Accused, incarcerated, unbroken


BLUNTED, blinded, undefeated. Dark Cell‘s energy. Photograph by Thandile Zwelibanzi.

THERE’S STILL TIME to change your plans today and go and see what is arguably the finest piece of dance that has graced Johannesburg’s stages in a long while. Dark Cell, choreographed by Themba Mbuli and Fana Tshabalala is a contemplation on the horror of political incarceration. Focused on the plight of Rivonia trialists such as Nelson Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and others, it is a rich, provocative and noisy essay on pain, injustice and on victory.

Using props that have a ‘voice’ of their own in the form of industrial chains and tin buckets, the work is at once angry and political. It’s also historical with strong visual background – and aside from the bone-wracking sound track at times which you feel in your teeth and which tend to momentarily obliterate your focus – the work is tightly conceived and beautifully troubling.

Mbuli, Tshabalala and Thulani Chauke represent, in many ways the next generation of choreographic and dance heavy weights in this country – after the likes of Vincent Mantsoe and Greg Maqoma. Dark Cell, like Mamela Nyamza’s work, some years ago, focused on the black men who died when the SS Mendi was sunk in 1917, has depth and narrative which is both generalised and specific.

The use of the tin buckets evoke in many respects not only William Kentridge’s energy in rethinking the value and multiple uses of a prop, but also look through Kentridge and back in time to the trajectory resonating from Ubu Roi, an absurdist and war-related corrupt king penned by Alfred Jarry in the late 19th century. And that’s the advantage of dancing to the theme of politics: you’re able to pull out elements and articulate them, and allow them to concatenate with one another, without having to put words in mouths or contexts on a page.

Dark Cell is a compelling, beautiful and well-made piece. It’s the kind of work that should be billed on the front of many a dance programme – not only in this city.

  • Dark Cell is choreographed by Themba Mbuli and Fana Tshabalala. It features design by Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting) and Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes) and is performed by Thulani Chauke, Themba Mbali and Fana Tshabalala at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until November 4. Call 011 832-1641.

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