Contemporary dance

True selves, dervishes and calabashes

DANCE REVIEW: AMAWETHU.

Amawethu

RITUAL complexity: the cast of Amawethu. Photograph by Annmari Marais.

THE STRATA OF South Africa choreography run rich and deep and are about education and values as much they are about tradition and magnificence. We have in this country a plentiful culture of dance companies which have stretched their members to take authority on what movement means for a community. Luyanda Sidiya’s work Amawethu engages with all of these values, reaching into the heart of what dance means to him and his company personally, and what you get in this extraordinarily fine work is the bleeding edge of Afrofusion – a dance concept coined by Moving Into Dance’s Sylvia Glasser many decades ago, but ramped up in a new direction by Luthando Arts Academy.

By all accounts, this is a riveting piece, blending the energy of swirling dervishes with the politics of tradition, using the potency of voice and musical instruments that stretch the full gamut of African song-making, as its sound. Stripped of easy clichés, it’s about men in skirts with calabashes and burning imphepho as it is about the energy of narratives within narratives, the abstraction of dance and the literal dynamite of tradition.

Contemporary dance is a curious beast: you don’t have to be privy to every aspect of a series of tales told with movement in order to appreciate it. It is about many things: tone and colour, the visual spectacle of magnificent bodies in cohesion, as it is about a message. The South African State Theatre in Pretoria has made this work, which was performed in 2019, accessible on the theatre’s youtube channel to a locked down audience. And while this gesture is wonderful, and doesn’t involve you struggling with the Pretoria highway, it’s one that perhaps unwittingly exposes flaws in the theatre’s thinking.

Indeed, youtube presents a beautiful opportunity for wider audiences to see this work, but this is no National Theatre at Home offering. Rather, you find yourself working really hard through much of this work’s 70 minute run, to attempt to put yourself in the shoes of the people in the audience. With a lack of lighting clarity and focus, in the filming and broadcast of the piece, much of this work is compromised. By and large, this youtube production feels like a record for posterity rather than an exercise in filming for showcase.

It is, however, the denouement at the end of this piece that is its saving grace and enables you to forgive the theatre’s lumpish achievements in the face of good intentions. It’s an audience-resonant moment which is not about audience participation in the conventional, potentially embarrassing sense. Evoking Sidiya’s astonishing 2017 work In her shoes, but taking the thinking around positioning the audience to a more mature level, Amawethu sweeps its audience off their chairs and into the very ventricles of its heart. It’s a spontaneous drift and one to make you weep.

  • Amawethu is choreographed by Luyanda Sidiya assisted by Phumlani Nyanga, for Luthando Arts Academy. It features creative input by Xolisile Bongwana (musical direction), Thoko Seganye (artistic director), Dhuva Sekhosana (Dramaturge and text contribution), Mandla Mtshali (lighting), Fried Wilsenach (sound) and Motshidisi Manyeneng (costumes). It is performed by Thulisile Binda, Xolisile Bongwana, Katlego Dlamini, Kwazi Madlala, Promise Magopa, Sibusiso Masangane, Jabulani Mtshweni, Simphiwe Nkosi, Phumlani Nyanga and Nomasonto Radebe, with live music performed by Nompumelelo Nhlapo, Xolisile Bongwana and Phumzile Zondo. It performed at the Sibusiso Khwinana Theatre at the South African State Theatre in Pretoria for a brief season in 2019 and is presented on the theatre’s youtube channelon demand for free until June 14.
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