Kaddish for Elu

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HORROR of loss: Steven Cohen in his work ‘fat’. Photograph courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

SOMETIMES THE RAW howl of loss is the only thing possible. Sometimes it is more potent than any words which are in danger of teetering anywhere near the threat of idle platitude. Sometimes the raw gesture, the unthinkable act of personal anger and sadness in the wake of loss is more appropriate than the mannered one that is societally acceptable. If you have watched a loved one degenerate into base matter through illness, before they vanish from your life, part of Steven Cohen’s current exhibition will hit you in the solar plexus and it won’t let go until you have howled that memory back into subservience. put your heart under your feet … and walk! is a potent and utterly beautiful tribute to Elu, Cohen’s life partner who passed away suddenly in July of 2016. It resonates unapologetically with deeply personal references and a brutality of fresh and alarming aesthetics which Cohen and Elu developed over the last 20 years.

In many ways, this exhibition seems deceptively modest in size. It comprises three videos and a room full of ballet shoes. And as such, it is an informal taxonomy of Cohen and Elu’s rich collaborative career. As you look at each different installation of used and bruised, torn and smashed pink pointe shoes on their little podium, you recognise snippets and talismans drawing from the rich and taboo ethos of South African performance history – of which Cohen and Elu were the centrifugal force from the late 1990s – effectively pulling and pushing at the sense of possibility in a medium that had no history yet, in this country.

There are monkey skulls in ballet shoes, hunched like demons; there’s a mummified cat strapped to a shoe. Hitler puppets and anti-semitic propaganda vie with ornamental roosters and Victorian purses. There’s an anal probe and a startling array of sex toys and domestic tools, not to forget an elephant’s tail, a pair of purses made of real toads and a pair of phylacteries strapped over a rolled up Torah Scroll.

There’s a piece of Vallauris pottery in direct and shattering reference to Cohen’s unforgettable work Golgotha (2009), which too, dealt with loss – that of his brother. And as you ponder each tableau, each combination of values with the ballet shoe pinned or sewn, nailed or enfolded around the historical reference, you see in your mind’s eye, snippets of a career that was almost thwarted by a frightened public, but a career that developed nevertheless.

Cohen speaks and writes of the Elunessless of his life, since the passing of Elu. But when you enter this space, there is something so richly personal, so irrevocably about the dancer himself, that it feels that Elu is present. Immortalised. Dancing with his characteristic sense of anguish and self-belief, in these shoes, or those. In pain and in joy.

The eponymous phrase that serves as the title of this exhibition was uttered to Cohen after Elu’s passing. It was uttered by Nomsa Dhlamini, the woman who raised Cohen and became a significant collaborator in his later works.

Cohen explains in the gallery’s flyer when he told Nomsa – who was then 96 – that Elu had died: “I asked her how I could continue life alone, she said ‘put your heart under your feet … and walk!’” The first video work that you encounter in this exhibition is one of Cohen having the soles of his feet tattooed with this phrase. The rest comprises a real manifestation of how he is making this come true.

And effectively, that’s where the aesthetic, moral and emotional pinnacle of this exhibition lies. The video works which are screened in the second half of the gallery space. Named simply fat and blood, these two works have a duration of just over 6 minutes each and yet, as you sit there in the darkened space and the abjection of these images infiltrates your head and your heart and your ability to breathe fluently and your mind’s sense of smell, they will touch you in a place that you might not have known you had, until this experience. And when you emerge from having watched them, you will be stilled. And silenced. And it will feel like hours, aeons, have passed.

In these works, Cohen brings his grief to a South African abattoir, and dressed in a white tutu, with his characteristic head of makeup and butterfly wings, he is filmed dancing his heart out, in wrenching tribute to the loss of life. It’s a tribute to the stuff and muck that constitutes what a living being is and a paean to all that in the world that must be. It’s like watching a crime, a snuff movie, a manifestation of great religious sacrifice all rolled together. It’s the kind of work that is art but transcends art and pushes it back into the realm of spiritual gesture.

It isn’t easy to see. It’s not meant to be. But it is devastatingly potent and will not let you go flippantly. Above all in this quintessential gesture of tribute and mourning, of horror and celebration, Cohen’s aesthetic remains intact and doesn’t begin to touch the slippery mess of sensationalism that pervades the grimy commercialism of our world. Indeed, you might be told to see it, for sensationalist reasons. But if you’ve looked properly, when you have emerged, you will be a different person. As you might have been when you visited Deborah Bell’s recent exhibition, or Minnette Vári’s.

  • put your heart under your feet … and walk! by Steven Cohen is at Stevenson Johannesburg in Braamfontein until November 17. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.
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The things we’ll do for rain

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CASTING light: Hannah Van Tonder is Ntombizonke. Photograph by Tahlia Govender.

AT FIRST, IT’S difficult to believe or understand that that small incident which corrupts a great sheet of fabric covering the stage, is a human being, and yet as the play unfolds and takes you hither and yon through ritual and ancient tradition, contemporary quasi-urban values and a whole litany of prayer, you get to understand how the gesture and belief, the need for water and the love of the land interface, under the steerage of this one performer.

The work is brought to astonishing life by a concatenation of props which recalls, in a sense, Paul Noko’s earlier work Fruit, in which the props held the nexus of the material. Here, though, there’s more, but there is also less. Ntombizonke is the young woman born of a bride who is not a virgin. It transpires that her virginity becomes the suggested sacrifice that must be made to appease the gods in the name of much-needed rain.

Thus follows a tale of fantasy and religious-evocative gesture, but one bruised by too much enthusiasm — the kind of enthusiasm that packs the work so full of references, that it leaves scant space for the simple act of breathing. As a result, everything is brought into the mix, including envelopes of what seem to be seeds cast among the seating, sugar and water for the audience to dip its collective hands into and a pervading sense of ceremony, much of which becomes a red herring as it is not caught up with clarity in the work’s logic. Indeed, even the title of the work becomes sensational in its sense of taboo.

While Hannah Van Tonder in the title role, represents all the voices of this community, which reach back through generations, sometimes her diction is a casualty to too much speed. She is, however, beautifully choreographed, and the work takes on its own dance momentum, which is almost more compelling than the words themselves.

The value of this play which engages a fantasy ceremonial past cannot, however be understated. As it stands, it feels like a young draft in the development something that warrants growth and maturity.

  • The Cursed Vagina is written by Hannah Van Tonder and Paul Noko and directed by Paul Noko. It features design by Thulisa Phungula (music) and Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography) and is performed by Hannah Van Tonder, in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o Festival hosted by Wits University. The work performed on October 5 and performs at the Nunnery on October 7. Visit www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre or www.webtickets.co.za

Sunrise and war with a Ndebele sheen

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WAR dance in plastic tubing: doing it for Mamela. Photography by Christo Doherty.

IN THE EARLY 1990s, if you wanted to bring South African flavour to the table, particularly if you knew nothing at all about this country, you were safe with a generic bit of Ndebele-ness. The symmetry, the easy geometry and the clean colours based on that community’s traditional wall painting and beadwork were disseminated willy-nilly across the marketing landscape from the time that BMW made Esther Mahlangu a celebrity. Ndebele dolls proliferated everywhere; they were bastardised in ways that were so appalling they were fascinating. But now, under Mamela Nyamza’s watch, the material is taken and wrenched and stretched into a new and utterly mesmerising direction. As are the dancers. And the effect? Ndebele clichés will never be the same again.

Comprising a dizzy mix of plastic, including corrugated swimming pool pipes, plastic armbands and the like, the adornments of the six dancers in Phuma-Langa echoes with a Ndebele doll aesthetic as you watch the performers move with exaggerated stiltedness. Add to the mix blindness and chalk, plastic rifles and the notorious Bok van Blerk De La Rey song which sidled with a military and racist veneer into South African culture ten years ago until the mantle of aggressive Afrikanerdom, and you have the kind of discomforting concatenation of values for which Nyamza is so respected.

It’s an immensely uncomfortable work to watch, as it must be. In focusing on the province’s bloody history, Nyamza draws on the complexities of expression. And on the utter arrogance of crudely taking someone’s name in your mouth and mauling it, without taking the time to discover how it should be said. It’s not a new idea here; it has been tossed with aggression at South African dance audiences by the ilk of choreographer/performer Hlengiwe Lushaba, some years ago. In this work, Nyamza’s dancers contort over their own names in a way that is almost out of control, blending Butoh facial ethos with an almost physical humour. But it won’t make you laugh.

Control is the work’s essential ingredient: While some challenges presented resemble a kind of extreme team-building exercise, where the contestants have to push their breathing, balancing and fumbling skills to the max, peacefulness pervades almost contradictorily. In this rigorous, punishing work which borders on the nonsensical, Francesca Matthys, Lorin Sookool and Nomfundo Hlongwa each embrace the discomfort of her costume, the difficulty of the choreography and the challenges of singing and blowing pipes with a statuesque stoicism that makes you weep.

This is an astonishingly fine work which brings together disparate values, touching on everything from the province’s name, to the traditional African musical instruments played in the region, with a guttural and sophisticated sense of authority. It looks playful and easy, but isn’t. It touches the fabric of the culture in Mpumalanga with an urgent intimacy that will not allow your focus to abate or disperse. And in the 19-floor-descent of the building’s elevator, as you try and puzzle out that all that you saw in this piece, so do you realise it reaches deep into that stuff of culture that makes you, you.

The venue offers underground parking in the garage on Jorissen Street directly beneath University Corner; don’t forget to remind the guard who lets you in that you will need to be let out as well.

  • Phuma-Langa is choreographed by Mamela Nyamza as a part of her residency at Ebhudlweni Arts Centre, Emakhazeni, Mpumalanga under the aegis of the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collective. It features design input by Sasha Ehlers (costume and set) and Thabo Pule (lighting). It is performed by Nicholas Aphane, Nomfundo Hlongwa, Francesca Matthys, Thulani Lathish Mgidi, Shawn Mothupi and Lorin Sookool until September 16 at Emakhaya Theatre, 19th Floor, University Corner Building, Braamfontein. Contact Neli on info@forgottenangle.co.za for reservations.

Dance for me; I will weep

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MY face, my identity: Steptext dancer Changik Oh is stretched. Photograph by Marianne Menke.

IF YOU PRICK me, will I bleed? They’re words which evoke the Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, offering a glance into the hurtful and ghastly illogic of xenophobia. South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma and Austrian born Helge Letonja in a compelling collaboration take these words and push them further as they take three dancers each from Vuyani Dance Theatre and Steptext Dance Project, respectively, and play on the messy horror of the hypocrisy and hate that challenges our world right now.

It’s an astonishing piece of work backed by a spider-web-like set and placed in a soundscape that feels fit to break your head into shards, with all the sound tools of the trade, from that of gunfire and bombs detonating to techno-base sound that makes your teeth ring in your skull. It is in this space that these six performers dance with much more than their skeletal structure and musculature. They dance with their nerves and their intestines, with their souls stripped raw and their personal narratives exposed and splayed against other people’s values.

When you watch these dancers meld and coagulate with one another and the energy they magick into life on this otherwise bare stage, it feels as though some of these gestures and movements should be outlawed. They don’t seem possible – let alone legal or moral. This is the work of two very strong contemporary choreographers taking no prisoners. You will leave the space feeling assaulted in your sense of identity, your understanding of human possibility.

And, all things considered, you still cannot help but wonder what this work might have been like without the extra added element of the sound track, tough as it is. Indeed: the difficult and protest-driven nature of the work’s focus demands a sound that is explosive but the dance is so strong that it should have been given the chance to stand alone – and you, to be able to watch it without feeling you will be blasted out of earshot while you do so.

  • Out of Joint is conceptualised and choreographed by Helge Letonja and Gregory Maqoma. It features creative input by Serge Weber (composition), Anke Euler (dramaturgy), Katja Fritzsche and Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes), Timo Reichenberger (lighting) and Helge Letonja and Julia Arroja da Silva (set). It is performed by Kossi Sebastien Aholou-Wokawui, Thulisile Princess Binda, Steven Chauke, Mariko Koh, Phumlani Mndebele and Changik Oh at The Fringe, Joburg Theatre complex until August 20, and then at the Jomba Contemporary Dance Festival in Durban on August 23 and 24. Visit vuyani.co.za or http://cca.ukzn.ac.za/index.php/jomba-home

For Karabo, and all Karabos

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MY sisters, myself: Nommangaliso Tebeka, Joyce Hopane and Nomasonto Radebe. Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

TAKE AN AUDIENCE of 72. Divide them in two and range them facing one another across the stage. Strip them of their ability to sit in the auditorium because every seat in the space has been marked with the name of a woman, who is both present and absent because of this. This is the potent and ghostly start to Luyanda Sidiya’s new piece, In Her Shoes, a contemplation of women in a time of moral despair.

Manipulating the space and the audience, Sidiya boldly sets the tone for something utterly extraordinary; the work starts with a frightening level of aplomb and virtual perfection that makes you want to leave as soon as you’ve seen it because it feels so complete. The narrative is so violent yet so tightly told, the gestures so articulate and the element of fear so well understood and expressed that it feels as though you’ve sampled an elegant sufficiency, peppered as it is with primal screams and troubling potency.

Karabo Mokoena was just 22 when she tragically emerged on South Africa’s headlines. She was another desperately sad casualty in the domestic scourge against women that continues to leave this country reeling. Raped and murdered, the remains of this beautiful young student were burnt so badly, they were difficult to recognise. And the unfolding horror of the story revealed that the man who had perpetrated the crime had been her boyfriend. Much of the first part of In Her Shoes touches the life and values of Karabo and all the Karabos out there.

You weep for her. For her mother, for her sister, for what she represented to a South African community. But you cannot leave the theatre at that time. Firstly, because, you’re seated up there on the stage. And secondly, because this bit of perfection in dance and staging, wordless narrative and lighting, is but the prologue, and the work unfolds further from that point.

Sadly, this is, in many ways, its undoing: the focus is compromised and a story line is cast around a rural set of values, posing moral options for a young woman which is overshadowed and underplayed by sound that is amplified to such a tremendous extent that you feel the bones in your head beginning to shiver against one another. You feel your teeth take the sound’s frequency vibrate horribly and you fear your life blood may burst out in great spasms and arcs in protest.

You cannot help but wonder what this work would have been like in the absence of this immense, all-encompassing noise. While Sidiya’s use of the spoken voice in this piece diminishes its strength as a dance work, and pushes it into a literalness which overrides his extraordinarily fine choreography, some of the texts are magnificent, but still, the sound bears down on you, like an immense cloud, which blocks your ability to see these beautiful dancers as they should be seen.

  • In Her Shoes is choreographed and directed by Luyanda Sidiya. It features design by Billy Monama (musical director), Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Lesoko V. Seabe and Nommangaliso Tebeka (texts) and Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes). It is performed by Joyce Hopane, Nomasonto Radebe, Lesoko V. Seabe and Nommangaliso Tebeka, and a music ensemble comprising Phosho Lebese and Sibusiso Sibanyoni at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, until August 13. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Incendiary, devastating subtlety

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DON’T do it. Mark Tatham (left), Daniel Geddes and a fragile orb.

AS YOU WALK into the theatre for this dance work, there’s a dangerous simmering of possibilities that unsettles you. It has to do with the set, which comprises a mountain of live matches and a lot of inflammable material. You might consider this to be obvious in a work entitled Burn, but it’s so blatant that it is not obvious, balancing possibility with prescience. Your fear, of course, is that the whole theatre will go up in violent flames, with one false move. But what does happen is even more powerful.

Enter Mark Tatham opposite Daniel Geddes and the work takes on a narrative sequence that on one level is about making fire in a storm. On another, it is about the relationship between man and earth, and on yet another, it is about the give and take in any relationship, which is physical and kind as it is furious and destructive.

Tatham and Geddes push the limits of their bodies in contradistinction with the pull of gravity. It’s a work that is about breathing life into the inanimate, and it touches on Frankenstein metaphors as it forces the performers into torsion and tension you will find difficult to get your head around. It’s tightly formed, choreographed with supreme intelligence and structured around hairpin bends in the sequence of events that will hold your focus utterly. But above all else, it is noble in its symmetry and the splaying of possibility. Burn comprises gestures of blowing, metaphors of burning, nuances of destruction and loops of creativity that will make you think of Adam being created by God in a gust of air, as it makes you understand the horror of breathlessness and the magic of life.

In short, it’s a tremendous privilege to see these two dancers, different in their physicality, but utterly focused in the sense of self, creating a landscape of metaphorical and narrative possibilities that not only reaches to the outer threads of environmentalist issues, but also reaches into the very interstices of what it takes to be human. You will only realise how breathless the work makes you when you leave the theatre. A dance work which redefines vulnerable flawlessness. Beautifully.

  • Burn is choreographed and directed by Bailey Snyman and performed by Daniel Geddes and Mark Tatham at the Downstairs Theatre on July 22 and 23, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

A dance for the tree gods

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MYSELF my forest: Nicholas Aphane in footage from With Nothing But Silence. Photograph courtesy Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative.

IN 2005, PJ Sabbagha put his choreographic name behind a most exceptional project. Still Here was earth shattering in its delicate sense of raw beauty and was important for that reason. But as an advocacy piece engaging with HIV/Aids, it was important for other reasons too. Over the years, Sabbagha and his company the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative have unrelentingly challenged boundaries in terms of issues and aesthetics, possibilities and the substance of dance. This work, With Nothing But Silence They Turned Their Bodies To Face the Noise is no different: structured with the complexity of videoed work, shadow and articulation through costume and context, weeping and filmed trees, it confronts the sticky and grotesque mess that our planet is in. It is an extraordinary piece of performance, for our time.

Melding together dance with hand drawn dance costumes, Greek extrapolations with a soundscape that touches water and wind, landscapes and trees, it takes place in a set that is transfixing in its detail, astonishing in the sum of its parts, and the sense of authority commanded by Mazarakis. It is here that a hat of flowers takes on virtual sinister attributes, that bodies move like mercury, curving against one another, casting the light in a way that gives voice to shadows that dominate and liaise with the visual clout of the piece.

Like Still Here, it’s a complex, almost abstract work with forays in a range of directions, and during its 60 minute duration, you get the urge to shout “Stop! I didn’t see exactly what that was! Do it again!” Many things happen at once in this work which takes you from the magnificent bluegum trees of Mpumalanga to the here and now on stage. You see dancers emerging from piles of leaves and sheets of crumpled paper, engaging the world with its brokenness. The sound track is bumpy with pimples in the technology and the give and take of movement coheres uncomfortably with that of the sound, forcing the dancers over terrain which is as tough and unsettled as the world they’re depicting. The dance work is twisty and inchoate and offers a unique language of movement, which distinguishes it and grabs you by the eye, again and again.

And all too soon, suddenly it is over, leaving you with a sense of loss: the work’s structure is repetitive and patterned, rather than chronological. You’re sucked into its dynamics and find yourself mesmerised by bodies contorting themselves into torn and emotive positions, by dancers who shout, shouters who dancer, and a collaborative mix which leaves your heart uneasy and your mind racing. More’s the pity that the work only had a single performance in this year’s Wits 969 Festival.

  • With Nothing But Silence They Turned Their Bodies To Face the Noise is directed by Athena Mazarakis and choreographed by Athena Mazarakis and PJ Sabbagha in collaboration with the cast. It features creative input from Nicholas Aphane (Music/Sound score/Composition and performance); Sasha Ehlers (production and costume design); Thabo Pule (lighting) and Jessica Denyschen (videography) and was performed by Nicholas Aphane, Nomfundo Hlongwa, Francesca Matthys, Athena Mazarakis, Shawn Mothupi, PJ Sabbagha, Oupa Sibeko and Lorin Sookool on July 15, in the Main Wits Theatre as part of the Wits 969 Festival, Wits University. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.