Women with fire in their bellies

Themba

MY books, my frock: Thabisa Dinga in Autho(r)ise. Photograph by John Hogg.

BOOKS AND THEIR inflammable contents, the perennially absent South African father, and unleashing the wrath of decolonised feminist fury are the issues central to the works staged by Themba Mbuli in Dance Umbrella, earlier this month. Mbuli’s topics are hot and relevant and the presentation is clear and engaging. But it is the work of Thabisa Dinga that ramps up the nerve centre of these pieces with fierce abandon and utter electricity.

A demure young woman, from the outset and outside, Dinga has skills that take you by surprise. She plays traditional African instruments that blend bow-instrument with blown instrument with weapon, as she captures the vortex of the works. Dealing with social issues central to who we are as people in this world, who have a tendency to overlook the values and the spaces of others, Dinga is key to the narrative in Memory Box, opposite Mbuli himself.

In Autho(r)ise, a work pummelled a little by typographical errors in the videoed projection, Dinga is seen in collaboration with Kristen De Kock and Nkemiseng Khena. It is here that fire is evoked with politically sensitive comments, an image that calls to mind South African visual artist Penny Siopis’s well-loved work from 1988, Dora and the Other Woman with the idea of pinning images onto a dress, and the complex life of text in a decolonised environment.

De Kock is another performer who also looks too demure and gentle to manifest the kind of performative fire that she makes, and you sit, transfixed and moved by the whorl of values that these two works present.

Looking at Mbuli’s work you cannot but mourn not only the Dance Umbrella in its current manifestation, but also the fact that the Standard Bank Young Artist Award – which Mbuli won in 2016 for dance – never did boast a travelling platform, as it does for visual arts in this country. It’s an omission that enables fine and feisty choreographers and performers of the ilk of Mbuli, to slip though national cracks.

  • Autho(r)ise and Memory Box are choreographed by Themba Mbuli. The former features creative input by Maris Steenkamp (costumes), Meryle Van Noie (composer), Thabisa Dinga (life music), Bamanye Yeko (lighting and technical design) and Christelle Dreyer (video) and is performed by Kristen De Kock, Thabisa Dinga and Nkemiseng Khena. The latter features creative input by Merry K Designs (costume), Thabisa Dinga (live music), Camile – Le fil, Mika Vainio, Alva Noto and Ryuichi (recorded music) and Bamanye Yeko (lighting and technical design), and is performed by Thabisa Dinga and Themba Mbuli. Both works were part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season and performed on March 17 and 18 at the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.
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We, the fallen giants

Noah

ONLY connect. A scene from PJ Sabbagha’s Noah. Photograph by John Hogg.

SOMETIMES A WORK reaches your sensibilities in an ineffable way, giving voice to your most secret and unuttered notions of the rawness of loss, love and letting go. Sometimes that work can touch all those nerves and succeed in being so supremely beautiful and wistfully unhinged that you throw all levels of intellectual unpicking to the wind and allow yourself, body and soul to be enfolded in what you are experiencing. The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative brought Noah to this year’s Dance Umbrella, a work which embodied all of these values.

It’s a piece premised on the biblical tale of Noah, the bloke instructed by God – in the face of derision from his peers – to build an ark in anticipation of a great flood that would drown all the bad people in the world. The ark was to be made of certain woods at certain dimensions, and it would contain two of each kind of species of animal. Benjamin Britten constructed his quirky opera Noye’s Fludde about it, in 1958 – as did countless other creative practitioners over the years. It’s a biblical tale which lends itself to popular memory and moralising.

Rather than take a conventional narrative flavour, however, this work looks at the tale from within the water. From within the souls of those left behind. The fallen giants. From the empathetic perspective of the birds at the end of a light, magicked into relevance with solar power, rather than an olive branch, the integration of dancers and swimmers, shadow bodies and real ones coalesce to create something that you feel you must whisper about when you engage with it. It’s a feast of dancing in the dark and videography that’s cropped to focus on what is essential. And yet, yet, the work is not precious in the stuffy, earnest sense of the term. It’s stream of consciousness at its most sophisticated. As you watch the bodies of the dancers entwine and intertwine, become ambiguous and lose their sense of self, and their sense of scale, so do you feel enriched at having encountered the meditative magic of this experience.

Unequivocally, Noah, alongside this year’s works by Steven Cohen and Robyn Orlin, captured the potency of what Dance Umbrella is, was and could always be. This triumvirate of important South African dance works which touch the soul of a developed aesthetic and a sophisticated understanding of how dance can stretch makes for a magnificent swan song to a treasured festival.

  • Noah is conceived by PJ Sabbagha and created by Sabbagha in collaboration with the cast: Nicholas Aphane, Athena Mazarakis, Shawn Mothupi. It features creative input from the cast (set and costumes), Cold Play/Nicholas Aphane (music), Thabo Pule (lighting and technical design), PJ Sabbagha (video filming) and Jessica Dennyschen. The video performance is by the cast and Collen Makua, Mpho Makuwa, PJ Sabbagha, Oupa Sibeko and Lucia Walker. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performed on March 16 and 17 at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Pretty shards and Steve Jobs’s legacy

Doll

BEAUTIFUL me: The serious girls in Doll. Photograph by John Hogg.

THE TROUBLING TRUTHS of the prevalence of the selfie and the way in which contemporary society is so deeply focused on its cell phones is something that has been pondered by thinkers and hacks alike. Social media seems to be here to stay, and it’s pulling our values shamelessly into a morass of vanity, narcissism and mediocrity. Owen Lonzar and Sylvaine Strike take these issues into their speculative loupe in constructing Doll. The work is carefully stylised and teeters over into issues of sexism and stereotypes. While aesthetically tight, it states the obvious, but it’s complicated with red herrings and doesn’t go beyond its basic premises.

Not even the physical charm and magnetic presence of Craig Morris could save the soul of this work, however, which is thankfully not very long, but so infused with its observations about cell phone mania and selfie admiration that it doesn’t take any conceptual leaps which would add to its narrative muscle or its value as a dance work. Instead, with its precise choreography, its clear and bold lighting and its stereotypical stories, it fits feasibly into the realm of entertainment rather than of contemporary dance.

With curiously robotic performances by the lead “dolls” who are dressed in a way that makes them reminiscent of 1920s ‘flappers’ – Nina Erasmus, Nicola Niehaus, Paige Farlene and Nosiphiwo Samente, the work alludes to a Stepford Wives/Handmaid’s Tale kind of metaphor, but it’s not something that Ira Levin or Margaret Atwood would have penned. Central to the work is a red herring: a character performed by Donovan Yaards, who wears a Rocky Horror Picture Show-evocative drag, complete with thigh-high shiny boots and a corset. He’s in and he’s out, rolling his eyes, blinging and fawning as he must, but we’re not given to understand why or even why he’s there.

The work plays with stereotypes as it looks at ordinary guys getting what looks like mail order plastic faux girls, through their Tinder-evocative selection gestures. It’s about bums and tits and pouted lips, and the manner in which girls are available for men’s delectation. The ‘character’ sits alone, between the two fences, being neither boy nor girl, really, and offers nothing by way of nuance, meaning or subtlety, which leaves this work feeling like a bit of pretty fluff rather than much else.

  • Doll is co-created by Owen Lonzar and Sylvaine Strike. It features creative input by Owen Lonzar and Sylvaine Strike (costumes) and Oliver Hauser (lighting) and is performed by Ryan Dittmann, Nina Erasmus, Paige Farlerne, Sara Feldman, Thapelo Kotlolo, Franscecka Leech, Craig Morris, Nicola Niehaus, Nosiphiwo Samente, Melissa Schafer, Hannah van Tonder and Donovan Yaards. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performed on March 17 and 18 at the Wits Main Theatre in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Nightmare in the Amphitheatre

Chauke

RIDING on the back of a blinded man. Lionel Ackerman and Thulani Chauke in Nothing Makes Sense. Photograph by John Hogg.

LET US BOMBARD our audience with flashing lights, a small dark venue simmering with the residue of stage smoke as they come in, and bits and bobs of sampled sound, thrown at them with such aggression that the context is illegible and the synapses of their brains forget how to behave. After that, we can show them how wonderfully we dance. This seems to be the thinking in Thulani Chauke’s contemplation on violence, entitled Nothing Makes Sense.

Featuring Chauke opposite Lionel Ackerman, a dancer with one leg, it’s actually a fine work premised on ideas around brokenness in society. Chauke dances the work either incapacitated in a white bag, or with a black box on his head, which renders him sightless, and the give and take, throw and catch between the two is wonderful to watch.

However, it’s an interesting lesson about the fourth wall and audience participation: does the work need to spill out emotionally into the audience’s lives in such a way that they are traumatised by the experience? Maybe. We saw this in Sello Pesa’s work, in this festival, as well as Robyn Orlin’s. In Pesa’s piece, the audience was confused as to where the lines were drawn. In Orlin’s, members of the audience were called upon to perform in an impromptu and potentially humiliating context. But in Chauke’s what we get is an infringement of audience sanctity. No one rushes into your space, and physically rattles your cage, but the technology blasts your head off.

And while Chauke’s point about violence and physical ability is absolutely clear and well-defined, blinding your audience with induced migraines is not really the most productive way of letting them engage in the magnificence of your dance. It’s a pity. Chauke and Ackerman are tough and careful dancers, and their movement is strong and articulate, but the work doesn’t sing to the audience.

  • Nothing Makes Sense is choreographed by Thulani Chauke. It features creative input by Khaya (costumes), Thulani Chauke (music) and Thabo Pule and Thulani Chauke (lighting and set), and it is performed by Lionel Ackerman and Thulani Chauke. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performed on March 17 and 18 at the Wits Amphitheatre in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Moving into Dance’s hope and glory

MIDM

ODE to the value of being differently abled. A scene from Moving Into Dance and Enable Through Dance’s The Call for Hope. Photograph by John Hogg.

COMPLETE WITH FEATHERS and upside down books, disabled dancers and movement evocative of ancient African dance traditions, to say nothing of their own, Moving Into Dance Mophatong presented itself on Dance Umbrella this year, with due aplomb and an earnest attempt at a snap shot of life, the universe and everything.

This was clearest – showing flaws in the desire to put everything, but everything, into the pot – in the first piece on the bill: Art Life Life Art Art Life Art, choreographed by David Gouldie. Beginning with some really interesting use of stage lights which evoked the faux rape scene in Peter Greenaway’s 1993 The Baby of Mâcon, it’s an image which doesn’t develop. And it’s one of many.

The potential of each metaphor presented gets muddied with everything but the kitchen sink. Indeed, there may have been a kitchen sink in the mix, which included a migraine-inducing flashing of images, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, open books on the head, giant feathers and much else.

As you read the programme, you realise there was even the work of L’Atelier artists in there. Sadly, with the speed at which this piece was thrust at the audience, you only had the time to recognise the things you knew very well, such as Edvard Munch’s The Scream, whose pose you might have been subconsciously emulating as the work reached closure. The dancers did admirably under these circumstances, but with discombobulated lights and flashing sequences, it became a piece more about technological flamboyance than history, or, indeed dance.

Fortunately, it was the programme’s starting point and it really did get better and even better from that point. Next up was the fruit of collaborative work between dancers associated with Enable Through Dance, and MIDM’s company: A piece entitled The Call for Hope. Featuring multiply abled dancers under the mentorship of Gladys Agulhas, the work was moving and beautiful, a little long, but clear in its narrative trajectory. With a broken chair in the midst of the stage, the idea of brokenness is cast, and as a one-legged dancer brings himself onto the stage, you understand. But then, you don’t. The skill with which so-called disabled dancers, ranging from people with dwarfism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome and the like, converted gesture into poetry made you forget that the ‘ordinary’ world utters pity in their wake. These are empowered dancers, making the world just a little more magical.

The final work on the programme reached right back to MIDM’s heart and South Africa’s dance history with Stone Cast Ritual, a work choreographed by the company’s founder, Sylvia Glasser in the 1990s. It’s a formulaic work along the choreographic lines of her ground-breaking piece Transformations (1991), in which sequence and gesture are melded with the poetry of shadow and coordination. As you sit in the audience of this piece, you wonder what energy a collaboration between this aesthetic and these dancers could bring with Jayesperi Moopen’s Tribhangi dance company with its distinctly classical Indian style.

You also wonder what the whole work would feel like in the start absence of piped music. The music prevails in certain aspects of the work, but not all. And when there’s no evidence of the music, something else happens; the work has a vocal energy of its own. The stones in the dancers’ hands touch one another with gentle specificity and you feel yourself swathed in the hypnotic energy of the piece.

The one irregularity in this work was spacing, however: where dancers were not always consistent in ensuring how they fitted into the spaces between one another, which messed a little with the work’s aesthetic.

The value of Embracing Gravity as a teaser showcase – the company celebrates its 40th year this year – to the achievements of MIDM cannot be under estimated. But it does reveal a glaring hole in Dance Umbrella’s programme. Another contemporary dance company, in addition to Tribhangi and MIDM, celebrates its 30th this year – and that’s Benoni-based Sibikwa. While there are dancers who boast history with the company, there’s not a special dedication to its aesthetics or achievements on the programme.

  • Embracing Gravity, the Moving into Dance showcase performed in the Wits Theatre, Braamfontein, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season, on March 15 and 16. It comprised the following works:
  • Art Life Life Art Art Life Art choreographed by David Gouldie and featuring creative input from David Gouldie (lighting), Karen Logan, Jacobs van Heerden and Mark Edwards (video), Liam Magner and Karen van Pletsen (music soundscape), Llian Loots (text), and showcasing the visual art work of Jessica Junga, Gideon Appah, Banele Khoza, Temba Sifiso and Thierry Amery;
  • The Call for Hope directed and staged by Lesego Dihemo, Otsile Masemola, Sussera Olyn and Mark Hawkins featuring lighting design by Wilhelm Disbergen and performed by Dineo Bofelo, Kaho Britou, Mickey-lee Cooper, Tshwarelo Golelwang, Ranell Malapan, Chardonnay Mars, Mapaseka Mokebo, Thabo Naha, Vuyo Qhaba, Justino Rickets, Kgopotso Siabe, Asanda Sobandla, Angie Venter, Jabu Vilakazi and Philile Vilakazi, with Enable Through Dance facilitators, Tshepo Molusi and Andile Nzuza; and
  • Stone Cast Ritual choreographed by Sylvia Magogo Glasser with creative input by Muzi Shili and Portia Mashigo (restaging), Wilhelm Disbergen (lighting), Gabrelle Roth (music) and Sarah Roberts (costumes).
  • The MIDM company comprises Oscar Buthelezi, Lesego Dihemo, Teboho Gilbert Letele, Otsile Masemola, Eugene Mashiane, Thabang Mdlalose, Sunnyboy Motau, Sussera Olyn, Asanda Ruda and Thenjiwe Soxokoshe.
  • Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Welcome to the scene of the crime

BagBeating

HOLD still, while I smash its brains in: Brian Mtembu, Humphrey Maleka and Sello Pesa in Bag Beatings. Photograph by John Hogg.

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.

And now, for something completely manly

Men

A door full of men: Vladimir Ippolitov and Fana Tshabalala in Men. Photograph by John Hogg.

ONCE AGAIN, FEMINISM is de rigueur in our society and young women espousing these values emphatically believe themselves to be the first of their kind, as they spearhead a wave of political correctness in behaviour and talk. But what of the men? Fana Tshabalala throws some choreographic light on the plight of the contemporary males of the species in a new collaboration with Swiss dancer Vladimir Ippolitov, entitled simply Men.

But make no mistake: this is not a misogynistic work on any level. Indeed, it casts a savvy eye at the rigours with which men are caught; the imperatives in terms of behaviour that is taught in a conventional context. It’s a stripped down piece characterised by a series of empty hanging frames, alluding to doors, windows and mirrors. Matthew Macfarlane, manning the guitar and the laptop sits in the centre of the space, like a god, manipulating and plucking the sound that gives the piece its core, and Tshabalala opposite Ippolitov populate the work with a cross-pollinated energy that is at once gentle and aggressive, officious and playful.

Men takes the notion of security guards in a new direction which embraces everything in its path, from sexuality to combat. It begins with a posturing that evokes a 1977 work by Marina Abramovic and Ulay, except these men are dressed in an all-purpose khaki  uniform, exuding the officiousness of guys who have these jobs, veering as they do between real danger and total boredom.

The work is tight, the choreography beautiful and unusual and it reflects on layer upon layer of association. Here there’s the issue of PTSD, there there’s coyness and campness. Not a humourless piece, it’s a quiet groundbreaking work that examines the contained violence of men in a power play and men in a warring context. There are unforgettable images cast in the characters’ stance, presenting values with simplicity, clarity and a unique dance language.

  • Men is choreographed by Fana Tshabalala. It features creative input by Merry K Designs (costumes), Matthew Macfarlane (music) and Mandla Mtshali (lighting and set). It was performed by Vladimir Ippolitov and Fana Tshabalala, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season, on March 10 and 11 at the Joburg Fringe Theatre in Braamfontein. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.