The ineffable, uncomfortable beauty of Robyn

butterflies

COCKING a snook: Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe (on screen) and Eric Languet (in the tutu) in Robyn Orlin’s “in a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling …” Photograph by Thomas Lachambre.

ONE THING YOU have to disabuse yourself of when you enter the audience of a Robyn Orlin work is that you’re safe, there in the dark, as you take your seat. That no one will interfere with you or embarrass you. And it’s such a powerful dynamic that it sets the world on fire and fills the Market Theatre to the rafters. Whether it fits into the safety precautions of a theatre filled with members of the public, is another whole question.

In truth, this shaky perception of your own safety, be it emotional or physical safety, is something you should hold onto in entering the space of any live performance. What they’re doing for you is about challenging many things, including your right to be there – and to be comfortable there, while a performer is baring their soul, their guts and their body to you. Sometimes in that order. Traditionally however, this is not the case. For the price of a ticket, you get to sit anonymously in a darkened room and see someone do something that might be extraordinary and revealing and painful. Whichever side of the audience spectrum you sit on, Orlin’s work casts shivers in your direction.

And what a privilege it is to see performers of the calibre of Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet in this construction of two propositions, in a world full of butterflies it takes balls to be a caterpillar and … some thoughts on falling … , a work which is as much about caterpillars and falling as it is about the narrative of dance, and the way in which Orlin has the bravery to tear strips off traditional practice. And get away with it.

The work opens in a stage full of audience members and an auditorium covered in small brightly coloured pop-up tents. And as it unfolds to important songs such as Strange Fruit, sung by Nina Simone, you realise the poetry between a chrysalis and a pop up tent. Tambwe stretches, she sings, she prates, she embraces the stages with complete authority, engaging with her unbelievable costume in a way that dazzles. You don’t, however, know what to expect, and you laugh and you shiver at the things she does, with her dress, the webcam, the audience on stage, the tents, the reality of being a caterpillar, or ultimately a butterfly, and what it all means in the bigger picture.

She’s shooed away unceremoniously by Languet, in a trench coat. In a work that confronts balletic tradition as it comes face to face with the expectations of gender in dance and the constant fear of falling. Is he Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who flew to the sun with wings of wax and was melted and cast into the sea? Is he everyman who boasts hubris and suffers the indignity of a fall? There’s a conflation of values which entraps your thinking. He moves his ageing body like a sylph, a naiad, and you forget that he is human. You sit there in a spiral of thoughts, of realities, feeling afraid that he might fall on top of you as he has done to other audience members. You’re mesmerised by the magnetic focus of the webcam as you stare into the enlarged face of Tambwe.

There’s an ineffable, unspeakable and above all uncomfortable beauty that is breached in the concatenation in both their performance and with their different details that force you out of conventional thinking. The work feels too long and yet too short. Your head spins with the issues being tossed in your direction and you feel you can’t take any more, you can’t breathe… but alas, when it is over, there is a part of your heart that remains aflutter, there’s a part of your subconscious which murmurs, ‘did I really see that?’

But big kudos are due to the theatre itself and the organisations who made it possible for this work to travel: we don’t often get to see contemporary dance of this calibre in South Africa.

  • In a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling … is created by Robyn Orlin. Featuring design by Laïs Foulc (lighting), Birgit Neppl (costumes) sound (Cobi von Tonder) and Thabo Pule (technical direction), it was performed by Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet on December 6 and 7 at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown.
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