Night of a thousand stars

Evita

BIRTHPANGS of Argentinean freedom: Che (Jonathan Roxmouth) and ensemble cast. Photograph courtesy of http://www.stageandscreen.co.za

ONE OF THE toughest aspects of mounting a West End and Broadway hit musical that has iconic film status is probably also one of the production’s biggest blessings: everyone knows the lyrics to the Lloyd Webber and Rice production Evita so well, they’re bawling them out all the time as the work unfolds. But by the same token, the comparisons with the film are begged with abandon. And this does hurt what you can currently see on stage.

While director Harold Prince is at pains to reinvent many of the scenes, which obviously contains a pared down cast and similarly tightened effects such as choreography, in many ways, you do feel as though you are watching a stage version of the 1996 film which starred Madonna and was directed by Alan Parker, and indeed, in areas where the narrative feels foxed by special effects, you find yourself relying on your knowledge of the trajectory of Evita Perón’s life, as depicted in that film, to fill in the blurry parts.

The other thing you might find yourself reverting to is the 2010 version of this production, also staged at Montecasino, which was memorably tight and impeccable in its focuses, in its group scenes and in its choreography. While comparisons are always odious, if you did see that earlier production which had Angela Kilian opposite James Borthwick in the main roles, you will appreciate the discrepancies.

Borthwick is a performer who lent the character of Juan Perón the necessary gravitas, cruelty, flawedness and imposing visual value that Robert Finlayson unfortunately doesn’t have. It has to do not so much with the performance, but with the performer’s age and physical presence that plays into one of the reasons why Eva Duarte’s relationship with Perón was so shocking to many: he was more than 20 years her senior. An important military figure. A guy with stature. This production focuses on the sexiness of the couple which feels a little out of sync in terms of the story being told.

Similarly, Emma Kingston in the role of Evita has been compromised in terms of the way in which her body feels truncated by the choice of shoes she wears and the way in which the lighting embraces her. Yes, clunky shoes were worn in the 1940s, but there is but one pair of shoes she sports, toward the end of the production that lends her dignity rather than clunkiness, as do the rest of them. She also feels compromised when her voice is stretched to the higher registers of the demands of the role and it is not consistently clear whether this is a voice or an amplification issue, but you hear the words caught in a state of shriek which isn’t pleasant. The character’s agony toward the end of her life is also played with a stylised crudeness which doesn’t lend credibility to the scenario. Evita died of cervical cancer and the bending and pushing Kingston articulates with her body makes it feel like a digestive issue.

Having said all of that, the interfolding of genuine footage in this production renders moments like the famous balcony scene at Casa Rosada which sees Evita as Argentina’s controversial yet generally well-loved First Lady, is simply breath-taking. There’s a relationship between the real woman and the real story that is informed and energised by the footage. The set is almost architectural in its refinement, but is splintered illogically by lights mounted into the floor. So, you sometimes experience strobe-evocative flashing moments which are about sensation rather than pragmatics, and you also experience ghostly reflections from these ground-based lights that bounce off the rest of the set rather distractingly.

One of this work’s magic ingredients is a nuanced and strong cameo performance by Isabella Jane in the role of the mistress who must be disposed of, when Eva comes on the scene. Another is an incredibly strong ensemble cast which includes performers such as Mike Huff, Adam Pelkowitz, LJ Neilson, Keaton Ditchfield and others, as well as a very well-placed children’s cast, which lends the work an irrevocably wise texture that makes you understand the atmosphere in an Argentina replete with protest, poverty and struggles.

The cherry on top of the work is the narrator, Che, played very ably by Jonathan Roxmouth. It is in this representation, replete with a lit cigar and a whole rash of nuances that you get to understand the underbelly of the story being told here, which doesn’t hold back on glorying in the sexiness of the era and the messiness of its values. It’s a beautiful role that is both sinister and informative, but lends this musical the kind of kick that balances the historical, tango-scented magic of the original sound track.

  • Evita with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is directed by Harold Prince and Dan Kutner. It features creative input by Louis Zurnamer (musical director), Guy Simpson (musical supervisor), Mick Potter and Shelley Lee (sound), Richard Winkler and Gary Echelmeyer (lighting), Larry Fuller and R. Kim Jordan (choreography), David Cullen (orchestration) and Timothy O’Brien (production). It is performed by Robert Finlayson, Isabella Jane, Emma Kingston, Anton Luitingh, Jonathan Roxmouth and an ensemble comprising Cindy-Ann Abrahams, Danielle Bitton, Ivan Boonzaaier, Ruby Burton, Beverley Chiat, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Keaton Ditchfield, Stefania du Toit, JD Engelbrecht, Ambre-Chanel Fulton, Richard Gau, Darren Greeff, Earl Gregory, Hayley Henry, Tamryn van Houten, Mike Huff, Kent Jeycocke, Hope Maimane, Thabso Masemene, Carlo McFarlane, LJ Neilson, Adam Pelkowitz, Mark Richardson and Trevor Schoonraad. It is supported by a children’s cast: (Johannesburg) Nicole du Plessis, Pascalle Durand, Fadzai Ndou, Shayla McFarlane, Victoria Levick, Levi Maron, Patrick McGivern, Sean Ruwodo, Cameron Seear, Mikah Smith, Benjamin Wood and Indigo Wood; and (Cape Town) Alon Adir, Jack Fokkens, Mira Govender, Emily Johnston, Charné Jupp, Kate Richards, Lia Sachs, Shani Sachs, Morgan Santo, Tamlyn Stevens, Matteas van Blerk and Daniel Wolson, and the live orchestra under the baton of Louis Zurnamer comprises Stefan Lombard, Rowan Bakker and Drew Bakker (keyboard), Cobie van Wyk (percussion), Donny Bouwer/Michael Magner (trumpet), Bez Roberts, Jurie Swart or Nick Green (trombone), Ryan Solomons/Robert Jeffrey (guitar), Jason Green/Graham Strickland (bass) and James Lombard (drums). It is at Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, until November 26, and at Artscape Opera House, Artscape theatre complex, Cape Town, from December 2 until January 7, 2018. Visit pietertoerien.co.za
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Dance should make you weep, says Sylvia

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DO IT LIKE THIS: Sylvia Glasser works with Fana Tshabalala in studio, 2010. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

With her floor-length purple dress riffling in the wind as she shimmied across President Street on the arm of choreographer/dancer Muzi Shili and others associated with Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MiD) , arguably South Africa’s most important contemporary dance company, Sylvia “MaGogo” Glasser, the institution’s founder, bade MiD – and the country – goodbye.  What a send off! What a way to leave that which you started 38 years ago, in good health, good humour and a position of authority.

For Glasser, it’s a bittersweet move, but one in which she can acknowledge touching so many dancers’ lives. Last month, Glasser spoke to My View about the rules she broke during the 38 years of MiD’s existence, and the ones she made. Also, the dance fraternity hosted a farewell for her, featuring comments from heavyweights in contemporary dance, including Shili, David Thanatelo April, Christos Daskalakos, Bev Elgie, Portia Mashigo and Kefiloe Morand.

Daskalalos, an architecture student in 1978 was enticed by an MiD poster for an improvisation workshop on Wits University campus: “I went. It was the start of a whole new life, for me. Sylvia had us doing things to tables and chairs that was never meant to be done to tables and chairs.

“Improvisation was how a lot of the works were choreographed by Sylvia and the dancers – Sylvia had the idea, the structure, the clear vision, and we would go into the studio and improvise and improvise. It was so creative. It is how a lot of the work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery was made,” he described performances in Johannesburg’s municipal gallery in 1980 and 1988.

Photographs of dancers in the JAG’s majestic space recalls performance art under choreographers like Robyn Orlin – a student of Glasser’s in her youth – decades later. Indeed, so much of the dance language developed and honed by Glasser was before its time, certainly in South Africa, where the notions of collaboration, performance art and impromptu gesture were important and new.

In 1981, MiD, just three years old, hosted South Africa’s first mixed-race work, at Wits’s Great Hall.

“At MiD, colour was never an issue,” Daskalakos said Glasser was not afraid to engage ugly South African metaphors, remembering this was high apartheid and everything she did with black and white dancers together was illegal.

In 1983, her work Not For Squares, ostensibly a light piece was performed to a gavotte by JS Bach. It also featured tyres. “Remember what tyres were used for in this country at the time?” Glasser mused, referring to “necklacing” in which people were burnt to death in a tyre.

Not only the tyre metaphor but also the use of Baroque music to support contemporary dance broke rules, which aligned Glasser’s dance philosophy with that of another dance legend, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) who cocked a snook at balletic traditions in reinventing dance grammar. Effectively, Glasser created a dance grammar specific to South Africa – something which many of her dancers, who affectionately call her “MaGogo” (grandmother), have taken to the next level.

Not one to rest on laurels, Glasser was quick to disparage what she deemed too much praise. “I had a good education. I had a house. I was privileged. It was an obvious path for me to take.”

Elgie remembers the fledgling company, before 1987, used not only Glasser’s garage at her Victory Park home, to rehearse, but also the school hall at King David Victory Park and two scout halls. “In the one [scout hall], you went home and dug splinters out of your feet after each session. And the other was so cold we looked like oompa loompas, we had to wear so many clothes to keep warm.

“The piece that I collaborated in that still means the most to me is African Cassandra. I remember waking up in the morning after Wits lecturer and anti-apartheid activist David Webster [with whom Glasser had an important friendship] was assassinated [by apartheid security forces] and feeling what an awful thing had happened but feeling very proud of Sylvia for wanting to do this. It was a marvellous collaboration, which with pride we performed at the lecture in honour of David.”

Glasser was a mature student in 1989, having returned to Wits to read social anthropology, where  Webster was her professor. She recalled: “on the Friday, David had said he was organising one of the Wits cleaners to come to Braamfontein Recreation Centre to teach us Zulu dancing. That Monday, I saw in the news David had been killed. So this thing of Cassandra was David singing to the future, trying to change people.

“I also felt like a Cassandra in the dance community at the time.” She spoke of how her work was “scorned” locally, which affected her critical presence and fundraising profile. It’s ironic, that one of the highest profile award-winning companies, which saw Glasser knighted by the Dutch in 2014 struggled – and still struggles – for broader community support, in kind, in coverage and in funding.

Pragmatically, Glasser didn’t sidestep the importance of funding a nongovernmental organisation; an issue which became (and still is) a vital challenge for MiD. She needed to raise funds from 1984, in addition to the many competencies that steering MiD demanded of her.

Glasser vehemently disparaged the idea that “you need to do fluffy work for the public to patronise you. There is much talk, not only at MiD, but in dance generally, of a need for self-sufficiency. It’s become a buzz word. I’ve worked in many countries. I have learnt that any dance company that makes its audience cry, that has an ethos where people are more important than policies, does not cover its expenses through performance alone. Any organisation that brings in people, as MiD did, has a commodity to offer which overrides pressure for self-sustainability. Sure, you can commercialise a dance company. But it will lose its soul.

“Today I’m told I don’t understand business. How can you survive with no capital investment and [between 2001 and 2004] employ over 30 people? I didn’t do it by myself.”

But MiD has stood for a lot more than the trend of self-sustainability. It made careers. It made dreams feasible. Mashigo came into dance as a teenager. “I was in standard eight and there was a group of friends I had who were doing dance at a youth centre. One day I went with them, to watch. I had never seen a dancer’s body before. I had never before seen how physical fitness can train a black woman’s body. I started dancing. It was fun. It was easy. We were the ‘it’ girls.”

A year later, she auditioned with MiD. “I got in. And I got scared. For the first time, I realised how tiny I was – and I was competing now not only against township girls; I also had to speak English. The teachers were white. But the love of understanding exercises opened a new understanding of my body for me.”

Said April: “In Kimberley, where I grew up, there weren’t opportunities for dance training. In 1992, I heard an advert on Radio 5 for the community dance teachers training course auditions [run by MiD]. At that time, there was a programme on TV called Fame [based on the 1980 film]; everyone wanted to be like those dancers. I decided to be a ‘Leroy’ [played by the late Gene Anthony Ray] at MiD.”

Glasser concluded, smilingly: “I do have an ego,” she pooh-poohed peers’ claims that she was one of few professionals they worked with who didn’t come ego-first into a studio.

“I loved performing. Teaching is performing. It was the world to me.”

  • MiD is run by chief executive Nadia Virasamy, and artistic director Mark Hawkins.

My father myself: Kafka’s horror, Nashman’s masterpiece

Alon Nashman is Kafka, father and son. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy www.alonnashman.com

Alon Nashman is Kafka, father and son. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy http://www.alonnashman.com

When a theatre production takes on a classic work of prose and gives it new life, the audience is fortunate. When this new life is articulated with such fire and wisdom that the original words of the master are seared with new energy, the audience is privileged. When all of this comes together under the supreme talents of a performer, such as Alon Nashman, the experience is almost completely overwhelming.

This is what you get with Kafka and Son, an astonishing foray into the problematic relationship Czech writer Franz Kafka had with his father Hermann, a relationship splayed and explored ruthlessly in Letter to my Father, written by Franz in 1919, never delivered to his father, but published in 1966, after both men were dead. It’s an intimate, horrifying and at times hilariously biting extrapolation on a father-son relationship fuelled by narcissism, fear, sarcasm and one-upmanship, on the part of the father, and exacerbated by the son’s low self esteem, physical puniness and inability to fight back. It’s a horror story told with a fierce sense of intimacy that is both riveting and disturbing.

Nashman is an unbelievably fine performer, and it is a true and unforgettable privilege to be able to see this performer in South Africa. Bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to Kafka, he is, at once, father and son, as he offers dialogue that is often difficult to internalise, it is so destructive. Complemented with a rough and potent set comprising feathers and rusty cages, the work has a harsh melodiousness of its own, and the shrill weeping plaint of the klezmer-evocative clarinet melds in to the choreographic repertoire of the piece where nothing – from cruelty during childhood to the boring horror of disdain for Jewish tradition – escapes the son’s critical loupe toward his father’s behaviour.

It’s a paean that authenticates the hollow sadness of anyone who has experienced the lead ball of parental emotional abuse, which intertwines the complication of marriage and independence; it is also a deeply sophisticated ode to the potency of Kafka himself. Evoking Alan Parker’s 1984 film Birdy, which engages with post Vietnam War horror, as it teases open the resonance of language articulated by Kafka in the teen years of the twentieth century, a scary precursor to the texture of Holocaust language, the work presents an eye at a keyhole into the kind of challenges that the real, individual, private Kafka faced, and consequently a level of focus into the work.

Kafka and Son is a defining, uncompromising piece of brilliance.

  • Kafka and Son is written by Mark Cassidy and Alon Nashman, adapted for stage from Franz Kafka’s Letter to my Father. It is directed by Mark Cassidy, features design by Carmellia Koo and Marysia Bucolc (costume and set) and Andrea Lundy (lighting) and is performed by Alon Nashman, as part of the Wits 969 Festival in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, Wits Theatre Complex, Braamfontein. It performs again on Tuesday July 21 at 13:15. Visit webtickets.co.za

On Seeing Red: Missed opportunities, stuff and nonsense

The money shot: Gavin Krastin burns some cash. Photograph by John Hogg.

The money shot: Gavin Krastin burns some cash. Photograph by John Hogg.

Robyn Orlin could do it. So could Steven Cohen. And the Doobie Boobies under the direction of Mark Hawkins held articulate and convincing sway on this too. What is it that Gavin Krastin and Alan Parker lack in this discipline of rough burlesque and counter-dance? Is it a depth of ironic focus? Is it a lack of pathos? Are they too young? Or too pretty? Perhaps their sense of an evolved self-mocking gravitas is not fully formed. It’s difficult to pinpoint, but their latest work On Seeing Red, push all those audience buttons of disrespect and unresolved sloppiness, while it attempts to describe a framework of counter-seriousness and misses.

Seating an adult audience on the floor is always a bad starting point. It’s ill-mannered and unnecessary and it’s curious as to why the work could not have been contained in a regular seated space. But then, the room, filled with blow up palm trees and lots of shiny purple stuff, explodes with a drunken sense of burlesque introducing karaoke, hammering drag references home with a sense of tawdry glitter and a repetitiveness that makes the opening song of Cabaret into a mantra.

From this point, however, the work degenerates into a horrid and silly miasma of sanitary towels and plastic flowers, spilled custard, burnt money, wine and blood, amongst other things. The work grapples with the idea of light years and the conflation of time and energy in a ham-handed, unconvincing way, as it steps on the toes of territorialism, offering an unsatisfactorily tiny evocation of a work they created in 2012 called Cellardoor.

That work had memorable potential: sadly On Seeing Red doesn’t exploit its gaps, but rather tramples on them. When you read the programme notes after seeing the work and need to check again if this indeed is a description of the cheap and nasty bits of self-indulgence you’ve just seen, something’s amiss.

On Seeing Red doesn’t actually make you see red or feel real anger. Complete with a blow up plastic shark that turns into a frock of sorts, a jumping castle for toddlers that is made to evoke a burning down house, a bit of Piaf and a lot of too long transitions between the work’s components, it makes you physically uncomfortable and irritated. It’s like Steven Cohen denuded of his intent and content and on happy gas. Krastin and Parker’s audiences deserve better. And I’ll never get those 45 minutes of my life back.

  • On Seeing Red performed as part of the Dance Umbrella 2015 at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex on March 5 and 6. It features concept, direction and design by Gavin Krastin, with creation by Alan Parker and Krastin and sound design by Shaun Acker and was performed by Parker and Krastin.