YOU NEED QUITE a tough stomach and heart to sit in the audience of Sello Pesa’s Bag Beatings, a work, which on one level is the most articulate and astute comment, so far, on the imminent demise of Dance Umbrella. It’s an angry work premised on extreme violence, and teeters around the notion of what is ‘play’ and what is for real, in a way that might give you flashbacks if you have been affected by violence on any level.
Premised on boxing idioms, the work takes on a level of violence which was similarly articulated by Peter van Heerden in 2006 in his work Six Minutes, an essay on the prevalence of rape in our society that features a rape staged so directly that audiences believe it is real. Bag Beatings does just what it promises: the men beat the boxing gloves until they yield their stuffing, and then attack the punch bag with a ferocity that is frightening and that feels as though it will bring the house down.
Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala lends the work the type of scary edginess that she has applied to her performance work consistently over the years, since her Standard Bank Young Artist win in 2006 – it’s confrontational and articulate, it’s off the wall in its out-spokenness, and there’s a beauty to its frankness. Either way, it’s designed to make you incredibly discomfited.
The punch bag, chained to the theatre’s ceiling rig, is vulnerable to all kinds of indignities. Boiling water is poured on it. There’s a threatening taser zapping the air with aggression, and an iron that speaks through its steam hole. Is the work cathartic? In a sense, but with the house lights glaringly on, you in the audience feel completely exposed. There’s water and electricity on stage and it feels like you are in the scene of a crime.
The work has the kind of punch that will make you feel your soul bruising as you wince with each smack the punch bag sustains, from fists, sticks, sjamboks and the men’s belts. But as a contemporary dance piece it lacks a denouement. And maybe this is intentional. This is about the wanton end to a dance festival, and it’s completely unrepentant in its desire to smash the fourth wall, and spill all its energy and sadness onto you, in the audience.
- Bag Beatings is choreographed by Sello Pesa and is performed by Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, Humphrey Maleka, Brian Mtembu and Sello Pesa. It was developed in residency for Season 1 at the Centre for the Less Good Idea and performs in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season, on March 15 and 16. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.