Stretched wishbones and backbones

A man who could sprout wings at any time: Vincent Mantsoe in his work Gula Matari. Photograph courtesy Dance Umbrella.

THE OPENING NIGHT of Dance Umbrella 2018 was one filled with gasps. Gasps at the formal announcement by its artistic director Georgina Thomson that this, the 30th iteration of the contemporary dance festival was to be its last. And gasps in response to the quality of work curated for the festival’s first day. It was dance to make your hair blow back and stand on end; historical dance that made you remember why this genre peaked so rapidly in this city, from the late 1980s. Dance Umbrella served as the platform to make things without meaning in the rest of the world, grow wings, become heroes and redefine values.

But wrapped carefully in these headlining events of the evening was something else. A glossing over. Will the dance fraternity be able to resurrect a project as focused and fierce as this little festival which has in all its 30 years of existence not once been allowed the luxury of not having to fight for its life, to hustle for its daily bread? It’s a reflection on the fickleness of the broader industry that sees initiatives wax and wane, come and go and nary a real helping hand offered in this often grotesque battle for survival. All too often, people and institutions whose doors have been knocked on again and again, who leave a project to die an ignominious death, turn into the proverbial bystanders, who mourn. They could have helped. They didn’t.

All of these values made the works, Gregory Maqoma’s Mayhem and Vincent Mantsoe’s Gula Matari, particularly prescient choices for the festival’s opening night.

If you perchance to visit the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, you will see a miscellany of angels painted in frescoes on the churches walls and ceiling by 13th century Italian artist, Giotto di Bondone. These are not just any common or garden angels. They are emotionally distraught, emotionally focused and sophisticated angels. Some weep, some screech, some are quiet, most are not. Something similar happens in Mayhem, where the characters are broken in different ways. Either physically or emotionally. They dance with a brokenness and cavort with a red ribbon led by a man who has one leg, and while the first part of the work’s sound track feels as though a massive balloon is bouncing on your ear’s tympana, the work swirls and pumps with a sense of energy and fervour. And all too soon, it is gone.

In the 1950s, something completely outrageous and remarkable saw light of day. Throwing formal music principles to the wind, it looked out the window and saw birds. This was contemporary French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, an essay written with the piano and birdsong. Vincent Mantsoe’s Gula Matari rocks your equilibrium in a similar way, as it redefines movement and balances you in the audience between the cusp of bird and man. It’s a completely outrageous work, which includes performances by four other dancers. Truth be told, Mantsoe’s presence eats up your attention to such an extent that the rest of the cast feel as though its superfluous and the dimming light at the work’s end, your enemy.

Dance Umbrella, for thirty years was the jewel in the crown of Johannesburg culture. Sometimes a tarnished jewel, filled with works that confronted and unstitched audiences; sometimes an unequivocal sparkler, reflecting on the real and beautiful skills that were driven to new and professional heights. This year’s festival is going to rattle away, on the wings of time. You need to be there for dance as well as historical reasons.

  • Mayhem is choreographed by Gregory Maqoma. It features design by Didintle Fashion Institute (costumes), Wesley Mabizela (music) and Mandla Mtshali and Oliver Hauser (lighting and production). It is performed by Thulisa Binda, Sinazo Bokolo, Nathan Botha, Julia Burnham, Katlego Lekhula, Lungile Mahlangu, Phumlani Mndebele, Thabang Mojapelo, Musa Motha,  Otto Nhlapo and Roseline Wilkens.
  • Gula Matari is choreographed by Vincent Mantsoe. It features design by Portia Mashigo (costumes), Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors (music), Oliver Hauser (lighting and technical) and is performed by Vincent Mantsoe, Gregory Maqoma, Lulu Mlangeni, Otto Nhlapho, and Shanell Winlock.
  • Mayhem and Gula Matari constituted the opening performance of this year’s Dance Umbrella. The works perform again on Wednesday March 7 at the UJ Theatre, in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Visit or call 086 111 0005.

The victory of Spartacus, in broad brush strokes

Andile Ndlovu is Spartacus. Photograph courtesy
Andile Ndlovu is Spartacus. Photograph courtesy

From the first opening bars of this extraordinarily powerful South African ballet, you get riveted to the score, the choreography and the story, almost exactly in that order, as the monstrous work unfolds. Spartacus of Africa is a mammoth achievement, the likes of which South African audiences don’t often get to experience.

In the authoritative hands of ancestral spirit Isenyaya, performed by David Krugel, the basic structures of the story are explained, with the potent combination of gesture, costume and body all swirled together in a comprehensive and highly readable intelligent mass. He tells you where to look and who is important in an approach arguably as iconic and convincing as that of Italian Renaissance painter Giotto, taking your eye unequivocally through the crowd to the situation at hand.

And while you might not grasp the subtleties and intricacies of the story of Spartacus, king of Thrace, which first saw light of day as a ballet in Russia in the 1950s, you are so well and closely attuned to the broad brushstrokes of a military tale of love and war, murder and victory that the interstices which fall away do not matter.

Of course, the added splendour of a live orchestra lend the spectacle that much more presence and muscle – sadly the option of piped music supporting a grand ballet is something we have become attuned to, as South African dance audiences, and the impact of real instruments being played by real people offers such a precious and timeless reflection on the ballet, it is hard to conceive of the option of reverting back to the technological option.

Spartacus of Africa does embrace a lot of colonialist concerns, and the notion of African tribes head to head with one another is presented with unapologetic directness. In watching these groups at war, you might occasionally become confused: sometimes the costumes of the opposing peoples is not completely distinct, but this too, in the bigger picture does not matter.

It is the manner in which the characters of the principles are developed and articulated that forms some of the strongest building blocks of this work, which invest individual dancers with the power to command the whole huge auditorium: For instance, the presence of Spartacus (danced by Andile Ndlovu, associated with the Washington Ballet, who boasts Ballet Theatre Afrikan roots under the guidance of Martin Schonberg) in all his vehemence and quirkiness is something conveyed through strong characterisation and unbelievable fine proportions of body in relation to other bodies, leaps beyond the restraint of logic and gesture that make him a believably victorious hero.

Veronica Paeper’s Spartacus is an achievement, not so much because there are swaths of cast members – at times, there are 90 dancers on stage concurrently – but because she offers such an intense and beautifully developed understanding of the big outlines which form the drama. And, of course, because of the live music.

Spartacus of Africa is choreographed by Veronica Paeper and David Krugel. It features the music of Aram Kachaturian and design by KMH Architects (set), Dicky Longhurst (costumes), Nicholas Michaletos (lighting). The version I watched was at the Nelson Mandela Theatre and the orchestra, under the baton of Paul Hoskins was the Johannesburg Philharmonic. On the evening I saw it, it was performed by Elzanne Crause, Michaela Griffin, Willem Houck, David Krugel Lwanele Masiza and Andile Ndlovu, in the principal roles and a company drawn from dance companies nationally, as well as two student casts for the Johannesburg and Cape Town seasons. It performs at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town until July 12: 0214109800 or