PICTURE THE FAMOUS bit of Western classical musical composed in 1928 by Maurice Ravel and called Boléro translated into raw sobs. Picture a professional mourner at a cemetery and a cast of close to 40 in costumes magicked to life by Black Coffee. Picture it all against a backdrop of the Soweto Gospel Choir in its sheer physical resplendence. Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: Requiem for Ravel’s Bolero returns to Joburg Theatre for a ten-day season, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Maqoma’s company, Vuyani Dance Theatre.
And Cion remains the kind of crowd-pleaser like many other works by Maqoma that tosses in a whole range of potentially diverse ingredients, but yields something that is uniquely his. As a contemporary dance work, Cion touches all the bases as it stretches the oft self-indulgent or elitist fabric of the performance medium into something in which everyone can be swept up. The dance is outstanding, complex and emotional. There are moments in which the noisy movements of traditional isicathamiya blend with a Western dance sensibility, reflecting on the gestures of Butoh and allowing sobs to segue with Ravel’s famous rhythms on a snare drum to take you to places in your head and heart that you did not know existed.
It’s a work, replete with tragedy and humour, contemporary references and deference to death traditions, that will leave you in awe by its sheer spectacle. As the shafts of light penetrate the stage, and the dancers in their grey costumes appear in the murk, you find yourself initially holding tight to the promised parameters of Mda’s novels, Ways of Dying and Cion, on which the programme tells you it is based, until you feel your grasp of them being wrenched clean.
In short, you do not need to know the story as you’re swept from context to context, seeing the choir come into its own as a vocal and visual backdrop to mould the sense of the overwhelming even further. While there are moments in this piece which feel a little too long there are others which, like a French work called Les Nuits which graced the Dance Umbrella platform in 2014, evoke Western art – in this case, Delacroix’s 19th century painting Raft of the Medusa, or the fallen angels painted by Giotto some 300 years earlier.
In many respects, this manifestation of the work – it has grown over the years, and matured – is a clarion call for South African dance possibilities to be pushed to a new level. By its bigness and unequivocal grandeur, the piece casts the avant-garde to the wind. This is as mainstream as you get, while it ticks all the proverbial boxes that define contemporary dance. It’s a work that takes the dance values of Moving Into Dance’s Afrofusion, with which Maqoma was raised and taught from 1990, to a new, even more proudly African level. And it’s an exhilarating hour of raw energy that will leave you thirsty, even if you were only watching in your seat.
- Cion: Requiem for Ravel’s Bolero is conceived and choreographed by Gregory Maqoma, with music directed and composed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu, based on two novels by Zakes Mda. It features creative input by Gladys Agulhas (rehearsal director), Xolisile Bongwana and Sbusiso Shozi (musical assistance), Black Coffee (costumes), Oliver Hauser (set and technical direction), Mannie Manim (lighting) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound). It is performed by Vuyani Dance Theatre dancers: Ernest Balene, Nathan Botha, Mmase Jane, Fezingo Kibi, Katleho Lekhula, Yonela Mabaleka, Monicca Magoro, Lungile Mahlangu, Maud Mapheto, Thamsanqa Masoka, Noko Moeketsi, Thabang Mojapelo, Tshepo Molusi, Musa Motha, Smangaliso Ngwenya, Otto Andile Nhlapo, Jessica Oliphant, Nolwazi Shabangu, Itumeleng Tsoeu and Roseline Wilkens, musician Simphiwe Bonongo and Soweto Gospel Choir members under the direction of Bongani Ncube: Anele Bizane, Nobuhle Dlamini, Phili Faya, Pamela Hlabangwane, George Kandi, Bongani Mabaso, Warren Makhangu, Gugu Mbongwa, Mandlenkosi Modau, Semangele Mongatane, Nolufefe Mpahleni, Tobela Mpela, Phumlani Msibi, Hlengiwe Msomi, Zanele Ngwenya, Fanizile Nzuza and Vistoria Sithole at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until September 15.