A DANCER WHO was capable of provoking guttural fear in his audience and critics because of the unstinting quantity and quality of beauty, bravery and intensity he was able to give his performances, South African choreographer and performance artist Elu, passed away suddenly after a six-week illness, on July 17. A dancer not afraid to shatter all traditions relating to dance in the name of the fierceness and the magic that he was creating, Elu was a quietly spoken person, with strong opinions and passionate beliefs. He contributed significantly to the performance art discipline in South Africa and was the life partner and creative collaborator of Steven Cohen from 1997.
Born in Pretoria on June 17 1968, Elu was trained in contemporary dance and classical ballet at Pretoria Technikon. But it was from 1992 that he began developing his own approach to the medium of dance, engaging with the world from within a perspective enhanced by his unremitting readiness to push the boundaries of his body and his audiences.
Elu debuted professionally at Barclay Square in Pretoria in 1992 with a work called The People’s Lib and When to Pass the Ashtray and he created several other pieces over the next couple of years, for platforms such as the Dance Umbrella and the Arts Alive Festival. Elu met and began collaborating with Steven Cohen in 1997 in a turnkey work for both their careers, called The Art of Kissing, which was part of the Arts Alive Street Theatre festival, of that year, but was also staged as an impromptu performance outside the Supreme Court of Johannesburg, where the couple stood on a podium and kissed for several hours. Inside the court, anti-homosexual legislation was under review, at the time.
Describing himself as an “Afrikaans-speaking pagan working with an English-speaking Jew”, Elu – a name he adopted, which is an acronym for “Elephant Lion Unicorn”, playing into the therianthropic nature of the creature that he was most comfortable recognising himself as – was profoundly supportive of Cohen’s developing ethos. Between 1997 and 2002, Elu and Cohen together made deeply important works for the growing discipline of guerrilla performance art in South Africa. These significantly anarchic pieces dealt with the notion of impromptu appearances for audiences that were not sanctioned by the safe environment of a theatre or dance stage, and included Living Art, a suite of four seminal works, for which Cohen won the Vita Art Award of 1998.
There are unforgettably beautiful images captured by photographers such as the late John Hodgkiss, Caroline Suzman and John Hogg in works by Elu including Intersection, choreographed by Cohen, where Elu danced in a tutu with a gun strapped to his head in busy intersections of Johannesburg, to speak of the violence in our society. In a series of works entitled the Goatfoot God, Pan, Kudu, Tristesse and Broken Bird respectively, Elu developed a rich and meaningful iconography which was about the serenity of a mythical entity and the rottenness of a contemporary urban society corrupted from within. He was a dancer able to explore frenetic ferocity as he was able to express extreme vulnerability and beauty with his face and body.
His work of 2001, Dancing with Nothing But Heart broke new ground. It was premised as a comment on a lack of funding for the arts and was performed at that year’s Dance Umbrella. The work had no music and no costumes. Elu was naked and danced with an ox’s heart, bought from the inner city butchers for a few rand.
Cohen and Elu were head-hunted by Régine Chopinot of Ballet Atlantique in Paris and invited to spend a one-year research residency in La Rochelle in 2002. Elu was a central collaborator and co-choreographer with Cohen in I Wouldn’t Be Seen Dead in That which was developed in La Rochelle and travelled to South Africa to be the key note work of 2003’s Dance Umbrella. But it was also in that year, that Elu performed Pan 1 and Tristesse at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
Elu’s exceptional repertoire reflected upon him as an intensely beautiful and sophisticated performer engaging the realities of paganism and the challenges of a world fraught with confusion and evil in a way that was timeless and seductive. His contribution to the field of dance was never, during Elu’s lifetime, given the pride of place it truly warranted. Elu’s struggle for the last decade of his tragically short life was sadly not unique in the arts fraternity in South Africa. He died alone, away from the ability to make new work, excluded from the reach of critical acknowledgement, financial support or medical assistance. An outsider – as he described himself to art critic Adrienne Sichel in the 1990s – to the very bitter end.