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.

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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

Sing a song of ghosts in a museum of torment

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LOOK into the light: Feeding bowls double as light in the sequences danced by SA dance group Phuphuma Love Minus. Photograph by Evans Mathibe.

SOMETHING QUITE TERRIFYING happens when you find yourself among people you don’t know, being aggressively instructed in a language you don’t understand: You just obey. You do what other people are doing. You become frightened to step out of line. Frightened that the guards’ attention will become focused on you and you may be singled out from the pack. And what will become of you? Will you be humiliated? Will you be killed? Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Workers’ Chant plays with power in a way that which might leave you traumatised and emotionally in disarray.

It takes the audience through the passages and interstices of the Workers’ Museum, an eerie odd little place at the best of times, which is part of the Newtown heritage trail and remains a chilling relic of apartheid’s values. Given the anti-immigrant marches that Johannesburg saw this week, it is a scarily prescient work that is as much about mourning and brokenness as it is about singling out people deemed of lesser value than the rest of society.

A little too long by maybe ten minutes, the work hammers home the realities of migrant living conditions in a crudely racist regime, as it glances head on at everything from the children of migrant labourers who cannot be read to at night, to the way in which everything from piss, shit and vomit, to food and sleep are – or were – regulated in this compound. Under threat of punishment.

There’s a loose narrative conflating the two women (Siphumeze Khundayi and Liyabuya Gongo) and weaving a history of aggression with one of tears and loss. Not always completely legible in terms of its structure, the work is achingly haunting, as it brings the song and dance work of miners associated with Phuphuma Love Minus in a way that evokes the ghosts of the men who were hard done by in this dire little compound complex and others similar to it.

It’s a work of insecurity but certainty – you know it’s an artwork and the ramifications of the instructions hurled at you cannot really touch you, but you’re still touched, anyway. It’s also a work of chilling beauty and forcefulness, which resonates with the values cast by Xoli Norman and Sue Pam Grant in the 2009 piece Guard on Shift staged at Dance Factory or Jay Pather’s Qaphela Caesar at the building formerly the site of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 2012.

Workers’ Chant is riddled with contradictions that give it toughness: it’s a celebration of lives in a context of horror and pain, a reflection of the iconic  photographs by Ernest Cole of deprivation and uniformity and a piece capable of creating shriekingly powerful images and contexts, as it is capable of creating a situation which rapidly becomes nightmarish with the screams of a woman in a closely confined space.

You’re not warned of the physical challenges this work brings, as you trundle through the dark and stony surfaces of this museum, but it is the eerie togetherness and spooky site-specificity, wrapped as it is with the traditional songs of the miners that will echo in your head with the whispers of cruel injustices and the dignity with which the men thus inflicted carried it all, sometimes right to their ignominious deaths.

  • Workers’ Chant is choreographed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu in collaboration with Siphumeze Khundayi and Liyabuya Gongo. It features design by Nhlanhla Mahlangu (costumes) and Mandla Mtshali (lighting and video) and is performed by Liyabuya Gongo, Siphumeze Khundayi and Phuphuma Love Minus, at the Workers’ Museum in Newtown, on February 23 and 24 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.

Take me through the streets of Bertrams

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ANYTHING you can dream of: Jean (Toni Morkel) and residents of the Gerald Fitzpatrick Nursing Home in Bertrams. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

“I BOUGHT A shirt like this for my son-in-law for seven ront,” she says in a stoutly white South African accent, as she presents a second-hand shirt on a wire hanger, in the shop of Gerald Fitzpatrick House and Nursing Home. The shirt contains a sign that mysteriously says “Listen to me”, and as you put the earphones of the iPod secreted in its pocket to your ears, a story emerges: a story of beaches and sand. Of time gone past and days of wine and happiness. It’s like looking at old black and white holiday snaps. You can almost taste the salt-laden wind with the memories, some in English, others in Afrikaans, French or Portuguese. She is Jean (Toni Morkel), the introductory character in Izithombe 2094, a site-specific play by Alex Halligey which embraces the heart of Johannesburg’s suburb of Bertrams, from the inside.

It’s a theatre experience not for the faint of heart or uncomfortably shod. Wear a hat, carry an umbrella and join in at your own risk and with an open head and heart. Pay what you can. Halligey presents the idea of theatre along the streets of Bertrams with a candidness that will take you by surprise, whether you know the terrain or not. As the work unfolds, dotted as it is with a myriad of characters, anecdotes and pivotal moments – which comprise both staged and impromptu situations, you find yourself pondering and wondering how much of this is actually part of the experience, and how much is about the place itself.

Premised on the idea of the power of the director to take and shift and mould her audience in a particular direction, revealing certain things to them through the vehicle of seasoned performers, there’s a level of trickery in this work which will keep you on your toes. The beautiful graffiti, the magnificent people with stories to tell – tales of poverty and hope, tales of Ethiopian bread and refugees from the Congo, tales of special relationships and the sharing of a last cigarette, tales of people drowning in storm drains, and above all tales of neighbourhood. Not every story in Izithombe is told in words and has logical sequences. Not every bit of ‘treasure’ you might find in the work’s 90 minute duration is something you can see and hold in your hand – some of it you take away with you in your heart.

Opening up the vista of this generally poor and down-at-heel suburb of Johannesburg, close to the city centre, Halligey blurs the boundaries of theatre, audience and context with a frisson of the unexpected and sense of total delight. Here’s a man – Ronnie Maluleke – reciting poems to God on the street corner. There’s a woman – Kibibibisch – a political orator standing outside the refugees’ shelter, called Bienvenu. There’s the most elegant woman in Bertrams, Sylvie (Lindiwe Matshikiza). Here’s a group of school children, dancing and singing to one another in a rotational game which reaches across the street outside their school. Suddenly the world turns in upon itself and you feel that you are a part of this community and this play in a way that is indefinable.

And yes, throughout the 90 minute walk through the suburb, past the informal shops with their wares laid out on the pavements, and the hole-in-the-wall tuck shops and braai shops, the farm made of a bowling green, past the former house of Daisy de Melke, the last woman to have been hanged to death in South Africa, you don’t really lose sight of the fact that you are in a creative work. But unlike works of this nature, such as Brett Bailey’s Blood Diamonds of 2009, which saw a tightly controlled environment, and led audience members by the trembling hand of a black child through the cemetery at night, Izithombe 2094 is more nuanced, more surprising, and in that regard, more in touch with the texture and nub of Bertrams.

We don’t, in South Africa, have a strong tradition of site-specificity in our theatre. It slips into the terrain of the radical, the experimental. You may think of the term and cast your mind in the direction of impromptu performers such as Steven Cohen, who in the past became renowned for “upstaging” or “downstaging” (depending on your own values) events like the Durban July or a bridal show in Killarney with his distinctive costume and presence.

With a nod to all of these traditions, including the choreography of Robyn Orlin, in a particularly memorable “beach” scene in the farm, cast against the background of an astonishingly vivid soundscape, Izithombe shows its mettle and its presence, setting the stage – and the streets – for new possibilities.

  • Izithombe 2094 is researched, conceived and directed by Alex Halligey, assisted by Baeletsi Tsatsi. It features performances by Lindiwe Matshikiza and Toni Morkel and support from Tiffani Cornwall, Fiona Gordon, Michael Inglis, Kibibibisch and Ronnie Maluleke. It performs from Twilsharp Studios, 40/42 Gordon Road on September 3-7. Visit http://bertramsstoriespro.wixsite.com/2094