, some screech, some are quiet, most are not. Something similar happens in Mayhem, where the characters are broken in different ways. Either physically or emotionally. They dance with a brokenness and cavort with a red ribbon led by a man who has one leg, and while the first part of the work’s sound track feels as though a massive balloon is bouncing on your ear’s tympana, the work swirls and pumps with a sense of energy and fervour. And all too soon, it is gone.

In the 1950s, something completely outrageous and remarkable saw light of day. Throwing formal music principles to the wind, it looked out the window and saw birds. This was contemporary French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, an essay written with the piano and birdsong. Vincent Mantsoe’s Gula Matari rocks your equilibrium in a similar way, as it redefines movement and balances you in the audience between the cusp of bird and man. It’s a completely outrageous work, which includes performances by four other dancers. Truth be told, Mantsoe’s presence eats up your attention to such an extent that the rest of the cast feel as though its superfluous and the dimming light at the work’s end, your enemy.

Dance Umbrella, for thirty years was the jewel in the crown of Johannesburg culture. Sometimes a tarnished jewel, filled with works that confronted and unstitched audiences; sometimes an unequivocal sparkler, reflecting on the real and beautiful skills that were driven to new and professional heights. This year’s festival is going to rattle away, on the wings of time. You need to be there for dance as well as historical reasons.

  • Mayhem is choreographed by Gregory Maqoma. It features design by Didintle Fashion Institute (costumes), Wesley Mabizela (music) and Mandla Mtshali and Oliver Hauser (lighting and production). It is performed by Thulisa Binda, Sinazo Bokolo, Nathan Botha, Julia Burnham, Katlego Lekhula, Lungile Mahlangu, Phumlani Mndebele, Thabang Mojapelo, Musa Motha,  Otto Nhlapo and Roseline Wilkens.
  • Gula Matari is choreographed by Vincent Mantsoe. It features design by Portia Mashigo (costumes), Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors (music), Oliver Hauser (lighting and technical) and is performed by Vincent Mantsoe, Gregory Maqoma, Lulu Mlangeni, Otto Nhlapho, and Shanell Winlock.
  • Mayhem and Gula Matari constituted the opening performance of this year’s Dance Umbrella. The works perform again on Wednesday March 7 at the UJ Theatre, in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Visit or call 086 111 0005.

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