WHEN YOU KNOW, from the first few phrases of a book, that you are in good and powerful storytelling hands, the rest of the text sings beyond the confines of its pages. This is the kind of experience you can anticipate in Catherine Cole’s foray into South African dance, Performance and the Afterlives of Injustice, an important book published in 2020.
Beginning with a largely unknown legacy of abandoned and disrespected Native American dead, secreted under the pool on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, this is a tough and sensible, but carefully curated voyage. It doesn’t attempt to offer a comprehensive reflection on dance in South Africa. Rather, it takes you from memorialising unknown dead people, dispossessed by a culture that tainted them, into the heart of apartheid ideology, explored by Athol Fugard in his 1970s play Statement after an arrest under the Immorality Act.
This three-fold introduction, which begins in the dark heart underneath the state of California, is as much about losing a limb to illness as it is about finding the value of one’s own body, imperfect though it may be. It opens awareness to the work of selected South African choreographers, including ‘usual suspects’, such as Robyn Orlin, Mamela Nyamza, Brett Bailey, Jay Pather and Gregory Maqoma, who have enjoyed lots of crucial critical coverage, but also, it importantly examines work by South African dance makers Sello Pesa and Nelisiwe Xaba, as well as Faustin Linyekula, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who have been less in the critical spotlight.
When you read Cole’s interpretation of works by Orlin and Nyamza, which you might be familiar with, there’s a frisson of the untrammelled in her writing. Cole draws on the work of contemporary critics, but doesn’t sway from her own opinions and descriptions. It’s about how Bailey and Orlin force the confines of the theatre out of shape, in your memory and in situ, as much as it is about how violence rattles an audience’s understanding of what is deemed safe or doable in a theatre’s sacred space.
The text’s penultimate chapter plays with naming and naming words in a way that is fresh and informative, bold and almost cheeky in its vantage point. Cole offers a taste of Johannesburg’s dance festival, the Dance Umbrella, which may leave you nostalgic for all that it did and represented over two decades. The festival closed formally in 2018 under the curation of Georgina Thomson.
Cole writes in the first person, which may seem odd for an academic work of this nature, but with immense skill and a potent understanding of empathy, she crafts a rich focus on the complexity of the body. Without tiptoeing around platitudes, but still, adhering to the confines of academic writing, Cole tightens her material, looking at South African politics as she places the work of important choreographers under her critical loupe.
The value of this text is multiple. As an outsider – Cole is a professor of English and dance at the University of Washington – Cole can arguably tease apart methodologies in a way that a South African scholar in the same field cannot. Or would not. The book begs comparison with anthologies, such as Ashraf Jamal’s In the World, that have examined dance or the arts in South Africa. Its strength is the cohesion of Cole’s vision. And while there are weaknesses in the form of subbing errors and inconsistent spelling of people’s names, these can almost be forgiven in the lyrical way in which Cole ties up works of immense violence, sanctuary and sexuality, with her own understanding of a swim in an historical pool. With a missing limb.
If you have a penchant for South African dance, one for an understanding of South African messiness or merely a fondness for well-conceived ideas that flow seamlessly into one another, this book should be on your bookshelves.
- Performance and the Afterlives of Injustice: Dance and live art in contemporary South Africa and beyond by Catherine M Cole is published by the University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor (2020).