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you ponder each tableau, each combination of values with the ballet shoe pinned or sewn, nailed or enfolded around the historical reference, you see in your mind’s eye, snippets of a career that was almost thwarted by a frightened public, but a career that developed nevertheless.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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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.

The inestimable gravity of small things

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ONLY connect: A piece on show from Hunter-Gatherer.

WHAT DOES IT mean to be human in this relentlessly throw away world in which we live? This is the kind of question which comes under the loupe of Kai Lossgott in his quietly dramatic exhibition Hunter-Gatherer, bringing together, as it does, a broad range of detritus and references, playfulness and poetry.

You may think of Belgian poet and conceptual artist, Marcel Broodthaers as you peruse this body of over 80 pieces, quietly placed alongside one another, works which overlap each other as they document time and serve as an ecological catch-all as they turn your eye and your head in unexpected directions.

You may think of work made by South African artist Alison Kearney in Switzerland about the aesthetic value of ostensibly throwaway domestic objects, as you look at the plastic garments worn by Lossgott in which he collected objects from the world, during recent residencies.

You may, indeed, think of Colin Richards’s meticulous water colour paintings of traditional divination objects as you try to make sense of the order of things Lossgott has established in his installations and prints, performances and filmed work. And in his artists’ books.

Lossgott doffs a proverbial cap to all of these practitioners, sampling the roadkill he finds as he draws lines that describe forms and others that rupture worlds. Hunter-Gatherer is an exhibition about what art is in our throwaway culture, and as you find yourself pondering the materiality of his UV-prints on foil or on household tissue, as you are mesmerised by the array of tiny bottles containing specimens, and evoking a beam of light in a darkened room, you find yourself cast among the poetry and the thinking of this unusual and thoughtful artist. It’s a deep and bold exhibition, but one that on the surface is demure as it is almost elegant.

Concept segues with achingly beautiful line work as photograph segues with found object in this contemporary extrapolation of the conventional definition of the San lifestyle. What does Lossgott, the artist as a persona on the streets of Europe hunt for and gather? Clues and gestures, meanings and disused NikNak packets, fluff and nonsense, ants and seeds … you name it, there’s a taxonomy somewhere in this exhibition into which everything meticulously fits.

It’s an important exhibition, which confronts the throwaway soul of contemporary society, as it reveals an engagement with the world which is unique and beautiful as it is audacious and not the kind of thing you might expect in this gallery space which reeks corporate through its very pores. Not only corporate but commercial: Hunter-Gatherer is a complex body of work that teeters gleefully and self-consciously between academic inaccessibility and the need to woo a buyership. The unabashed magnificence of many of the pieces grab you by the eye, but they do so in an abstract way. When the image of a plastic carrier bag evokes a priest praying, arms akimbo; when the post-consumerist world is so meticulously and earnestly explored as it is here, something magical happens and the time invested in each bit of human detritus lends it a solemn value, but one not unspiced with self-deprecation and utter levity.

  • Hunter-Gatherer by Kai Lossgott is on show at the Absa Gallery in the North Towers in downtown Johannesburg until June 15. Park in the bank’s parking garage on Polly Street (off Main Street) and take the elevator up to UG – and bring your ID. Call 011 350 3003. The gallery is open from 08:30 until 16:00 Monday to Friday.

Journey to humanity’s heart, with a lens

By Israel Bansimba

  • Israel Bansimba is a third year fine art student at the University of Johannesburg, who took part in the arts writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen earlier this year.
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MAN with an eye for dance: Seasoned dance photographer, Denis Rion. Photograph courtesy youtube.com

THE MAGIC OF making a photograph work, according to Nantes-based veteran dance photographer Denis Rion (59), happens in the way in which it can capture light and movement. He was seduced by the medium at a young age and realised early on that this would be a lifelong affair. Rion was in South Africa for this year’s Dance Umbrella, as he collaborated with Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena on their work Corps. He chatted to My View about his career behind the lens and in front of dancers.

“Dance is a fundamental element of the culture and identity of each country I have visited,” he says, speaking of how his career has taken him all over the world. He is interested in capturing gestures and movement and his work’s resonance with the dance world felt natural from the start. His work has been characterised by his desire to capture and reflect on the idea of ‘the other’.

Characteristic of Rion’s dance photography is the black background. He explains this, deeming that blackness as neutral: “If the background is the decor, there is the subject plus the decor, but I’m only interesting at the subject, that’s why I use the black background in general.”

On his website, he comments: “My photos offer a still picture of what is most live in us: flesh and emotions, materials and colour, which highlight the magnificent force of movement and gesture, the richness of the diversity of body expression, like a journey to the heart of humanity.”

  • Rion’s work can be seen this week with the performance of Corps, danced by Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena in Infecting the City, April 5, 7 at Artscape, Cape Town. Visit infectingthecity.com/2017/

The Good, the Bad and the Outrageous – Dance Umbrella 2017 in a nutshell

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GIVE and take: Fana Tshabalala, Emil Bordas and Ana Mondini in the work beautifully curated by Constanza Macras, In the Heart of the Country. Photography courtesy DorkyPark.

Dance Umbrella 2017 is done and dusted, and like virtually every other Dance Umbrella for the past 29 years, it featured the good, the bad and the ugly, and insights into the ‘lucky packet’ syndrome, central to any arts festival, where you’re never sure of the pickings of any evening’s material, as to whether it will indeed be good, bad or simply appalling.

Who could easily forget the sheer magic in Rudi van der Merwe’s Trophée, or the frissons of fierce and vulnerable energy cast by Ana Mondini in In the Heart of the Country, a work co-choreographed by Fana Tshabalala with Constanza Macras. Conversely, happily none of the audience members in Lady, Lady, the much anticipated work by Gaby Saranouffi, Desiré Davids and Edna Jaime didn’t find themselves pitched headlong down the theatre’s steep steps in the dark, as the work began before everyone was seated.

While some works still contained the same kind of mind-numbing repetitive bellow of sound that makes an MRI seem friendly, others have transitioned to understanding the value of music – and better still, the presence of a real person actually playing music, within the work. Unfortunately, in one such piece, the instrumentalist was placed at such a silly and basically disrespectful position that all the audience could see was his or her elegant arm, from time to time, and this served as a major detractor throughout the work.

In Down to Earth, Kieron Jina and Marc Philipp Gabriel delightfully cavorted nakedly with an assortment of arbitrary objects and by and large, except for a few achingly fine gestures in the work’s trajectory, the effect was lovely, but alas, so conceptually flimsy, it never moved from being two naked boys in a room of things. In another work, the archive of contemporary South African dance was splayed with a great deal of humour and poetry, honesty and frankness against the backdrop of memory by Alan Parker, in his Detritus for One. It was unconventional and difficult, but moving and real.

There were the strange faux pas in works in which dancers were so enthusiastic that they began moving before their soundtrack was switched on, others in which the dancers continued dancing in the silence between tracks, and yet others in which screens were erected, but the projected images didn’t coincide. Beautiful dance by Cape Town City Ballet and freelancers under the choreographic impetus of Kirvan Fortuin was so oddly marred because the colour of the floor in relation to the dancers’ socks was not taken into consideration. Featuring uncomfortable lighting, Fortuin’s When They Leave had all his dancers in brown socks. Effectively, this meant that the aesthetics of the work saw them truncated: the socks and the stage floor blended so well, the dancers’ feet were stolen from the audience’s sight.

Site specificity was handled with aplomb and Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Workers’ Chant, conjoined with Trophée, lent an eerie sense of authenticity to physical gestures in the world that were transfixing and unusual, allowing Dance Umbrella its traditional energetic charges of discomfort and unease.

Some choreographers articulated things about life, the universe and everything, sometimes in much more convoluted and lengthy ways than were completely accessible and strictly necessary, and others brought such poetry and magic to the stage, that it made you realise that this is indeed what it’s all about. Life, the universe, and everything, I mean.

The bulk of the festival took place in the three venues of Wits University’s theatre complex, and on paper and in much of the pragmatics of this approach, this was the best Dance Umbrella in years. It didn’t mean leaping in your car and hurtling through the unpredictable streets of Johannesburg between the performance of works. There was only one triple bill, and an immensely satisfying one at that, in which works which resonated with one another were curated together.

Where the venue failed effectively, was in terms of its hospitality. And while many people have vociferously behind the scenes explained the pragmatic reasons for this to me, it’s another issue of being able to explain it to Joe Public, the sometime visitor of Dance Umbrella, that he or she might have to settle for a bag of Jelly Tots for dinner, between shows. Not only was there no food accessible, but Wits University itself is in dire need of having to rethink its theatre as a real, professional venue. It’s not safe to go exploring campus at night – and while the theatre spaces are great, the foyer gives nothing to its visitors: not a bank machine, not a sandwich, not even a clear facade and logical entrance point.

This is a crying shame: the longevity of the Dance Umbrella is such that it deserves a regular venue to contain it, and one that, without excuses and explanations can sate any demands its patrons might have, simply because they’re patrons and shouldn’t be obliged to jump through proverbial hoops or sit on the floor or pretend that NikNaks are a balanced meal.

Having said all of that, and having partly recovered from the helter-skelter pressure of an arts festival, it’s time to congratulate Dance Umbrella under the artistic direction of Georgina Thomson, on another sterling success. Night after night, you might have returned home feeling alive with the magic and madness of this world. You might have returned home feeling appalled at how this type of dance gets international funding.  But by and large, you returned the next night for more. And more. Here’s to Dance Umbrella’s 30th in 2018.

Paisley, graves, some drumming and time

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REMEMBRANCE of things past: Trophee. Photograph courtesy Rudi van der Merwe.

THE SCENE IS set for something utterly extraordinary. Quietude pervades. There’s a tight row of wooden crosses, standing plunged into the ground. And the riffs of sound filter through the space, subtly at first and then with richer resonance. You’re on high alert. You don’t know what might happen. And then the corner of your eye is snagged on something that you can’t believe you’re looking at. It dances. It twirls. It looks like a giant in a Victorian frock. A faceless one. The percussion runs in tandem with its movements. And as you look, there’s another. And another. And they’re coming towards you, in their own ponderous, gestural way. Thus begins Trophée, a detailed and moving experience about loss of life, the values of trophy hunting and what war means in our world.

If you think of the opening scenes of Günter Grass’s Tin Drum – or even the 1979 film version directed by Volker Schöndorff – where a young woman dressed in several large skirts sits on the stubby field of a farm, and eats potatoes that she has just roasted over a fire, something of that earnest madness is conveyed in Trophée. Perhaps it has to do with the sweeping and searing soundscape created by Béatrice Graf, perhaps it has to do with the land so deeply invested in meaning, populated by these three dancers in their big dresses. Either way, there is an ethos of the imminence of war. The land seems thick with expectation, and suppurating with deep-seated blood. And it’s a strange thing: here you’re sitting on the roughly mown soccer field of the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein. There isn’t a war going on. This land isn’t so invested in meaning. But the site specificity of this haunting and beautifully designed work takes your head and heart and simply shifts its values completely. And this land becomes any land. A place of battlefields and the spilling of blood.

As the piece unfolds, which sees some unbelievably beautiful drumming that will set you afire, conjoined with the displacement of grave markers that evokes some of the powerful scenes of poppies and grave markers in Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War, there’s an interleaving of heraldic  symbolism and metaphors of acquisition. The dancers’ gender doesn’t matter; they represent  women: The widows and mourners in the face of war. There’s an elephant evoked and World War helmets covered in thick white lace that offer a sinister and persona-less reflection. The figures wear glittery paisley over their big skirts, vessels for so much by way of gesture and movement.

Several years ago, Dance Umbrella offered platform to an extraordinary French work involving an industrial trench digger ‘dancing’ to the sound of Maria Callas singing. For many seasoned Dance Umbrella audience members, this was a pinnacle in the festival’s history thus far. It was something that became a touchstone to what Dance Umbrella could be about. The wisdom and subtlety, drama and quietude of Trophée stands alongside that trenchdigger in a gesture that touches on so many soft spots in our understanding of ourselves and this world in which we exist, and in doing so, doesn’t attempt to offer silly platitudes or crass observations. It just is. And that is what matters.

Can the Dance Umbrella possibly maintain this level of fine sophistication and engaging beauty throughout this, its 29th annual festival? So far, so good.

  • Trophée is choreographed by Rudi van der Merwe in collaboration with Susana Panadés, featuring design by Kata Tóth (costumes), music (Béatrice Graf) and Victor Roy (scenography). It was performed by Claire-Marie Ricarte, József Trefeli and Rudi van der Merwe in the National School of the Arts Soccer Field, on February 25 and 26 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709

Grand eland, springbok child: a work of space, humanity

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BEAUTY under African umbrellas: An insight into Space photographed by John Hogg.

WHEN SOMETHING SO unutterably beautiful crosses your path, at first you feel awestruck into silence, and once you have caught your breath and gathered your energies, it takes time before you are capable of reflecting on the intensity and pull of that beauty. This is what you experience with Sifiso Kweyama’s Space, a celebration of humanity and the essence of godhead which also reflects tragically on the horrors and broken sacredness faced by the original inhabitants of this part of the world.

Something akin to Sylvia Vollenhoven’s Keeper of the Kumm (2016) an extrapolation of her coloured roots, or composer Peter Louis van Dijk’s Horizons (1995), performed most extraordinarily in South Africa earlier this month by the King’s Singers, Space embraces a tale of colour and identity, one which is also peppered by violence and displacement. But overall, it is a work so sensitively conceived and articulated, you feel the urge to open your eyes and soul wider than what your anatomy will allow, just to hold onto every gesture and visual rhyme you’re exposed to.

Featuring dancers associated with Jazzart, the work does the Cape Town-based dance company proud in the interjections of movement and poetry and how they sync with one another. But there is more – the integrity of design in this work, from sound to simply fabulous costumes, add to how it flows hither and yon against the aural backdrop of poetry in English and Afrikaans, about the loss of land and the horror of discrimination.

Having said that, it is Lewellyn Afrika that will grasp your eyes from the very outset of the work. Not only is he a beautiful persona onstage, who evokes the noble eland in his unconscious sense of potency and quiet magnificence, but he’s an extraordinary dancer, who reaches across the stage with gesture and bottled fire. As you watch the narrative sequence of events in the work unfold, you see Afrika as a cipher of gender potency as he confronts the maleness of the character danced by Shaun Oelf, and the more stereotypical reflections of the three women dancers, Refiloe Mogoje, Thabisa Dinga and Tracey September.

This work is a paean to coloured identity and how it reaches through the interstices of history and war to the San people. The thrust and flow of the choreography with costumes comprising muted hues and dance pants that splay and echo visual and performed values, it’s a piece you don’t want to end, even though the tale is far from happy or comfortable.

While the sound design in the work lacks subtlety and the words are gravelly and thick in a way that sometimes impedes their diction or clarity, the work as a whole is otherwise constructed with a powerful choreographic hand and beautiful cohesion between dancers. This is the kind of work that makes a festival such as Dance Umbrella sing. And the kind of audience experience that makes it very sad that the work occupies the platform for but two days. But it’s also the kind of work that makes everything seem a little lighter, wiser, more forgiving and a lot closer to perfection.

  • Space is choreographed by Sifiso Kweyama with directorial advice from Mdu Kweyama and features design by Max Richter and Radical Face (music), Khadija Tracey Heeger and Lewellyn Afrika (poems), Nkosinathi Sangweni (costumes) and David Hlatshwayo (lighting). It is performed by Lewellyn Afrika, Thabisa Dinga, Refiloe Mogoje, Shaun Oelf and Tracey September in the Wits Theatre, on February 24 and 25 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.