Elu’s yizkor


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.

Kaddish for Elu


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.

The man who could fly


MADNESS of reason: Godfrey Johnson is Vaslav Nijinsky. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

HE SITS AT the piano and caresses it into life, like a god. Like a demon. Like a godly demon or a demonic god. Sometimes he looks maniacal and deformed at other times, like a sprite, who could at any moment leap the constraints of gravity and fly away. This is Godfrey Johnson in his utterly magnificent portrayal of Vaslav Nijinsky, in a piece of theatre that is aflame with energy from the moment he touches the piano keys.

But more than a focus on the biographical complexities of a Polish dancer in Russia who effectively broke and reconstituted what ballet means by the electricity of his movements and his uncanny ability to pause mid-leap, this extraordinary work paints a portrait of an era. It was the Fin de Siècle. The end of the nineteenth century and boundaries were being tested by creative people across the spectrum – and the text is encrusted with musical quotes from Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky and Diaghilev, from Schoenberg and Berg and more. You get to taste the elegance and the wildness, the conventions and how fragile they were, in the splay of language which reaches and stretches into infinity as it blurs boundaries  and casts choreographic sequences into the ether.

And once you are firmly within the period and its frissons of possibility in a world that was a whirligig of newness and change, you realise something more. More than a celebration of Nijinsky only, this is an essay about the values of the society of the time, where critics held sway and literature had meaning. Proust is present. As is the bitchery between Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. But more than all of this, it’s an astute and sharply honed exploration of madness and growing old. And in this capacity, it is handled with such a sophisticated understanding of poetry and humour, sadness and cruelty that it leaves you breathless, your pulse racing, wishing for more and more… alas, too quickly it is over.

Godfrey Johnson is not a performer who we see often getting the chance to embrace the whole stage and to stretch his skills in a diversity of mad directions. Most recently in Johannesburg he was the accompanist in Pieter Dirk Uys’s Fifty Shades of Bambi. His immense ability to infuse this wild and impassioned script and so movingly interject the music and the dance, by association, into it, brings an ethos of fire and feathers, of unbottled energy that describes the way in which art can beget madness, and which renders this work utterly haunting and uncannily beautiful.

Vaslav is an imminently pristine piece successfully backed with an audio-visual track and effective and simple lighting choices but the stage does tend to be a little cluttered with wire cords connected to microphones and light, which slightly, but not pervasively, tend to bruise the magic that is cast.

The work is not quite a monodrama – the piano, similarly to how it is handled in Zakes Mda’s The Mother of All Eating – becomes a character in its own right. Not in a literal sense, but in the gritty gorgeousness of the musical puns and drama, sequences and masturbatory musical phrases that populate the work. In giving Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune jewel-like haunting prominence, it conjures up associations with the work of South African choreographer Elu, who, too was mesmerised in celebrating the atavistic values where artist meets beast, meets god all in the same intellectual conversation.

  • Vaslav is directed by Lara Bye and written by Karen Jeynes, Godfrey Johnson and Lara Bye, based on the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. It features design by Jon Keevy (lighting) and Joanna Evans (set and costume co-ordination) and is performed by Godfrey Johnson at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 25. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

Broken Bird, Fly Free


OUTSIDERNESS personified: Elu in the Goatfoot God — Pan. “I’m on the outside. An outcast in the dance community. They’ll never accept me. I don’t know why,” Elu told dance critic Adrienne Sichel in the 1990s.

A DANCER WHO was capable of provoking guttural fear in his audience and critics because of the unstinting quantity and quality of beauty, bravery and intensity he was able to give his performances, South African choreographer and performance artist Elu, passed away suddenly after a six-week illness, on July 17. A dancer not afraid to shatter all traditions relating to dance in the name of the fierceness and the magic that he was creating, Elu was a quietly spoken person, with strong opinions and passionate beliefs. He contributed significantly to the performance art discipline in South Africa and was the life partner and creative collaborator of Steven Cohen from 1997.

Born in Pretoria on June 17 1968, Elu was trained in contemporary dance and classical ballet at Pretoria Technikon. But it was from 1992 that he began developing his own approach to the medium of dance, engaging with the world from within a perspective enhanced by his unremitting readiness to push the boundaries of his body and his audiences.

Elu debuted professionally at Barclay Square in Pretoria in 1992 with a work called The People’s Lib and When to Pass the Ashtray and he created several other pieces over the next couple of years, for platforms such as the Dance Umbrella and the Arts Alive Festival. Elu met and began collaborating with Steven Cohen in 1997 in a turnkey work for both their careers, called The Art of Kissing, which was part of the Arts Alive Street Theatre festival, of that year, but was also staged as an impromptu performance outside the Supreme Court of Johannesburg, where the couple stood on a podium and kissed for several hours. Inside the court, anti-homosexual legislation was under review, at the time.

Describing himself as an “Afrikaans-speaking pagan working with an English-speaking Jew”, Elu – a name he adopted, which is an acronym for “Elephant Lion Unicorn”, playing into the therianthropic nature of the creature that he was most comfortable recognising himself as – was profoundly supportive of Cohen’s developing ethos. Between 1997 and 2002, Elu and Cohen together made deeply important works for the growing discipline of guerrilla performance art in South Africa. These significantly anarchic pieces dealt with the notion of impromptu appearances for audiences that were not sanctioned by the safe environment of a theatre or dance stage, and included Living Art, a suite of four seminal works, for which Cohen won the Vita Art Award of 1998.

There are unforgettably beautiful images captured by photographers such as the late John Hodgkiss, Caroline Suzman and John Hogg in works by Elu including Intersection, choreographed by Cohen, where Elu danced in a tutu with a gun strapped to his head in busy intersections of Johannesburg, to speak of the violence in our society. In a series of works entitled the Goatfoot God, Pan, Kudu, Tristesse and Broken Bird respectively, Elu developed a rich and meaningful iconography which was about the serenity of a mythical entity and the rottenness of a contemporary urban society corrupted from within. He was a dancer able to explore frenetic ferocity as he was able to express extreme vulnerability and beauty with his face and body.

His work of 2001, Dancing with Nothing But Heart broke new ground. It was premised as a comment on a lack of funding for the arts and was performed at that year’s Dance Umbrella. The work had no music and no costumes. Elu was naked and danced with an ox’s heart, bought from the inner city butchers for a few rand.

Cohen and Elu were head-hunted by Régine Chopinot of Ballet Atlantique in Paris and invited to spend a one-year research residency in La Rochelle in 2002. Elu was a central collaborator and co-choreographer with Cohen in I Wouldn’t Be Seen Dead in That which was developed in La Rochelle and travelled to South Africa to be the key note work of 2003’s Dance Umbrella. But it was also in that year, that Elu performed Pan 1 and Tristesse at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

Elu’s exceptional repertoire reflected upon him as an intensely beautiful and sophisticated performer engaging the realities of paganism and the challenges of a world fraught with confusion and evil in a way that was timeless and seductive. His contribution to the field of dance was never, during Elu’s lifetime, given the pride of place it truly warranted. Elu’s struggle for the last decade of his tragically short life was sadly not unique in the arts fraternity in South Africa. He died alone, away from the ability to make new work, excluded from the reach of critical acknowledgement, financial support or medical assistance. An outsider – as he described himself to art critic Adrienne Sichel in the 1990s – to the very bitter end.