Knocked out by King Kong

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TOP of the world: King Kong (Andile Gumbi) stands his ground. Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT WAS THE show that launched the international careers of such performers as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers. King Kong. It’s been labelled iconic and groundbreaking, and frissons of its great potency filtered through the ether long before the Fugard Theatre’s season of this show took to the boards. A tale of love and boxing, with exquisite harmonies and clarinet riffs to make you weep, it saw light of day in 1959, changed the game plan of what musical theatre was in this country and has not been performed in entirety until now. Does this version do this glamorous history and all the urban myths around the work justice? In short, it doesn’t.

Skating on the momentum of the 1959 production of the show, this version of it has some truly beautiful moments and some utterly delicious performances, but you watch it and quietly wonder whether part of the work’s original charm did not perhaps have a lot to do with the novelty of being a show from apartheid-riddled Africa. Was it not perhaps the exoticism of the moment that gave Makeba and others their ticket to a real career?

Richly enfolded in the complicated beauty of the 1950s, in terms of clothing style, dance ethos and an energy of simmering protest peppered with a lot of racial legislation, this tale based on the life of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini is a cautionary one of hubris and talent. It’s a yarn that reflects on petty jealousies and the vulnerability of an ego in a world beset with tsotsis and small-town shebeen queens. It’s a series of love stories, interwoven with boxing successes and failures and one in which an idol is lionised and then destroyed by his own society.

But the work is less about the wows of the story. Billing itself as a jazz opera, it does, indeed feature, some beautiful music, which has shifted into classic South African status, and yet, as a musical entity, it doesn’t hold together tightly, and feels a little more like a play with music incidents.

Looking beyond the song and dance sequences, the performers are not supported by the creative team in a way that enhances their physical presence on stage. Whether it is odd lighting decisions, costumes with the dowdiness factor ramped up as far as possible, or peculiar staging instructions, something is lost in the capacity of performers such as Andile Gumbi (who plays the eponymous boxer) to hold the audience. You will love looking at him – he’s physically beautiful, but there’s something amiss in how he connects with the stage, the work and the audience. The more you look at him, the more it’s clear that this omission is not his fault; it rests on design decisions.

This is not the case, however, when it comes to Sne Dladla in the role of the barber, Pop, who tells the story. Known as a stand up comic in his own capacity, Dladla reveals a smooth sense of poetry in his delivery that you might not have experienced before; he embraces his character with a full heart that will have you yearning for more lines for him. Similarly, Dolly Louw, a member of the female ensemble. She exudes such delightful presence every time she’s on stage, that your heart and eyes drift in her direction and remain with her, lapping up her enthusiasm.

Lerato Mvelase in the role of Petal, the thwarted young lady with a very fond eye indeed for the King, is another case in point. Armed with an utterly magnificent voice, a dowdy cardigan and some horn-rimmed specs, she’ll make your ears prick up, but keep you guessing in terms of her stage persona. Opposite a magnificently voiced Nondumiso Tembe in the role of slinky, sexy Joyce, and balanced by the powerful vocal presence of Ntambo Rapatla as Miriam, there is beautiful harmony in the work, but it is not exploited visually.

Indeed, there are times when you look at this production and cannot see anyone in it. The lighting design is centralised and overall constantly leaves cast members in the dark. There’re moments where their singing voices reach with loneliness from darkened corners, taking time for you to realise who is actually performing.

But the biggest problem with this work which looms in your face throughout, is the set. As you take your seat in the theatre you might have a moment that teeters with your sense of orientation: it looks like you are in the Fugard Theatre.

And there’s the rub: the Fugard boasts a stage that is considerably smaller than that of the Mandela. It’s less deep, more vertical. The set, like a huge rusted machine with many different doors and hiding places, is very in-your-face. And clearly, it comes directly from the Fugard, with nary an alteration. Indeed, as such, it squeezes the breathing space out of the stage itself. And while there are moments where nuance is evoked in the pockets of the set, by and large, something is lost in the telling of this tale of greed and misfortune, ice creams and vulnerability, simply because everything is hammering on your eyeballs from the same distance.

Having said all of this, the live band, the boxing ring scenes and much of the choreography hold this work together with a compelling energy. You will leave the auditorium whistling the production’s theme songs, but not with the kind of fire in your heart or belly that comes of having seen true greatness.

  • King Kong: Legend of a Boxer is written for stage by Pat Williams based on the book by Harold Bloom, and directed by Jonathan Munby and Mdu Kweyama. It features creative input by Todd Matshikiza (original music), William Nicholson (additional lyrics), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (additional music arrangements), Gregory Maqoma and Richard Lothian (choreography), Paul Wills (set), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (musical directors) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Sne Dladla, Rushney Ferguson, Andile Gumbi, Ben Kgosimore, Dolly Louw, Barileng Malebye, Lungelwa Mdekazi, Namisa Mdlalose, Aphiwe Menziwa, Athenkosi Mfamela, Given Mkhize, Lerato Mvelase, Sibusiso Mxosana, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Edith Plaatjies, Sabelo Radebe, Ntambo Rapatla, Tshamano Sebe, Sanda Shandu, Nondumiso Tembe, Shalom Zamisa and Joel Zuma, supported by a live band: Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba (band leader/bass), Blake Hellaby (keyboard), Siphiwe Shiburi (drums), Billy Monama (guitar), Lwanda Gogwana and Joseph Kunnuji (trumpets), Zeke le Grange (tenor sax), William Hendricks (alto sax, clarinet) and Siya Makuzeni (trombone) at the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until October 8.
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Ciao, Piazzolla; thanks for all the tango!

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FUN and tango and seeing what happens next: Nikolaj Abramson (clarinet), Jan Jachmann (accordion) and Arthur Hornig (‘cello). Photograph by Christoph Herpel.

WHAT DO YOU get when you toss some well-heeled classics together with an unusual kind of trio, an appetite for experimentation with symphonic rearrangement and a clear, fresh look at the future of music audiences? That’s easy: you will experience it all in Johannesburg next Sunday evening, courtesy of the Johannesburg Musical Society, played by Jan Jachmann (concert accordion), Nikolaj Abramson (clarinet) and Arthur Hornig (‘cello), collectively known as Trio NeuKlang. In South Africa for the first time, the trio took the time to chat to My View last week.

In 1998, it was the universe effectively, who put the trio together. Given their respective skills, Jachmann and Abramson were approached separately to premier a new work by contemporary German composer, Georg Katzer.

“We met each other in rehearsal,” remembers Berlin-born Jachmann (35). “Had we stayed within that framework, there would not have been much for us to do: the trio is an unusual combination of instruments; there are not many pieces composed for a clarinet, concert accordion and ‘cello.” But the premier went well and music organisers’ ears pricked up, the world over.

Their first international invitation as a result of this performance was to Japan. “We told the festival director in Japan that we only have the one piece and it is very modern,” Hornig takes the story’s reins. “He replied, ‘Yes, well. Japan is a very modern country. It will work out well.

“But a few weeks before the festival, he came to Berlin to find out what we were doing, and … well, he said Japan’s not that modern after all. And he asked us if we could play something ‘normal’ instead. And so this was the start of us arranging things, for our instruments. After a while, we added some jazz chords and tango rhythms, which is how we came to be where we are now.”

Says Abramson (40), who also rearranges the music: “The challenges of rearranging the work are not that difficult. The accordion is like a little orchestra all of its own. The ‘cello is the bass, and I have the solo in clarinet. It’s not that difficult. The left hand of the accordion is very near to the ‘cello, and the sound mixes very well.”

Born in Moscow, Abramson immigrated to Berlin as a child, with his parents. “It was a time when a lot of Russians were immigrating to Germany,” he says, which made it possible for him to experience the best of both worlds in terms of music education.

Both he and Kornig (30) were educated at the same professional music school, ten years apart. Born near Kassel, the son of an actor and an amateur musician, Hornig remembers moving around a lot as a small child. Berlin became his home when he was a teenager.

“My first ‘cello was like a viola with a stick,” he grins. He joined the trio in 2004.

Speaking of the trio’s unique sound, Jachmann says that it is “a bit more of symphonic than a conventional piano trio, because the sound of the accordion is closer to that of woodwinds.

“The novelty of our trio – NeuKlang means ‘new sound’ – was the combination of instruments; it’s all new. But it’s still developing. We can’t say what we will be doing in five years from now,” he grins.

You think of the idea of a German trio calling themselves NeuKlang and in your mind, you might conjure up an image of three proto-Dadaists of the teens of the twentieth century, wearing leder hosen, out to reinvent the world, armed with skills and beliefs.

You’d be only a little wrong: not that Jachmann, Hornig and Abramson are Dadaists, or that they wear trousers made of stiff leather, but rather because they’re deeply savvy as to the value of culture and how it conflates with music.

The accordion’s an unusual instrument, says Jachmann. “It’s not very loved, nor very popular, but there have been other developments over the last several decades with good accordion players who were keen to get it into the canon of serious instruments, so it’s no surprise we found each other playing contemporary music. Original compositions for this instrument all date back just 50 years.”

These days, the accordion has become something of an avant-garde trendsetter and the folksy instrument it was has been pushed and pulled into a variety of contemporary directions, but nothing’s that simple, Jachmann explains: “On the one hand you have this folk music thing. And on the other, you have this modern contemporary thing which wants to be serious and has nothing! To! Do! With! Folk! Music! At! All!” he shouts, emphasising the purists’ viewpoint, but not without irony.

“It also has nothing to do with money,” interjects Abramson, with not a little dollop of cynicism.

“If you compare German folk music to that of Italy or France,” Jachmann adds, speaking of how the Third Reich’s history sullied its reputation. “It’s less vivid. It’s rather a different kind of a thing, and it fits more into museums than on the street.

“In Germany you have serious music on the one hand and not-so-kosher volk music on the other. The accordion knows both worlds. Not only in Germany but in other countries too: from Russian to Argentina, it’s a part of popular culture, and fits neither in one world nor another. This is what we do: get two worlds in dialogue with one another, and see what happens.

“When you’re in the audience,” he adds, “You might not notice these things consciously. But listening to music is not about thinking. It’s about feeling something which you can say ‘oh! That spoke to me!’ and often you can’t explain why.” That’s the trio’s magic.

But what brings them to Africa? In short, a youtube video. Some time ago, the trio embarked on a project: a bit of a lark, but also a bit of a promotional exercise, it’s a four minute mash-up of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the tango, which you can see here.

In it, they take the weather indicated in the work to heart, playing in fountains and car washes, on fake snow and in direct sun. “Hermann van Niekerk, the promoter of the Sasolburg Theatre saw this video by chance on youtube,” says Hornig, “He’s loves the accordion. And one thing led to another.”

Technology today makes the world turn, Jachmann grins: “We’re living in a time of globalisation with all its effects. The music is a by-product of this interconnectivity and it is universal.”

The repertoire for the JMS concert draws from the trio’s second CD, entitled Goodbye Astor. It’s a tribute to the influence quintessential Argentinean tango composer Astor Piazzola (1921-1992) has had on their work, but it’s also testament to where that work is currently going.

“If you don’t want to just play stuff other people with other instruments have played before,” says Jachmann. “What do you do? We thought: what could be new? What could be interesting for us and the audience? It was a collaborative decision to blend classical music with tango lingo. We put it out there, and said ‘let’s see what will happen. Nikolaj started arranging and everything fell into place.”

Retrospectively, it feels obvious: if you have an accordion, it always seems to shout out Piazzolla! even before you take it out of its case.

Says Abramson: “We combined it a consideration of Piazzolla and how he influenced other classical music, and we got this feedback which said Piazzolla’s nice, but this is more. It’s our goodbye and thank you to Piazzolla for everything,” he laughs.

Goodbye Astor comprises arrangements by us,” adds Jachmann. “It’s still tango, but it’s also something else. Something I can’t describe in words.”

Each piece on the programme is dedicated to the composer from whom the music derives, says Hornig. “Schubert, Brahms, Bach … in a tango net.”

Jachmann laughs. “It’s a bit of a trial to see how South African audiences respond to it. In Germany, the very conservative audiences love us most, as they have knowledge and can recognise the classic originals. It’s then when the fun really starts.”

But this kind of mash-up is no joke, or self-indulgent trick. “It’s very easy to do a crossover thing with some melody,” he adds. “But if you want to take the music you are playing seriously, you must get into proper dialogue with it. We respect the music. We’re looking forward to playing for an audience, who does too.”

Lessons of love and music

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WITS Trio at work: Malcolm Nay (on piano), Zanta Hofmeyr (on violin) and Maciej Lacny (on ‘cello). Photograph courtesy Maciej Zenon Lacny.

UNEQUIVOCALLY, IT IS the work of Schubert that violinist Zanta Hofmeyr gravitates toward, if she has to think of music that will last her a lifetime. Hofmeyr, a member of the Wits Trio, which comprises also pianist Malcolm Nay, who is also a professor of music at Wits, and ‘cellist Maciej Lacny, took some time last week to speak to My View. The trio performs its annual concert next Sunday at Wits University.

“Schubert is so precise. Even renowned piano teacher Pauline Nossel insists on teaching music from that era – for technique. That’s where you hone an artist. To really clean the playing. There is no room for unnecessary mannerisms. I’m also a big Brahms fan. And Beethoven. These composers are about extreme awareness of colour, of proportion, of phrasing, of precision and of intonation.”

The eldest of eight children, to a couple who were church organists and pianists in their spare time, Hofmeyr was born in 1962 and raised on Johannesburg’s West Rand. She speaks of the imperatives in place in her life as a child. “We all started with piano at the age of six or seven. And then after two years, we could decide whether we wanted to learn a second instrument.

“There was a violin at home; I chose it when I was 10. I never hated it, but I found it difficult to play. I still do. By nature, I’m a sucker for challenge; the instrument’s difficulty was what hooked me.”

Hofmeyr doesn’t stint in acknowledging the value of well-funded music centres in the schools when she was a child. “Being white in South Africa under apartheid, we had so much privilege. Our teachers were all people from the then SABC national orchestra.”

These included Czech teacher Eva Hescova and later, Vincent Frittelli, then the SABC’s concert master. “Eva really pulled the trigger for my whole career. She really inspired me.

“Vincent started me on open strings, scales and studies. He focused on technique. And he was taught by no less than Ivan Galamian – possibly the greatest strings teacher the world has ever known. Galamian also taught such performers as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Heifetz; it was under Vincent’s tuition for five years that I developed as a performer.”

A scholarship at the age of 15 to the Interlocken Festival in Michigan over nine weeks, and time with the World Youth Orchestra opened her skills to rapidly learning new works from composers of the ilk of Béla Bartók, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky and César Franck. During that year, she also played with the National Youth Orchestra.

“For the first time in my life,” she remembers, “I heard and played in a performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’s organ symphony. I was playing in the World Youth Orchestra in the first violin section and I just sat there and sobbed as I played. I was overwhelmed. I’d never heard anything like it before. It was so beautiful.

“It was also the first time in my life that I experienced doing music from 7 in the morning until 10 at night. Nothing else. When my father came to fetch me at the airport, my mind was made up. I said: ‘Papa, I am going to be a musician.’ That was all.”

Hofmeyr’s career developed rapidly after she finished school. On the advice of Frittelli, she applied for a scholarship at the Cleveland Institute. During that year, which was also her matric year, she entered and won several competitions, which enabled her to study in America; she speaks briefly of the value of the competition in the concert world.

“Nothing would make you practise as hard as a competition, so it lifts your level of performance. If you win, it opens up a lot of doors. If you don’t, you must accept it: but it’s good experience and you’re playing better than you otherwise would have.”

But it’s not a magic pill. “Even for competition winners, building a career depends on your own initiative. So in South Africa, we have this situation where we don’t have agents for classical musicians and even now, after a career of 40 years, each year, I have to apply to every person who has a concert series.”

But performing keeps you humble, she says. “It forces you to keep your feet flat on the ground.”

Speaking of humility, Hofmeyr flits understatedly over the five years she studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, from the age of 18. “It was my dream come true,” she adds gently.

Violin is one thing, piano’s another, and over the years, Hofmeyr kept up with her piano studies, learning with one Tannie Ria de Klerk in the West Rand before she switched to Peggy Haddon.

“I’m a more natural pianist than I am a violinist. I pick up piano quickly, but I have to practise violin a lot. If I don’t, I lose it like that,” she clicks her fingers. “The hard work is lonely. But it is worth it.”

Hofmeyr’s involvement in the Wits Trio goes back more than 20 years. In 1996, she began collaborating with Wits music professor, Malcolm Nay. The duo grew to a trio, soon after, when they welcomed ‘cellist Marion Lewin into their repertoire, and later ‘cellist Heleen du Plessis.

“Malcolm has been pivotal in this experience and the history of this trio,” she says commenting on Nay’s his strong musical personality and influence, as, she says often happens in a trio of this nature, where the pianist is central.

“About six years ago, Robert Brooks from MIAGI introduced us to Maciej Lacny, a Polish ‘cellist. He’s married to Khanyisile Mthethwa, the flautist. At first we didn’t know each other; our performance styles were different, but he’s a phenomenal ‘cellist. It’s been a very adventurous five years, during which time, we have become stylistically closer. I can best refer to the trio as dynamic: we each have strong personalities, which makes listening to our performances a very exciting experience.”

The trio’s repertoire includes all the Brahms trios, Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ trio, which Johannesburg Music Society audiences were privileged to hear earlier this year, some Beethoven trios … “The repertoire gets richer as we perform,” she says. “We’ve come closer to each other, stylistically, over the years. Chamber music is very stimulating for each individual in a trio. It’s a fantastic form of music as there are no hiding places and everyone has to be at their best.

“In the concert on Sunday, we play trios by Beethoven, Hendrik Hofmeyr and Schubert – that trio was written in the year before his death. They are huge works, very beautiful and mature.”

Hofmeyr is frank in acknowledging the overwhelming whiteness and increasing age of South African classical music audiences right now, but she doesn’t agree that it’s pervasive or eternal.

“I am a patron of the Thabang Kammino project hosted by St Matthew’s School in Soweto, but not a lot of publicity reaches them. St Matthew’s is a Catholic school, run by the Sisters of Mercy; the music project was started by one of the nuns, Sister Berchmans in 2000. She’s now a woman in her 80s, but she still feels that every child should be exposed to a musical education. She is like a snowball, rolling and gathering students. And she’s completely savvy that this music project is not about developing performers. It’s about planting seeds in young people’s sensibilities. And growing audiences.”

Beautiful opera for the common folk

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LET me hold your tiny frozen hand. Rodolfo (Phenye Modiane) in a tender embrace with Mimi (Khaykazi Madlala). Photograph courtesy Gauteng Opera.

SHE ERUPTS ON stage like a splendid volcano of fierceness and vocality, beauty and attitude as she grabs your attention by its proverbial lapels and doesn’t let go, even when she’s not singing. This is Litho Nqai in the role of Musetta, in this production of Gauteng Opera’s La Bohème. And balanced with the more subdued and more classically genteel yet utterly tragic Mimi (Khayakazi Madlala), magic is made. But it’s magic that doesn’t permeate the whole production.

Indeed while you’re watching, you may be tempted to close your eyes and let yourself sink into the glory of beautiful music making that has been celebrated as such since the end of the 19th century. And you may be correct in that decision, as it would preclude your having to see the crude typos in the surtitles and get confused in crowd scenes while the surtitles trip over themselves and throw meaning to the wind. Closed eyed, you’d also not see the staging and the set, which, replete with what emerges as ornamental electric pink step ladders and a misspelled indication of the tavern’s existence, offers a ham-handed attempt at switching the ethos and geography of early Modernist Paris to that of Johannesburg in 2017. But if you did experience the work shut-eyed, you would miss out on the sheer physical beauty of this cast, and their characterisation, which would be a pity.

Overall, this production of this popular tale of poverty and consumption, creativity and prostitution that describes the texture of Europe of the late 1800s, is the kind of work that may tempt you to go on a foray into the history of opera and to think of the context in which there were seats for the ‘common folk’ of the era – the people who for a couple of shillings could be exposed to the magnificence of the medium, but who had the manners and the proclivity to throw rotten fruit at performances they deemed under par. When the company’s CEO stood on stage just before the opening performance and granted the audience permission blanketly to take photographs with their cell phones and tweet and post during the production, effectively, he opened up the work to the same kind of rabble-based behaviour that detracts from a genuine appreciation of the work itself. And unfortunately, ours is not a city theatre which has designated cell-phone-using seats in a context away from the rest, as the fruit-throwing masses of Europe had.

Sadly, it is when the niceties of a production get compromised – when this type of attention to detail is overlooked – something irreplaceable in the magic of the work is lost. While the competence of the Gauteng Opera cast and the orchestra supporting it, cannot be condemned, the effect of the work on as noble and beautifully designed a stage as that of the Mandela, falls into the realm of community production, which just doesn’t do justice to the history and tradition of Puccini – nor to the history and potency of opera in South Africa.

  • La Bohème is composed by Giacomo Puccini with libretto by Guiseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed by Marcus Desando, it features creative input by Lungile Cindi (set), Simon King (lighting), and is performed by Kagiso Boroko, Kanyiso Kula, Khayakazi Madlala, Tshepo Masuku, Vuyani Mlinde, Phenye Modiane, Solly Motaung, Thabiso Nkabane, Litho Nqai and Chuma Sijeqa in the principle roles and Noluthando Biyana, Thandiwe Dlamini, Amie Hood, Mpho Kgame, Letago Komape, Delisile Kubheka, Leana Leuvennink, Phiwe Makaula, Nomvuyo Manomza, Mbulelo Manzini, Lindokuhle Maso, Kgaugelo Mfene, Siphiwe Mkhatshwa, Carmen Micic, Thabang Modise, Mathews Motsoeneng, Sibongile Mtuyane, Zolila Ngudle, Zita Pretorius, Sifiso Radebe, Andries Sebati, Siyabulela Tofile and Simphiwe Yende, from the Gauteng Opera chorus. Performed by the Gauteng Opera Orchestra, led by Camelia Onea and conducted by Eddie Clayton, it is on at the Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until July 23. Visit http://www.joburgtheatre.com/la-boheme-info/ or gautengopera.org

If we had nothing but love

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BREL trio: Jannie du Toit leads Chanie Jonker (left) and Susan Mouton. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

THERE’S NOTHING QUITE like a dollop of Brel on a cold winter evening to warm the cockles of your heart. Embraced as schmaltz by generations of song-lovers everywhere, the rough and drunken, sad and maudlin brilliance of Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel (1929-1978) bring together a mix of wisdom and poetry in a way that reminds you why his songs are unequivocal classics; they’re songs that can knock generations-old memories to the foreground within their first three bars and it doesn’t even matter what language they’re sung in.

Led by Jannie du Toit on vocals in English and Afrikaans, French and Flemish, this collection of 20-odd songs are deliciously hand-picked, and feature a gentle extrapolation on the lyrics before the performance of each song. They’re magnificent pieces, some boasting the status of “Brel anthems” and others less well known but no less beautiful, but in performance, they’re sadly not always as crisp and audible as you might wish: the cheek mic on du Toit’s face and the mics on the instruments tend to grind the sound together in a way that flattens it, and the physical arrangement of the stage lacks the kind of finesse that you might expect in a Brel production.

All of this is, however, utterly forgivable. What this production lacks in polish, it makes up for in heart. Du Toit’s reputation as a Brel specialist is significant, and stretches over decades: his rendition in all four languages is utterly competent, with his Madeleine in Flemish topping the evening with a mix of pizzazz and clowning, poetry and tragedy all rolled together.

This heart-warming show doesn’t aspire or pretend to be anything more or less than a body of beautiful work celebrated by seasoned musicians. And you’ll leave with a spring in your step and a song in your heart and a tear or two on your cheek.

  • Bonjour Monsieur Brel is compiled by Juanita Swanepoel comprising songs originally written by Jacques Brel. It features creative input by Clinton Zerf, Matthys Maree, Coenraad Rall, and Jannie du Toit (musical arrangements) and is performed by Jannie du Toit (vocals and guitar), Susan Mouton (cello and piano), Chanie Jonker/Coenraad Rall (piano and piano accordion). It performs until July 16 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Quintessential Giselle in Masilo’s hands

Giselle

MET his match: Albrecht (Kyle Rossouw) feels the wrath of the flywhisk of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (Llewellyn Mnguni). Photograph by John Hogg

IF YOU’VE EVER questioned the true value of the arts in this world, you need to see Dada Masilo’s Giselle. Summarily, and without hesitation it will strip you of any doubt. You might emerge crying from the experience and emotionally shattered, but you will be sure that what you just experienced was unadulterated magic and relentlessly transformative.

The ballet of Giselle is one of dance’s anomalies. It was composed by Adolphe Adams, today a relatively unknown composer, in 1841, and it rose to balletic prominence as one of the genre’s unequivocal commercial classics. It boasts the collaborative input of the headline creatives of the day, in Théophile Gautier, Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo. In truth, and in structure, it’s not that different from various other romantic tales of the time: peasant girl meets boy. They fall in love. He’s the wrong boy, according to her mom. He finds another. She goes mad with grief and dies of a broken heart. And then she becomes a virgin demon in hell, where she gets to persecute the boy who jilted her. With various variations on the theme, it’s a well-trod story.

What Dada Masilo does with it is something completely extraordinary. For one thing, she vigorously strips it of blandness, with the emotional content of the work stitched boldly into its choreography, it is akin to what Yael Farber has done with Ibsen’s Miss Julie in her Mies Julie (2012), or what Mark Dornford-May did with Bizet’s Carmen in his U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005). Indeed, there are a couple of moments in the work’s first half in which you expect the dancers to roll out a Carmen sequence or even to roll a cigarette or two: there’s a kind of African folksy level of nuance that filters through the material, seamlessly.

But as it unfolds, this work takes on its own tough and exquisite character, not stinting on emotional input. Masilo takes the lead, and unlike some of the works that she’s performed and choreographed over the last couple of years, it sees her enfolded in its intricacies with integrity and thoughtfulness: her skill as a dancer and as a character are showcased impeccably. Indeed: this is the Dada Masilo that audiences fell in love with nearly 10 years ago. She’s alive with an electricity that makes you want to put brakes on your ability to watch: the dancing is lithe and virile; it’s rapid and fierce and it will leave you completely breathless.

And while Masilo still has that ability to grab your eye and not let it go, even if she is dancing a routine with the company, it’s an exceptionally fine company, featuring dancers such as Liyabuya Gongo and Kyle Rossouw, to name but a few, who will make you sit up and look with great care: you might not have paid a lot of attention to these dancers in the past, thinking them generally a competent part of ensemble work. Dada Masilo’s Giselle is a coming of age work, not only for Masilo, but for the whole company.

The work features simple and devastatingly effective costume design and a clear sense of colour coordination, placing the Wilis – the evil demons from the underworld – in a deep red which is not gender specific as it is infused with traditional African associations. It also is underpinned by a piece of music by Philip Miller that lends even the lightest most ostensibly romantic moments deeply sinister undertones that cannot be ignored. Featuring a wide range of sound and a multitude of styles of vibration and concatenation, it’s a score which coheres with an utter perfection with the work on stage, allowing the dancers themselves to vocalise particular moments which exacerbate the sense of local colour, as they reflect the nuances in the story beautifully.

The only flaw in the work is the choice of William Kentridge’s drawings as a projected backdrop. They’re magnificent drawings, but once the performers appear on stage, you cannot actually see the drawings: and when you do manage, with great difficulty, to steal your eyes away from the dancers to look upon these charcoal landscapes, the image has changed: there’s a lack of coherence here – why these images are used and why they change in a sequence is not clear. Thankfully, in the second act, which takes place in hell, there are no arbitrary landscapes that might threaten your focus on the dancers.

This work is unequivocally the crowning glory of Masilo’s career so far. It will, in the next few months, continue taking her around the world, including to La Biennale de la Dance de Lyon in France, and Sadler’s Wells in London, next year: if you are intending to go to Grahamstown this year for the National Arts Festival, this piece alone is sufficient impetus to justify the cost, the difficulties of being in the Eastern Cape in winter, and the vagaries of the road trip. If you aren’t but are in Johannesburg in late July: this is one of the unequivocal headlines of the 969 Festival.

  • Dada Masilo’s Giselle is choreographed by Dada Masilo and features creative input by William Kentridge (drawings), Philip Miller (music composition), David April (directorial assistance), David Hutt, Songezo Mcilizeli and Nonofo Olekeng (costumes) and Suzette le Sueur (lighting). It is performed by Nadine Buys, Zandile Constable, Liyabuya Gongo, Thami Majela, Dada Masilo, Ipeleng Merafe, Llewellyn Mnguni, Khaya Ndlovu, Thabani Ntuli, Kyle Rossouw, Thami Tshabalala and Tshepo Zasekhaya. It performed for a short season at the UJ Theatre in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, and travels to Grahamstown where it will perform at the Rhodes Theatre on June 29, 30 and July 1 (Visit nationalartsfestival.co.za) Thereafter, it performs at The 969 Festival, hosted by Wits University, in the Main Wits Theatre on July 29 (Visit https://www.inyourpocket.com/johannesburg/969-festival_2173e )

Judge this man by his suit

thesuit

LOVE me tender: Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) with Matilda (Zola Nombona). Photograph courtesy The Market Theatre.

EVERY SO OFTEN, a piece of literature is crafted which is simply perfect – in its character development, in its narrative structure, in how the language fits together. Nadine Gordimer’s short story The Train from Rhodesia (1952) is one of those. As is the chapter in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about the horse. And Can Themba’s story The Suit, is another, unequivocally.

Every so often, theatre gurus get together to give theatrical life to a written masterpiece, and sometimes they get it right. It is, indeed, a true rarity for the performed version to meet the written version with such patent values of respect and artistry, that you must hold your breath when you watch it, because you know you are in the presence of true greatness. This happens in this version of The Suit, which has just enjoyed a Market Theatre season.

As you walk into the theatre, you are accosted on two fronts: the seating is arranged as though for a tennis match: audiences are ranged facing one another. This has been done before in different Market Theatre venues and it poses curious and somewhat unnecessary challenges on the audience.  And then, there’s a huge door as a part of the set. It dominates the work with a crazy kind of bombast that alludes to the French windows of a large house. It’s an effective entrance point to the tale, but poses an anachronism – the characters are living in Sophiatown in the 1960s. There are no big double doors in the lower middle income context extrapolated here. Further to that, there are some odd decisions which see the work’s text transposed in projection onto the work.

These issues are ones which you forgive as soon as the cast begins to perform. And you forgive them, because each cast member is so finely focused on the ethos of the character he or she represents, that you have no more space in your consciousness to think of anything but the tale they tell.

It’s a violent story of psychological cruelty, featuring a suit which is dramatised to sinister levels. The tale is a tragedy, but one not unconscious to the magnificence of the music of the era or the dress culture. This work – along the lines of Dominique Gumede’s Crepuscule – is a adulation of sheer beauty in a time of unmitigated horror, against the backdrop of the cruelty of apartheid.

Matilda (Zola Nombona) is a young woman with dreams to be someone more than just a wife. But then she meets and marries the beautiful Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) and becomes the envy of all her peers. But while he goes out to work, she becomes bored and lonely. And she digresses. And is caught. And she is punished in a way that lends a banal object – the suit in question – a level of horror akin to what Alfred Hitchcock did with sparrows in his film The Birds (1963).

While there are astoundingly fine performances on the part of Twala and Nombona , something has to be said for the magnificent performance of Molefi Monaise, who, within a few seconds of character development, is able to offer such a rounded reflection of the character he represents that his uncharacteristic silence on the bus that preempts the unfolding of the whole drama, chills you to your very bones.

A work of devastating subtlety, of the style and wisdom we saw in The Suitcase written by Es’kia Mphahlele and also directed by Ngcobo a couple of years ago, which also featured Twala in the lead, The Suit is hauntingly unforgettable. Featuring exquisite choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, it offers unvoiced reflection on the Matilda character’s alter-ego. Danced by Lesedi Motladi, it’s an aspect to this work which lends mystery and tender fragility to a story wrenched with betrayal and violence.

The season of this important work coincided with Africa Day, but it’s a work of such wisdom and value that it begs for a longer season.

  • The Suit is written by Can Themba and adapted for stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon. It is directed by James Ngcobo and features design by Luyanda Sidiya (choreography), Richard John Forbes (set), Thapelo Makgosi (lighting), Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound) and Sue Sey-Steele (costumes). It was performed by Molefi Monaise, Lesedi Motladi, Andile Nebulane, Lindani Nkosi, Zola Nombona and Siyabonga Twala, in a season at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, from May 5-28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.