Women with fire in their bellies

Themba
MY books, my frock: Thabisa Dinga in Autho(r)ise. Photograph by John Hogg.

BOOKS AND THEIR inflammable contents, the perennially absent South African father, and unleashing the wrath of decolonised feminist fury are the issues central to the works staged by Themba Mbuli in Dance Umbrella, earlier this month. Mbuli’s topics are hot and relevant and the presentation is clear and engaging. But it is the work of Thabisa Dinga that ramps up the nerve centre of these pieces with fierce abandon and utter electricity.

A demure young woman, from the outset and outside, Dinga has skills that take you by surprise. She plays traditional African instruments that blend bow-instrument with blown instrument with weapon, as she captures the vortex of the works. Dealing with social issues central to who we are as people in this world, who have a tendency to overlook the values and the spaces of others, Dinga is key to the narrative in Memory Box, opposite Mbuli himself.

In Autho(r)ise, a work pummelled a little by typographical errors in the videoed projection, Dinga is seen in collaboration with Kristen De Kock and Nkemiseng Khena. It is here that fire is evoked with politically sensitive comments, an image that calls to mind South African visual artist Penny Siopis’s well-loved work from 1988, Dora and the Other Woman with the idea of pinning images onto a dress, and the complex life of text in a decolonised environment.

De Kock is another performer who also looks too demure and gentle to manifest the kind of performative fire that she makes, and you sit, transfixed and moved by the whorl of values that these two works present.

Looking at Mbuli’s work you cannot but mourn not only the Dance Umbrella in its current manifestation, but also the fact that the Standard Bank Young Artist Award – which Mbuli won in 2016 for dance – never did boast a travelling platform, as it does for visual arts in this country. It’s an omission that enables fine and feisty choreographers and performers of the ilk of Mbuli, to slip though national cracks.

  • Autho(r)ise and Memory Box are choreographed by Themba Mbuli. The former features creative input by Maris Steenkamp (costumes), Meryle Van Noie (composer), Thabisa Dinga (life music), Bamanye Yeko (lighting and technical design) and Christelle Dreyer (video) and is performed by Kristen De Kock, Thabisa Dinga and Nkemiseng Khena. The latter features creative input by Merry K Designs (costume), Thabisa Dinga (live music), Camile – Le fil, Mika Vainio, Alva Noto and Ryuichi (recorded music) and Bamanye Yeko (lighting and technical design), and is performed by Thabisa Dinga and Themba Mbuli. Both works were part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season and performed on March 17 and 18 at the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Pretty shards and Steve Jobs’s legacy

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BEAUTIFUL me: The serious girls in Doll. Photograph by John Hogg.

THE TROUBLING TRUTHS of the prevalence of the selfie and the way in which contemporary society is so deeply focused on its cell phones is something that has been pondered by thinkers and hacks alike. Social media seems to be here to stay, and it’s pulling our values shamelessly into a morass of vanity, narcissism and mediocrity. Owen Lonzar and Sylvaine Strike take these issues into their speculative loupe in constructing Doll. The work is carefully stylised and teeters over into issues of sexism and stereotypes. While aesthetically tight, it states the obvious, but it’s complicated with red herrings and doesn’t go beyond its basic premises.

Not even the physical charm and magnetic presence of Craig Morris could save the soul of this work, however, which is thankfully not very long, but so infused with its observations about cell phone mania and selfie admiration that it doesn’t take any conceptual leaps which would add to its narrative muscle or its value as a dance work. Instead, with its precise choreography, its clear and bold lighting and its stereotypical stories, it fits feasibly into the realm of entertainment rather than of contemporary dance.

With curiously robotic performances by the lead “dolls” who are dressed in a way that makes them reminiscent of 1920s ‘flappers’ – Nina Erasmus, Nicola Niehaus, Paige Farlene and Nosiphiwo Samente, the work alludes to a Stepford Wives/Handmaid’s Tale kind of metaphor, but it’s not something that Ira Levin or Margaret Atwood would have penned. Central to the work is a red herring: a character performed by Donovan Yaards, who wears a Rocky Horror Picture Show-evocative drag, complete with thigh-high shiny boots and a corset. He’s in and he’s out, rolling his eyes, blinging and fawning as he must, but we’re not given to understand why or even why he’s there.

The work plays with stereotypes as it looks at ordinary guys getting what looks like mail order plastic faux girls, through their Tinder-evocative selection gestures. It’s about bums and tits and pouted lips, and the manner in which girls are available for men’s delectation. The ‘character’ sits alone, between the two fences, being neither boy nor girl, really, and offers nothing by way of nuance, meaning or subtlety, which leaves this work feeling like a bit of pretty fluff rather than much else.

  • Doll is co-created by Owen Lonzar and Sylvaine Strike. It features creative input by Owen Lonzar and Sylvaine Strike (costumes) and Oliver Hauser (lighting) and is performed by Ryan Dittmann, Nina Erasmus, Paige Farlerne, Sara Feldman, Thapelo Kotlolo, Franscecka Leech, Craig Morris, Nicola Niehaus, Nosiphiwo Samente, Melissa Schafer, Hannah van Tonder and Donovan Yaards. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performed on March 17 and 18 at the Wits Main Theatre in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Nightmare in the Amphitheatre

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RIDING on the back of a blinded man. Lionel Ackerman and Thulani Chauke in Nothing Makes Sense. Photograph by John Hogg.

LET US BOMBARD our audience with flashing lights, a small dark venue simmering with the residue of stage smoke as they come in, and bits and bobs of sampled sound, thrown at them with such aggression that the context is illegible and the synapses of their brains forget how to behave. After that, we can show them how wonderfully we dance. This seems to be the thinking in Thulani Chauke’s contemplation on violence, entitled Nothing Makes Sense.

Featuring Chauke opposite Lionel Ackerman, a dancer with one leg, it’s actually a fine work premised on ideas around brokenness in society. Chauke dances the work either incapacitated in a white bag, or with a black box on his head, which renders him sightless, and the give and take, throw and catch between the two is wonderful to watch.

However, it’s an interesting lesson about the fourth wall and audience participation: does the work need to spill out emotionally into the audience’s lives in such a way that they are traumatised by the experience? Maybe. We saw this in Sello Pesa’s work, in this festival, as well as Robyn Orlin’s. In Pesa’s piece, the audience was confused as to where the lines were drawn. In Orlin’s, members of the audience were called upon to perform in an impromptu and potentially humiliating context. But in Chauke’s what we get is an infringement of audience sanctity. No one rushes into your space, and physically rattles your cage, but the technology blasts your head off.

And while Chauke’s point about violence and physical ability is absolutely clear and well-defined, blinding your audience with induced migraines is not really the most productive way of letting them engage in the magnificence of your dance. It’s a pity. Chauke and Ackerman are tough and careful dancers, and their movement is strong and articulate, but the work doesn’t sing to the audience.

  • Nothing Makes Sense is choreographed by Thulani Chauke. It features creative input by Khaya (costumes), Thulani Chauke (music) and Thabo Pule and Thulani Chauke (lighting and set), and it is performed by Lionel Ackerman and Thulani Chauke. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performed on March 17 and 18 at the Wits Amphitheatre in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

And now, for something completely manly

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A door full of men: Vladimir Ippolitov and Fana Tshabalala in Men. Photograph by John Hogg.

ONCE AGAIN, FEMINISM is de rigueur in our society and young women espousing these values emphatically believe themselves to be the first of their kind, as they spearhead a wave of political correctness in behaviour and talk. But what of the men? Fana Tshabalala throws some choreographic light on the plight of the contemporary males of the species in a new collaboration with Swiss dancer Vladimir Ippolitov, entitled simply Men.

But make no mistake: this is not a misogynistic work on any level. Indeed, it casts a savvy eye at the rigours with which men are caught; the imperatives in terms of behaviour that is taught in a conventional context. It’s a stripped down piece characterised by a series of empty hanging frames, alluding to doors, windows and mirrors. Matthew Macfarlane, manning the guitar and the laptop sits in the centre of the space, like a god, manipulating and plucking the sound that gives the piece its core, and Tshabalala opposite Ippolitov populate the work with a cross-pollinated energy that is at once gentle and aggressive, officious and playful.

Men takes the notion of security guards in a new direction which embraces everything in its path, from sexuality to combat. It begins with a posturing that evokes a 1977 work by Marina Abramovic and Ulay, except these men are dressed in an all-purpose khaki  uniform, exuding the officiousness of guys who have these jobs, veering as they do between real danger and total boredom.

The work is tight, the choreography beautiful and unusual and it reflects on layer upon layer of association. Here there’s the issue of PTSD, there there’s coyness and campness. Not a humourless piece, it’s a quiet groundbreaking work that examines the contained violence of men in a power play and men in a warring context. There are unforgettable images cast in the characters’ stance, presenting values with simplicity, clarity and a unique dance language.

  • Men is choreographed by Fana Tshabalala. It features creative input by Merry K Designs (costumes), Matthew Macfarlane (music) and Mandla Mtshali (lighting and set). It was performed by Vladimir Ippolitov and Fana Tshabalala, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season, on March 10 and 11 at the Joburg Fringe Theatre in Braamfontein. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

To brave the elements, unapologetically

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SILHOUETTES and shadows, our world and another. A still from Jayesperi Moopen’s Elements. Photograph by John Hogg.

THERE’S SOMETHING EMINENTLY satisfying in dividing a work into four disparate parts and premising beauty around it. Vivaldi did it with the four seasons, creating great poetry out of a pure love of the idiosyncrasies of nature. Jayesperi Moopen does something similar in her collaboration of dancers associated with her company Tribhangi Dance Theatre and Debbie Turner’s Cape Dance Company to celebrate the four elements that make up this world: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. And Elements is an uncompromising, precise work which deliciously melds classical Indian dance values with contemporary dance gestures. It’s like a fresh breath of unpretentious air and will leave you deeply enriched.

Featuring a mesmerising play of shadows and silhouettes, glorious colour and impeccable costumes, the dancers, from the quirky movements of their necks and wrists to the fluidity of their spines, together and individually, create complete magic and wonder onstage.

Curiously, unlike some other Dance Umbrella pieces this year so far, the work has sound which doesn’t threaten to shatter your head. It’s not demure or gentle; it’s strong and resonant and works with the dancers’ dynamic beautifully, but it doesn’t explode into noise at all.

In the middle of the piece, there’s a digression and a videoed interview with the collaborating dancers and Moopen. While this is instructive to watch, there’s an element of “Huh?” to the interjection. You’re not explained why the dancing stops and the video begins, nor why it ends when it does and the dancing continues again.

Skirting and playing with an intricate aesthetic that is different to anything many of them have danced before, there’s a give and take of dialogue and dance language that is easy on the eye. And speaking of easy on the eye, a young male dancer, Shanolin Govender injects something absolutely extraordinary into the energy reflected on stage.

He has a presence which challenges the conventionality of his peers in the ensemble and he moves with a fluidity that clearly infuses him all the way down to his personality. When Govender is performing, oftentimes, the other dancers melt into anonymity and he holds the floor with grace and elegance.

Something also must be said for the unequivocal value of allowing a dance genre to retain its form and to celebrate its own cultural roots. While far from cloistered in a sense of preciousness, the signature work of Tribhangi is rhythmically satisfying, aesthetically magnificent and yet unapologetically associated with the dance language of classical Indian movement. And it will knock your socks off.

  • Elements is choreographed by Jayesperi Moopen. It features design by Shankar Mahadevan, Craig Armstrong, Shpongle, Anoushka Shankar, Daby Toure (music) and Kesavan Pillay (music editing); Wilhelm Disbergen (lighting) and Dex Goodman (videography). It is performed by Shanolin Govender, Emily Isted, Mia Labuschagne, Carmen Lotz, Kearabetswe Mogotsi, Priyadarshni Naidoo, Priyen Naidoo, Shiyanie Naidoo, Pavishen Paideya, Farrel Smart, Danielle Wagner and Marlin Zoutman. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performs again on Wednesday March 14 at the Wits Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Elu’s yizkor

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BLESSED is the light: Cohen lights the candelabra in Put your heart under your feet … and walk. Photograph by Pierre Planchenault.

THE CLEAVAGE BETWEEN art and sacred ritual is very ancient. And it’s not often that contemporary art reaches richly and bravely beyond the limitations of what our society thinks art is, or should be.  It’s, after all, dangerous and unmapped terrain. But Steven Cohen, who has never shied from creating his own boundaries and dancing to his own taboos, does just this in Put your heart under your feet … and walk, a work headlining this year’s Dance Umbrella.

It’s a work so invested with its own sense of integrity that it will shatter you. It is not about perfect pointes or co-ordinated dance steps, but in its unperfectness, it shimmers with real values that reach the core of you, because you are alive. Cohen’s focus in this work, which is a developed version of the recent eponymous exhibition he hosted at the Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein, is loss. The loss that comes of deep love.

It’s all implicit in the props and footage shown in this intensive work, which lifts you into a realm of being governed by things like a frock made of wind-up record players; a boulevard of broken dreams, as the Marianne Faithfull song declares; shoes pinned onto mini upright coffins, and a gesture of endocannibalism, understood in several cultures to be the ultimate level of empathetic mourning. It’s a work which brings the Jewish ritual of lighting candles into the construct of an elaborate candelabrum, as it touches on the horror of being buried. And it’s a work in which he shows footage of undance he performed in a Johannesburg abattoir some time after the death of his partner of 20 years, Elu.

Featuring Cohen’s characteristic head make up, and a stage full of shoes – doctored dance shoes that represent a taxonomy of his and Elu’s dance and undance careers that skirted rules and birthed unimagined aesthetics – the work evokes on the structure of Cohen’s Golgotha. Staged in Paris in 2009, Golgotha dealt with the loss Cohen suffered in the passing away of his brother.

In Put your heart under your feet … and walk, the ultimate energy you feel is one of profound aloneness. Cohen’s face is displayed enormously on the theatre-wide projection in the work. It’s there and then it’s out of focus, lost. And then, Cohen himself appears on stage, dwarfed terrifyingly by the projection, and horribly alone, struggling to retain his focus and dignity in the face of insurmountably heavy and difficult physical challenges.

It’s about the crippling rawness of knowing that your loved one is gone. It’s like a bloody stump that cannot heal. This is not a dance work. It’s a work of impeccable love. And in sharing this intimacy with an art audience, Cohen courageously brings something akin to ancient religious values into the theatre. You might not need to see the rest of Dance Umbrella — indeed, you might not need to see anything onstage again, if you have had the privilege of being in the presence of this work.

  • Put your heart under your feet … and walk is choreographed and performed by Steven Cohen. It features creative input by Cohen (costumes), Joseph Go Mahan, Leonard Cohen and Marianne Faithful (music) and Yvan Labasse (lighting and technical). It performs, as part of the 30th iteration of Dance Umbrella, on Friday March 9 at the Wits Theatre, Braamfontein at 9pm. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

How to realise you are beautiful

ColorPurple
MY sister, my best friend forever: Celie (Didintle Khunou) writes a letter to her sister Nettie (Sebe Leotlela), who lives in Africa. Photograph by enroCpics

THERE ARE SO many “wow” moments in the South African stage version of The Color Purple: The Musical, you’ve got to hold onto your seat with both hands. Supported by a set that features diagrammatic representation of space and texture, a cast that sparkles with magnificent voices and fine acting skills, and a classic narrative that just doesn’t get tired, this is the cultural imperative of the year so far, in this city.

The translation of Alice Walker’s 1982 classic black women’s liberation novel into a stage musical is simply gorgeous, offering a gloss on the horror of black women’s lives in America between 1909 and 1949, punctuated as it was by rape, battery and an implicit understanding as chattel. The songs are wrenching and potent but jazzy and full of poetry. And the choreography in this work represents an understanding of the rhythm of the spoken language, the lyrics and the context that will completely satisfy your head and heart. Ultimately, The Color Purple a tale of victory and it is a six-tissue show – you’ll shed tears of outrage and of joy, in an unmoderated way, from beginning to end.

With magnificent Didintle Khunou in the role of Celie – a role performed by Whoopi Goldberg in the original 1985 Steven Spielberg film – the brilliance is cast. And while the production is not flawless, there is a moment in the second half of the piece, where Khunou, slight of size, stands alone on the stage and embraces the whole huge space and all its audience, with her rendition of “I’m Here”. It’s a moment which will stay in your heart forever.

But Khunou is not alone in giving this production incredible vocal muscle. Stand out performances by Lerato Mvelase in the role of Shug Avery, the catalyst to Celie’s abusive marriage, who teaches her that sex can be fantastic, Neo Motaung as Sofia, Celie’s daughter-in-law, who gives as good as she gets and who has a voice that reaches across generations in its heart and soul, and Dolly Louw, as Doris – an ensemble member – who has physical presence onstage that makes you simply fall in love with her.

Mister, played by Aubrey Poo and Harpo, his son, played by Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, collectively offer an understanding of flawed black American maleness, which is violent and crude, aggressive yet still capable of love – and indeed capable of turning around. The work is replete with sarcasm and the power of defiance in the name of unfairness and it is funny and rich and nuanced with gossip and jazz.

It is supported by a set that simply takes your breath away. Slats of wood are hammered in place to set up a sketched illusion of context. It’s free of gimmick, strong and direct, and does exactly what a set should do. There are moments when you stop noticing it, simply because it cleaves so perfectly with the work. Similarly, the costume designs are understated yet appropriate, they’re comfortable on the eye, on the cast members and on the context being represented.

And while the individual voices in harmony and alone are beautiful enough to make you weep, by themselves, there is a glitch in the work — or rather, two — which stand like two book ends for the show. The ensemble songs, at the beginning and the end of the work, which feature the whole company belting it out, fight mercilessly internally and with the orchestra and as a result, they’re very shouty. And the casualty: the lyrics and the clarity. You get a bit of a fruit salad instead. Occasionally also, in the sphere of sound design, some of the voices, including notably Funeka Peppeta’s, goes rogue and turns into a shriek.

One other glitch in the overall show’s identity is weak design on the part of the production poster which is emblazoned on the highway as a massive billboard. The work is so much more than those bleached out sad faces which take the colour purple to dreary and corpse-like lengths: it really doesn’t do justice to the colourful, rollicking monster of wisdom and intimate poetry that you see on stage.

That said, the work, a tale of unmitigated sisterly love and extreme hardship, of church values and the magic of discovering one’s own sexuality, is one that celebrates women’s pants in the most delightful of ways and continues to be a benchmark work in the name of black women’s identity, liberation and voice. But be warned: Just one viewing just might not suffice.

  • The Color Purple: The Musical is written by Marsha Norman based on the eponymous novel by Alice Walker. Featuring music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it is directed by Janice Honeyman. Performed by Zane Gillion, Didintle Khunou, Sebe Leotlela, Dolly Louw, Andile Magxaki, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Venolia Manale, Namisa Mdlalose, Phumi Mncayi, Neo Motaung, Lerato Mvelase, Tshepo Ncokoane, Thokozani Nzima, Funeka Peppeta, Aubrey Poo, Senzesihle Radebe, Lelo Ramasimong, Zolani Shangase, Ayanda Sibisi and Lebo Toko, it features design by Sarah Roberts (production), Mannie Manim (lighting), Richard Smith (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction) and Oscar Buthelezi (choreography). The orchestra, under the direction of Rowan Bakker, comprises Dale-Ray Scheepers (keyboards), Leagh Rankin and Brian Smith (reeds), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Viwe Mkizwana (bass), Donny Bouwer (trumpet) and Mike Ramasimong (drums). It performs at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex in Braamfontein, until March 4. Call 011-877-6800 or visit joburgtheatre.com

Never say quit

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YOU and me between the sheets: Thina (Neo Sibiya) and Arnold (Joe Young). Photograph courtesy Binnie Christie.

IT’S A GENUINE joy to see players and writers, young and frisky, engaging with the challenges that confront their lives in a manner which is loose and fast, hilarious and tight, creative and intelligent all at once. Binnie Christie, Neo Sibiya and Joe Young sparkle in this delightful little two-hander that takes a peek into the vagaries of love, life and smoking.

You Take My Breath Away is a tight little work, clocking in at just under an hour. It plays on all the double entendres the team could milk from idioms relating to smoking and loving and it’s done with a crisp air of unprecious competence that makes the performers imminently easy to watch on stage. Sibiya and Young manifest an energy individually and collaboratively that fizzes and the give and take between them as a couple is strong and sophisticated, yet not self-indulgent. It’s light enough to hold the laughs and still dig into issues of bias and hypocrisy, complexities of being in a relationship.

The characters are well written and beautifully developed: Arnold (Young) meets Thina (Sibiya) in a smoke-filled pod for smokers, adjoined to a franchised restaurant. They breathe in one another’s secondary smoke and imbibe a sense of possibility in being together. Involving everything from Nina Simone to caravans, ducks on the Zoo Lake and happy and angry coffee in bed to being polite to the neighbours, to say nothing of skirting the biases and faux pas of their respective parents – he is white, she is black – the plot unfolds with ease, but ends a little flatly.

The work itself is, however, animated into a state of frenetic and deliciously dizzy life by the physical theatre skills of both performers. They’re quick and witty on their feet and under the sheet that forms the central aspect of the set and this adds to the jazz and the fire of the piece. There are some small anomalies in this aspect of the work – where a mimed cigarette gets puffed on before it is lit, or a cigarette seems to change hands for the smoker invisibly – but these can be forgiven because there’s  a rhythm and a fire to this work which is infectious and delightful and will leave you reluctant to wait to see these young thespians on stage again. This season is short: don’t let it slip through your fingers.

  • You Take My Breath Away is written by Binnie Christie, Neo Sibiya and Joe Young and directed by Binnie Christie. Performed by Neo Sibiya and Joe Young, it features design by the cast and director, and performs at Space.com at the Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein until February 18. Call 011-877-6800.

Behold: Echidna, monster of monsters

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ON the wings of Samothrace: a detail of Nandipha Mntambo’s Echidna. Photograph courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

THE SMELL OF resin assails you as you enter the space. It makes your nose sting, your eyes water, but the first work that you confront, a 3m-wide monoprint with gold leaf, grabs you and casts your discomfort into abeyance. As you fall into the urgency of this work, entitled Wild Thoughts, you might vaguely think you’ve hardly ever seen paintings or prints by Nandipha Mntambo before, but you’re too engrossed to step further. The work is roughly abstract but presents a parabola of thought and an engagement with colour and mark making that reveals Mntambo’s authority with this approach too.

Mntambo rose to prominence with her work Europa in 2008, an astonishing therianthrope, mixing the head of a mythical beast with her own. An artwork that conjoined animal fur with human flesh, live performer with constructed image, it was scary and sexy, provocative and disturbing at once. It was a work that made you look. And remember.

Now, almost 10 years later, with many exhibitions and accolades under her belt – this is her seventh solo at Stevenson – you get to see Mntambo stretching toward new heights. She’s still working in the mythical traditions, but her work is less obvious and even more potent.

On paper, The Snake You Left Inside Me is a modestly-sized exhibition. It features just 10 works. But when you arrive in the space, you will be overwhelmed, not only by the residue of resin in your nostrils, but by the energy, the sense of abstraction and the maturity of these pieces.

And so, as you wrench yourself from the work in the gallery’s vestibule, you get to see Moonlit Shadows and Wild Thoughts: works on paper using gold leaf that blast you in your solar plexus, with their complex simplicity. You will also see corrupted drum-like works – Mother and Child, Hubris and Ouroboros. They feature Mntambo’s signature use of animal skin stretched on a frame. You are able to look at them with a kind of dispassion, exploring the subtleties, understanding the nuance in the pieces.

Well and good, you might think, satisfied that this is a powerful exhibition. You might at that point turn to leave the gallery space. Don’t. There’s more.

Behind the wall separating the second gallery space from the third, lies Echidna. As you intrepidly enter the space – it’s dark and the work has the advantage over you – you come upon something that conjures up the disturbing realism of the work of Australian sculptor Patricia Piccinini, or that of Chinese sculptor Liu Xue. Only, it’s more. It’s like the denouement of a story, the classic pièce de résistance.

Echidna is gloriously half-woman/half-snake, reaching as she does from ancient Greek narrative. She’s the monster of all monsters, evoking in a poetic and understated way, the classic Winged Victory of Samothrace in the thrust presented by the resin-rich fabric, the potency of the pose, even though (or especially because) it is headless. The creature’s tail embraces the room with a furry muscularity that will make your hair stand on end, but will leave you unable to look quickly.

Balancing intelligent curatorial decisions with exceptionally fine work, The Snake You Left Inside Me offers a glance at the relevance of mythological contortions. It is a potent and terrifying exhibition that will not leave you untouched, as you walk back through the space, something squirming uncomfortably in your belly.

  •  The snake you left inside me by Nandipha Mntambo is at Stevenson Gallery, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until January 19 2018. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.
  • The gallery will be closed from December 16 until January 8.

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.