We, the fallen giants

ONLY connect. A scene from PJ Sabbagha’s Noah. Photograph by John Hogg.

SOMETIMES A WORK reaches your sensibilities in an ineffable way, giving voice to your most secret and unuttered notions of the rawness of loss, love and letting go. Sometimes that work can touch all those nerves and succeed in being so supremely beautiful and wistfully unhinged that you throw all levels of intellectual unpicking to the wind and allow yourself, body and soul to be enfolded in what you are experiencing. The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative brought Noah to this year’s Dance Umbrella, a work which embodied all of these values.

It’s a piece premised on the biblical tale of Noah, the bloke instructed by God – in the face of derision from his peers – to build an ark in anticipation of a great flood that would drown all the bad people in the world. The ark was to be made of certain woods at certain dimensions, and it would contain two of each kind of species of animal. Benjamin Britten constructed his quirky opera Noye’s Fludde about it, in 1958 – as did countless other creative practitioners over the years. It’s a biblical tale which lends itself to popular memory and moralising.

Rather than take a conventional narrative flavour, however, this work looks at the tale from within the water. From within the souls of those left behind. The fallen giants. From the empathetic perspective of the birds at the end of a light, magicked into relevance with solar power, rather than an olive branch, the integration of dancers and swimmers, shadow bodies and real ones coalesce to create something that you feel you must whisper about when you engage with it. It’s a feast of dancing in the dark and videography that’s cropped to focus on what is essential. And yet, yet, the work is not precious in the stuffy, earnest sense of the term. It’s stream of consciousness at its most sophisticated. As you watch the bodies of the dancers entwine and intertwine, become ambiguous and lose their sense of self, and their sense of scale, so do you feel enriched at having encountered the meditative magic of this experience.

Unequivocally, Noah, alongside this year’s works by Steven Cohen and Robyn Orlin, captured the potency of what Dance Umbrella is, was and could always be. This triumvirate of important South African dance works which touch the soul of a developed aesthetic and a sophisticated understanding of how dance can stretch makes for a magnificent swan song to a treasured festival.

  • Noah is conceived by PJ Sabbagha and created by Sabbagha in collaboration with the cast: Nicholas Aphane, Athena Mazarakis, Shawn Mothupi. It features creative input from the cast (set and costumes), Cold Play/Nicholas Aphane (music), Thabo Pule (lighting and technical design), PJ Sabbagha (video filming) and Jessica Dennyschen. The video performance is by the cast and Collen Makua, Mpho Makuwa, PJ Sabbagha, Oupa Sibeko and Lucia Walker. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performed on March 16 and 17 at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

You can lean on me

TRUST and the meaning of leaning: Gerard Bester and Alan Parker. Photograph by John Hogg.

WHAT ARE FRIENDS for if we cannot lean on them? Brainstorming the notion across a myriad of popular songs, Sometimes I have to lean in … is a sheer gem of a work featuring two dance veterans who do not have dancers’ bodies any longer. It’s a work that flies deliciously in the face of stereotypes, but it’s one that reaches deep and touches deeper.

Elev(i)ate was a dance project undertaken by choreographer Athena Mazarakis in 2010. It was a spoof on the idea of a strong man, and featured Mazarakis in an improvised space beneath the staircase of the Market Theatre, lifting people off the ground. It was about working with gravity and tipping points, but on a more conceptual level, it was about the power to move individuals.

In this work performed by Gerard Bester and Alan Parker, something similar is articulated. The idea and the meaning of leaning on someone has been splayed out through songs, fabulous timing, a fantastic dollop of dance nostalgia and some glorious dead pan clowning. The two men’s interaction in their egos and their bodies, in word and movement, is wonderful to watch, and it’s a dialogue as much about words as it is about bodies in space.

And just when you think the give and take begins to tire, the dancers embark on the most majestic and humble pas-de-deux to the tune of Saint-Saëns’s The Swan, arguably the most loved movement of his Carnival of the Animals suite (1886). It’s dance which is about intimacy as it is about male gesture and the ethos of recognising the other, and it is dance to make you weep because of how it indulges in the gloriousness of ordinariness.

At this point, the work’s slapstick self-deprecation and bravado dissolves and you’re left with two men making vulnerable poetry with the humdrum nature of their bodies. It’s a work with no tricks or gimmicks, no sleight of hands brought about by technology, just two guys chewing the proverbial fat and making sense of the world around them. And of their dance dreams. And, of course, making space for a little more beauty in our world.

  • Sometimes I have to lean in … is choreographed and performed by Gerard Bester and Alan Parker and features creative input by Gavin Krastin (costumes), George Formby, Aretha Franking, Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jackson, Radiohead, Camille Saint-Saëns and Bill Withers (music), Gerard Bester, Gavin Krastin and Alan Parker (lighting and technical design), and Gwydion Beynon (text). It was part of the 30th iteration of Dance Umbrella, and performed on Thursday March 8 and Friday March 9 at the Wits Amphitheatre, Braamfontein. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

A dance for the tree gods

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.

Of tears, wolf gods and untrammelled beauty: Dance Umbrella’s first Double Bill

Poised: Grant van Ster (left) and Shaun Oelf opposite Thabiso Dinga in The Architecture of Tears. Photograph by Dex Goodman.
Poised: Grant van Ster (left) and Shaun Oelf opposite Thabiso Dinga in The Architecture of Tears. Photograph by Dex Goodman.

Mixed programmes in Dance Umbrella always hold that frisson of possibility and that lucky packet threat that is about how the works on the programme relate to one another, as well as what you are left with at the end of the evening. Sadly the wretched acoustics in the Dance Factory leave you with the harsh resonances of low frequency static that you hear with your bowels and teeth, and that make you cringe and hurt physically, but happily, the work on this evening’s agenda was strong enough to offer a counterbalance.

Ananda Fuchs’s The Architecture of Tears is a piece nearly two years in the making which aims to meld a series of microscopic photographs of tears by Rose-Lynn Fisher with some extraordinary dance work, music and social commentary and by and large, it is successful. Grant van Ster and Shaun Oelf dance opposite Thabisa Dinga in choreography that is satisfying on the senses and speaks beautiful volumes of relationship permutations and loss and loneliness as it grapples with tears of joy and all kinds of different ways in which the three bodies blend and embrace and explore one another: it’s about emotional relationships as much as it is about physical ones, but the work never wanders into the lewd or explicit, which serves to push it over into a little too sanitised a sense of abstraction. While there’s immense beauty here, the abstraction can sometimes serve to temper a sense of meaning or clear narrative and might lose you, in the audience.

Something bigger is lost, however, in the way in which music pieces segue – or rather don’t segue, leaving the dancers in  silence for a few transitionary seconds, which doesn’t bode well for the work’s flow.

Also, while the photographic images on screen are fascinating – they’re views of tears by Rose-Lynn Fisher, there’s no engagement with them. We see the same images repeated and the dancers are doing amazing things, but the visual and dance-stimulated gestures don’t fall logically hand in hand and while you’re transfixed by the movement and the manner in which each performer holds his or her own emotions with a glowing preciousness and the irrevocable beauty of trust, you clap heartily but leave perplexed at the images themselves, which form conceptual question marks in the piece.

Not since a very young Athena Mazarakis choreographed an astonishing fight scene in a version of A Clockwork Orange have we seen such articulate and mesmerising fight choreography as that created by Sunnyboy Motau and Rachel Erdos in collaboration with Moving Into Dance Mophatong performers in fight, flight, feathers, f***ers, the second half of the double bill.

An essay on the conflicting and contradictory challenges of masculinity in a contemporary world, the work ably brings together a sophisticated reflection on what is foe, what is friend, and what is ambiguously neither and both, with the curious and ingenious use of masks. These masks evoke Anubis, the Egyptian wolf-god of the dead, as they lend an effulgent sense of darkness to the works. Feathers are not only a metaphor, but spin from clichéd softness into an aggressive taunt which you will struggle to pull your eyes from.

While fight and flight choreography lend the piece its fire, there are elements that reflex a complex intertwining of bodies that is completely enthralling to behold and will make you think of local traditions of wood sculpture – by the likes of Noria Mabasa – in which one piece of wood is worked in such a way that many intertwined bodies are evoked. These four men – Muzi Shili, Oscar Buthelezi, Teboho Letele and Eugene Mashiane – demonstrate a level of give and take and call and response that is truly a privilege to witness.

A piece that might make you think of the recent play, The Three Little Pigs, directed by Tara Notcutt, which has performed all over the country and world, over the last few years, flight, flight, feathers, f***ers demonstrates an anthropomorphic facility which is at once direct and crude as it is deeply evolved and sinister. Coupled with utterly perfect lighting which enables the dancers to splay off into a whole community of shadows big and small, this piece is a magnetic tour de force, bruised only slightly by sound which is too harsh and too unmodulated in this space.

  • Double Bill comprised The Architecture of Tears and fight, flight, feathers, f***ers, and performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown until March 4.
    • The Architecture of Tears was choreographed by Ananda Fuchs and company and performed by the Figure of Eight Dance Collective. It was performed by Grant van Ster, Shaun Oelf and Thabisa Dinga with costumes by Jen Stretch, lighting design by Ananda Fuchs and music by Max Richter, Vivaldi, Rachael Boyed, Jona Kvarnstrm and Danny Cudd/Markus Johansson.
    • fight, flight, feathers, f***ers was choreographed by Sunnyboy Motau and Rachel Erdos and performed by Muzi Shili, Teboho Letele, Oscar Buthelezi and Eugene Mashiane, with lighting design by Wilhelm Disbergen, costumes by Kyle Roussouw and music compilation by Teboho Letele.