Stretched wishbones and backbones

GulaMatari
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 danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Knocked out by King Kong

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TOP of the world: King Kong (Andile Gumbi) stands his ground. Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT WAS THE show that launched the international careers of such performers as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers. King Kong. It’s been labelled iconic and groundbreaking, and frissons of its great potency filtered through the ether long before the Fugard Theatre’s season of this show took to the boards. A tale of love and boxing, with exquisite harmonies and clarinet riffs to make you weep, it saw light of day in 1959, changed the game plan of what musical theatre was in this country and has not been performed in entirety until now. Does this version do this glamorous history and all the urban myths around the work justice? In short, it doesn’t.

Skating on the momentum of the 1959 production of the show, this version of it has some truly beautiful moments and some utterly delicious performances, but you watch it and quietly wonder whether part of the work’s original charm did not perhaps have a lot to do with the novelty of being a show from apartheid-riddled Africa. Was it not perhaps the exoticism of the moment that gave Makeba and others their ticket to a real career?

Richly enfolded in the complicated beauty of the 1950s, in terms of clothing style, dance ethos and an energy of simmering protest peppered with a lot of racial legislation, this tale based on the life of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini is a cautionary one of hubris and talent. It’s a yarn that reflects on petty jealousies and the vulnerability of an ego in a world beset with tsotsis and small-town shebeen queens. It’s a series of love stories, interwoven with boxing successes and failures and one in which an idol is lionised and then destroyed by his own society.

But the work is less about the wows of the story. Billing itself as a jazz opera, it does, indeed feature, some beautiful music, which has shifted into classic South African status, and yet, as a musical entity, it doesn’t hold together tightly, and feels a little more like a play with music incidents.

Looking beyond the song and dance sequences, the performers are not supported by the creative team in a way that enhances their physical presence on stage. Whether it is odd lighting decisions, costumes with the dowdiness factor ramped up as far as possible, or peculiar staging instructions, something is lost in the capacity of performers such as Andile Gumbi (who plays the eponymous boxer) to hold the audience. You will love looking at him – he’s physically beautiful, but there’s something amiss in how he connects with the stage, the work and the audience. The more you look at him, the more it’s clear that this omission is not his fault; it rests on design decisions.

This is not the case, however, when it comes to Sne Dladla in the role of the barber, Pop, who tells the story. Known as a stand up comic in his own capacity, Dladla reveals a smooth sense of poetry in his delivery that you might not have experienced before; he embraces his character with a full heart that will have you yearning for more lines for him. Similarly, Dolly Louw, a member of the female ensemble. She exudes such delightful presence every time she’s on stage, that your heart and eyes drift in her direction and remain with her, lapping up her enthusiasm.

Lerato Mvelase in the role of Petal, the thwarted young lady with a very fond eye indeed for the King, is another case in point. Armed with an utterly magnificent voice, a dowdy cardigan and some horn-rimmed specs, she’ll make your ears prick up, but keep you guessing in terms of her stage persona. Opposite a magnificently voiced Nondumiso Tembe in the role of slinky, sexy Joyce, and balanced by the powerful vocal presence of Ntambo Rapatla as Miriam, there is beautiful harmony in the work, but it is not exploited visually.

Indeed, there are times when you look at this production and cannot see anyone in it. The lighting design is centralised and overall constantly leaves cast members in the dark. There’re moments where their singing voices reach with loneliness from darkened corners, taking time for you to realise who is actually performing.

But the biggest problem with this work which looms in your face throughout, is the set. As you take your seat in the theatre you might have a moment that teeters with your sense of orientation: it looks like you are in the Fugard Theatre.

And there’s the rub: the Fugard boasts a stage that is considerably smaller than that of the Mandela. It’s less deep, more vertical. The set, like a huge rusted machine with many different doors and hiding places, is very in-your-face. And clearly, it comes directly from the Fugard, with nary an alteration. Indeed, as such, it squeezes the breathing space out of the stage itself. And while there are moments where nuance is evoked in the pockets of the set, by and large, something is lost in the telling of this tale of greed and misfortune, ice creams and vulnerability, simply because everything is hammering on your eyeballs from the same distance.

Having said all of this, the live band, the boxing ring scenes and much of the choreography hold this work together with a compelling energy. You will leave the auditorium whistling the production’s theme songs, but not with the kind of fire in your heart or belly that comes of having seen true greatness.

  • King Kong: Legend of a Boxer is written for stage by Pat Williams based on the book by Harold Bloom, and directed by Jonathan Munby and Mdu Kweyama. It features creative input by Todd Matshikiza (original music), William Nicholson (additional lyrics), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (additional music arrangements), Gregory Maqoma and Richard Lothian (choreography), Paul Wills (set), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (musical directors) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Sne Dladla, Rushney Ferguson, Andile Gumbi, Ben Kgosimore, Dolly Louw, Barileng Malebye, Lungelwa Mdekazi, Namisa Mdlalose, Aphiwe Menziwa, Athenkosi Mfamela, Given Mkhize, Lerato Mvelase, Sibusiso Mxosana, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Edith Plaatjies, Sabelo Radebe, Ntambo Rapatla, Tshamano Sebe, Sanda Shandu, Nondumiso Tembe, Shalom Zamisa and Joel Zuma, supported by a live band: Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba (band leader/bass), Blake Hellaby (keyboard), Siphiwe Shiburi (drums), Billy Monama (guitar), Lwanda Gogwana and Joseph Kunnuji (trumpets), Zeke le Grange (tenor sax), William Hendricks (alto sax, clarinet) and Siya Makuzeni (trombone) at the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until October 8.

Dance for me; I will weep

Outofjoing
MY face, my identity: Steptext dancer Changik Oh is stretched. Photograph by Marianne Menke.

IF YOU PRICK me, will I bleed? They’re words which evoke the Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, offering a glance into the hurtful and ghastly illogic of xenophobia. South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma and Austrian born Helge Letonja in a compelling collaboration take these words and push them further as they take three dancers each from Vuyani Dance Theatre and Steptext Dance Project, respectively, and play on the messy horror of the hypocrisy and hate that challenges our world right now.

It’s an astonishing piece of work backed by a spider-web-like set and placed in a soundscape that feels fit to break your head into shards, with all the sound tools of the trade, from that of gunfire and bombs detonating to techno-base sound that makes your teeth ring in your skull. It is in this space that these six performers dance with much more than their skeletal structure and musculature. They dance with their nerves and their intestines, with their souls stripped raw and their personal narratives exposed and splayed against other people’s values.

When you watch these dancers meld and coagulate with one another and the energy they magick into life on this otherwise bare stage, it feels as though some of these gestures and movements should be outlawed. They don’t seem possible – let alone legal or moral. This is the work of two very strong contemporary choreographers taking no prisoners. You will leave the space feeling assaulted in your sense of identity, your understanding of human possibility.

And, all things considered, you still cannot help but wonder what this work might have been like without the extra added element of the sound track, tough as it is. Indeed: the difficult and protest-driven nature of the work’s focus demands a sound that is explosive but the dance is so strong that it should have been given the chance to stand alone – and you, to be able to watch it without feeling you will be blasted out of earshot while you do so.

  • Out of Joint is conceptualised and choreographed by Helge Letonja and Gregory Maqoma. It features creative input by Serge Weber (composition), Anke Euler (dramaturgy), Katja Fritzsche and Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes), Timo Reichenberger (lighting) and Helge Letonja and Julia Arroja da Silva (set). It is performed by Kossi Sebastien Aholou-Wokawui, Thulisile Princess Binda, Steven Chauke, Mariko Koh, Phumlani Mndebele and Changik Oh at The Fringe, Joburg Theatre complex until August 20, and then at the Jomba Contemporary Dance Festival in Durban on August 23 and 24. Visit vuyani.co.za or http://cca.ukzn.ac.za/index.php/jomba-home

Honour conferred, honour deserved

French award Georgina Th, Greg M, Ismael M (11)
PINK bubbly: (from left), Dancer/choreographer Greg Maqoma, French Ambassador to South Africa His Excellency Christophe Farnaud and arts administrator and dance curator Georgina Thomson. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

ON TUESDAY, MAY 2, 2017, in acknowledgement of their career-long contributions to the dance fraternity in South Africa, artistic director of Dance Umbrella Georgina Thomson and artistic director and founder of Vuyani Dance Theatre, Gregory Maqoma, were awarded the Officier des Arts et des Lettres and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres respectively by the Ambassador of France to South Africa, His Excellence Mr Christophe Farnaud, at a moving and intimate reception at the French Embassy in Pretoria.

“My relationship with IFAS has been amazing,” Thomson, who was born in the Netherlands and grew up in Lesotho and the Orange Free State, began speaking of how generously the French have opened doors for South African dance over the years. Significantly, she focused on how her former colleagues, including Mandie van der Spuy, Mannie Manim, Philip Stein and Nicola Danby had spurred her on to “fly” and to do what she didn’t think possible, as a dancer, as an arts administrator, as a curator of a festival of contemporary dance which took on an international sheen in her hands. “I worked with people who were generous, open, giving and supportive,” she concluded.

Ambassador Farnaud praised the work she has done over the works with levity and directness, referring to everything from the collaboration with brought Les Nuits, choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj to South Africa in 2014, “Dear Georgina,” he added. “Your distinctive career journey is heightened by your courage, your range of expertise and your travels around the world. You have worked with artists of all identities and backgrounds … you have used your artistic career to break boundaries and become the voice of those who were silenced.” Deeming Thomson an “exceptional example of determination and commitment”, he spoke of the bridges she has created – mostly against all funding odds – between local dancers and international opportunities.

Describing Gregory Maqoma’s contribution to dance as brave and brilliant as he spoke of the Soweto hostels context into which Maqoma was raised, Ambassador Farnaud commented on how Maqoma developed a sense of empathy in the plight of his fellow Soweto residents. Maqoma started dancing in the late 1980s, and under Sylvia Glasser developed into a professional dancer of Moving Into Dance Mophatong in 1991. He rose through the ranks of her company, eventually setting up a company of his own. Ambassador Farnaud commented on how deeply Maqoma’s work is respected and has developed, offering a trajectory of his career.

“You continue to play an important role in the development of dance in South Africa,” he added. “But more than a dancer/choreographer, you are also proven to be a smart entrepreneur. Indeed, Vuyani Dance Company is a strong example of a successful business model in the arts, which is not an easy feat nowadays.” Defining Maqoma as both “outstanding and unstoppable,” he added “You have become an inspiration to young artists not only in South Africa, but across the continent as well. You have changed the lives of young artists by giving them the wherewithal to spread their wings.”

Supported by his mother and aunt, Maqoma paid tribute to his late father. “Art is life,” he said, describing his passion for performing as a child as he gently describing the platitudinous questions posted to him by a CNN journalist. “Growing up in the context where I did, I learned more about the world, the complexities and the challenges,” he added, speaking of the melting pot that is contemporary Soweto. The odds he faced were terrifying and huge, for himself as well as his family. Legacy and the role of each individual in the industry underlined his talk, as well as the conscious decision of what one leaves behind.

Maqoma and Thomson joins the ranks of Johnny Clegg (1991), Robyn Orlin (2009) and William Kentridge (2013) in accepting this great award and immense honour, which was established in 1957 in recognition of significant contributions to the enrichment of the arts and literature in France and abroad.

  • What are the implications of these awards for South Africa, going forward, given the outcome of the French elections? Read this opinion piece.

Dance should make you weep, says Sylvia

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DO IT LIKE THIS: Sylvia Glasser works with Fana Tshabalala in studio, 2010. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

With her floor-length purple dress riffling in the wind as she shimmied across President Street on the arm of choreographer/dancer Muzi Shili and others associated with Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MiD) , arguably South Africa’s most important contemporary dance company, Sylvia “MaGogo” Glasser, the institution’s founder, bade MiD – and the country – goodbye.  What a send off! What a way to leave that which you started 38 years ago, in good health, good humour and a position of authority.

For Glasser, it’s a bittersweet move, but one in which she can acknowledge touching so many dancers’ lives. Last month, Glasser spoke to My View about the rules she broke during the 38 years of MiD’s existence, and the ones she made. Also, the dance fraternity hosted a farewell for her, featuring comments from heavyweights in contemporary dance, including Shili, David Thanatelo April, Christos Daskalakos, Bev Elgie, Portia Mashigo and Kefiloe Morand.

Daskalalos, an architecture student in 1978 was enticed by an MiD poster for an improvisation workshop on Wits University campus: “I went. It was the start of a whole new life, for me. Sylvia had us doing things to tables and chairs that was never meant to be done to tables and chairs.

“Improvisation was how a lot of the works were choreographed by Sylvia and the dancers – Sylvia had the idea, the structure, the clear vision, and we would go into the studio and improvise and improvise. It was so creative. It is how a lot of the work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery was made,” he described performances in Johannesburg’s municipal gallery in 1980 and 1988.

Photographs of dancers in the JAG’s majestic space recalls performance art under choreographers like Robyn Orlin – a student of Glasser’s in her youth – decades later. Indeed, so much of the dance language developed and honed by Glasser was before its time, certainly in South Africa, where the notions of collaboration, performance art and impromptu gesture were important and new.

In 1981, MiD, just three years old, hosted South Africa’s first mixed-race work, at Wits’s Great Hall.

“At MiD, colour was never an issue,” Daskalakos said Glasser was not afraid to engage ugly South African metaphors, remembering this was high apartheid and everything she did with black and white dancers together was illegal.

In 1983, her work Not For Squares, ostensibly a light piece was performed to a gavotte by JS Bach. It also featured tyres. “Remember what tyres were used for in this country at the time?” Glasser mused, referring to “necklacing” in which people were burnt to death in a tyre.

Not only the tyre metaphor but also the use of Baroque music to support contemporary dance broke rules, which aligned Glasser’s dance philosophy with that of another dance legend, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) who cocked a snook at balletic traditions in reinventing dance grammar. Effectively, Glasser created a dance grammar specific to South Africa – something which many of her dancers, who affectionately call her “MaGogo” (grandmother), have taken to the next level.

Not one to rest on laurels, Glasser was quick to disparage what she deemed too much praise. “I had a good education. I had a house. I was privileged. It was an obvious path for me to take.”

Elgie remembers the fledgling company, before 1987, used not only Glasser’s garage at her Victory Park home, to rehearse, but also the school hall at King David Victory Park and two scout halls. “In the one [scout hall], you went home and dug splinters out of your feet after each session. And the other was so cold we looked like oompa loompas, we had to wear so many clothes to keep warm.

“The piece that I collaborated in that still means the most to me is African Cassandra. I remember waking up in the morning after Wits lecturer and anti-apartheid activist David Webster [with whom Glasser had an important friendship] was assassinated [by apartheid security forces] and feeling what an awful thing had happened but feeling very proud of Sylvia for wanting to do this. It was a marvellous collaboration, which with pride we performed at the lecture in honour of David.”

Glasser was a mature student in 1989, having returned to Wits to read social anthropology, where  Webster was her professor. She recalled: “on the Friday, David had said he was organising one of the Wits cleaners to come to Braamfontein Recreation Centre to teach us Zulu dancing. That Monday, I saw in the news David had been killed. So this thing of Cassandra was David singing to the future, trying to change people.

“I also felt like a Cassandra in the dance community at the time.” She spoke of how her work was “scorned” locally, which affected her critical presence and fundraising profile. It’s ironic, that one of the highest profile award-winning companies, which saw Glasser knighted by the Dutch in 2014 struggled – and still struggles – for broader community support, in kind, in coverage and in funding.

Pragmatically, Glasser didn’t sidestep the importance of funding a nongovernmental organisation; an issue which became (and still is) a vital challenge for MiD. She needed to raise funds from 1984, in addition to the many competencies that steering MiD demanded of her.

Glasser vehemently disparaged the idea that “you need to do fluffy work for the public to patronise you. There is much talk, not only at MiD, but in dance generally, of a need for self-sufficiency. It’s become a buzz word. I’ve worked in many countries. I have learnt that any dance company that makes its audience cry, that has an ethos where people are more important than policies, does not cover its expenses through performance alone. Any organisation that brings in people, as MiD did, has a commodity to offer which overrides pressure for self-sustainability. Sure, you can commercialise a dance company. But it will lose its soul.

“Today I’m told I don’t understand business. How can you survive with no capital investment and [between 2001 and 2004] employ over 30 people? I didn’t do it by myself.”

But MiD has stood for a lot more than the trend of self-sustainability. It made careers. It made dreams feasible. Mashigo came into dance as a teenager. “I was in standard eight and there was a group of friends I had who were doing dance at a youth centre. One day I went with them, to watch. I had never seen a dancer’s body before. I had never before seen how physical fitness can train a black woman’s body. I started dancing. It was fun. It was easy. We were the ‘it’ girls.”

A year later, she auditioned with MiD. “I got in. And I got scared. For the first time, I realised how tiny I was – and I was competing now not only against township girls; I also had to speak English. The teachers were white. But the love of understanding exercises opened a new understanding of my body for me.”

Said April: “In Kimberley, where I grew up, there weren’t opportunities for dance training. In 1992, I heard an advert on Radio 5 for the community dance teachers training course auditions [run by MiD]. At that time, there was a programme on TV called Fame [based on the 1980 film]; everyone wanted to be like those dancers. I decided to be a ‘Leroy’ [played by the late Gene Anthony Ray] at MiD.”

Glasser concluded, smilingly: “I do have an ego,” she pooh-poohed peers’ claims that she was one of few professionals they worked with who didn’t come ego-first into a studio.

“I loved performing. Teaching is performing. It was the world to me.”

  • MiD is run by chief executive Nadia Virasamy, and artistic director Mark Hawkins.

Siva: Seven layers of dance perfection under Sidiya’s capable hand

Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy cue.ru.ac.za
Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

You are led into the space by a series of lit thick short candles, evocative of the memorial-imbued candles of Jewish tradition. You encounter a woman being washed by another, in a ritual context that is achingly intimate even though it is cast in the thick of audience traffic. From this point, an emotional stillness is evoked; it is something that is carried through the duration of this exquisite piece, with respect and dignity, fire and heart.

As Siva, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist work for dance choreographed by Luyanda Sidiya, unfolds, bringing together isiXhosa words, flames and some of the most extraordinary physical manoeuvring you might have ever seen, so something remarkable takes place. The work is premised on an understanding of godhead and religious ritual. The number seven features significantly in the work’s iconography.

It was conceived and birthed through the input and energy of both Moving Into Dance Mophatong under the leadership of Sylvia Glasser and Vuyani Dance Theatre, under the leadership of Gregory Maqoma, and here is the resolution of a dance language that melds African traditional aesthetic with contemporary dance rhetoric, taking the values of Glasser’s Afrofusion to a new level.

The work is enervating to look at: it sweeps you body and soul into its complex vortex as it stretches the notion of physical and anatomical possibility. The dancers become like magicians, drawing back to the roots of art making, as they segue with one another, in sequences that will make your head spin.

But more than all of this is the astonishing astuteness which with the work is created. It’s a large cast, comprising ten dancers and an ensemble of three musicians on stage. Like line work in a beautifully made drawing, each component of this work has his or her own place, there is no sense of messy collaboration, and yet, the whole is as complex and imposing as the intricate work of a grand orchestra.

And while each dancer operates with scalpel-like intensity, it is the performance and stage presence of Julia Burnham which sets the work on fire and captures its sense of magic, completely. Already quite a seasoned performer, demonstrating a great and brave repertoire for a diversity of approaches and a willingness to cock a snoot at boundaries, Burnham has, in this work, clearly come of age. She grabs your eye with a ferocity that doesn’t allow you to properly focus on the other dancers, even when she is at apparent rest. It has something to do with her immense sense of physical beauty and vulnerability, something to do with the utter skill in which she intertwines between her colleagues and lavishes within the movement and the sound.

And the sound is the other magic ingredient. Like the inimitable tenor and soprano saxophone of Norwegian Jan Garbarek, the music slithers in and out of the choreography, offering an understanding of dance and music and the magic in between that will haunt you, relentlessly.

The season for this magnificent piece was painfully short. It’s booked to travel to China in November. But between now and then, there are seasons pencilled in: seeing this piece should be a cultural imperative on anyone’s agenda. It will change your life.

  • Siva is choreographed and directed by Luyanda Sidiya. It features design by Xolisile Bongwana (musical direction); Gerard Bester (dramaturge); Oliver Hauser (lighting); Fried Wilsenach (sound) and Andrew Chandler (costumes). It is danced by Xolisile Bongwana, Julia Burnham, Roseline Keppler, Peter Lenso, Lulu Mlangeni, Phumlani Mndebele, Otto Nhlapo, Phumlani Nyanga, Nomasonto Radebe and Edwin Ramoba, and features performances by musicians Phosho Lebese, Tebogo Mokoena and Mpumi Nhlapo at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, August 12-16. Watch this space for announcements of other seasons for this work.

Too much virtuosity hurts Lonely Together

Gregory Maqoma and Roberto Olivan are Lonely Together. Photograph by Albert Vidal.
Gregory Maqoma and Roberto Olivan are Lonely Together. Photograph by Albert Vidal.

 

It’s a completely astonishing privilege to watch both Gregory Maqoma and Roberto Olivan perform. They gyrate like whirligigs, they contort and jetee as though they have quicksilver in their veins and fire instead of bones. They are mesmerising in their beauty, in collaboration and individually.

The work’s title offers you insight into the nuance projected by and contained in it, but as you sit and focus through its hour of intensity, you find yourself working quite hard to pin a resonance with the title with what you are seeing here. The title of the work implies some kind of relationship with the world, and with each other, but more than about togetherness or aloneness, it’s a piece about virtuosos doing their thing, casting in-house jokes and reflecting underdeveloped narrative ideas to audiences who love them anyway.

The work judders to a standstill conceptually a few minutes in, when the dancers stop dancing and begin a conversation which is not audible to the audience. It feels puerile. And conjoined with a bit of clowning, under the pall of music so loud and trance-inducing you can’t hear it, it feels insulting to the monumental start to the piece.

Sadly, after this interregnum, the work’s momentum is contorted and while the dance remains beautiful, it lacks a logical cohesion or a narrative line which is clear to the non-dancer in the audience. You don’t know when it ends why it has ended, or why it didn’t end earlier. And the break in focus makes its hour long duration seem like three.

Maqoma and Olivan clearly had a lot of fun putting this piece together, but one strict outside directorial hand or eye is lacking: this piece deserves narrative punch, nuance, darkness and light. As does its audience.

  • Lonely Together is choreographed and danced by Gregory Maqoma and Roberto Olivan, featuring music composition and interpretation by Laurent Delforge, dramaturgy by Roberto Magro, lighting by CUBE.BZ and costumes by Black Coffee. It performed at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex on September 3 and 4, programme 4 of the Dance Umbrella 2014.

Thomson: This year’s Dance Umbrella packs a hefty punch

Georgina Thomson. Photo courtesy artslink.co.za
Georgina Thomson. Photo courtesy artslink.co.za

It’s a small programme – certainly the smallest we’ve seen in over a decade, but this year’s Dance Umbrella which starts on Sunday night, packs a hefty punch, not only in terms of big names and important productions, but in terms of seeing the Dance Umbrella turn a corner. It’s 26 years since this contemporary dance festival in Johannesburg was coined.

Said Georgina Thomson (pictured), artistic director of the festival for 19 years: “I remember when it started: The whole country was so excited at the idea of a dance platform.” She was living in Durban at the time. In 1991, she moved to Johannesburg, to work at Wits, at the Performing Arts Administration with Mannie Manim and became indirectly involved with Dance Umbrella.

“Philip Stein who ran Vita – a corporate that earned its reputation for arts sponsorship, particularly in the fields of visual art, contemporary dance and craft – set me up, around that time in my own public relations company. Three years later, I was approached by the then manager of the Vita Awards Programme, Nicola Danby to join Dance Umbrella. And that was that.”

Thomson, a former dancer, has tirelessly fought the battle of funding versus critical merit in the difficult and oft obscure discipline of dance, which has presented all kinds of challenges to her from the shock art of Steven Cohen – which often pulled the mickey out of her as he challenged dance protocol with abandon and sometimes actual faeces onstage – to the Stepping Stones aspect of the festival, home to less professional dancers and groups and sometimes rank amateurs.

“The last five years haven’t been the best,” she admits. “In Vita’s time, in Philip Stein we had that wonderful bonus visionary. Every three years he negotiated a new contract with funders. Vita closed because FNB started withdrawing.” Stein died in 2010 after suffering a degenerative disease which had taken him out of the picture for several years. Dance Umbrella remained the only project supported by the FNB from Vita’s bouquet, but was dwindling.

“FNB withdrew funding altogether in 2008 or 2009. The first two or three years we were fine, and then the shift was apparent. I initially thought we wouldn’t have a problem: Dance Umbrella is a big event. We have international programmers. It’s national: we have people entering from all over the country. We commission work and its collaborations internationally. I was quite confident that we would find a new funder, but I was wrong.

“When FNB pulled out, there was no negotiation or communication. We were given a year’s notice by retired SA rugby union player, Francois Pienaar, who was handling the account. He humoured us, but we were not allowed to see or speak to anyone above him. We tried to get a leg in somewhere and just say, give us two years notice, but there was no way.” Thomson explains how the mounting of a festival as big as Dance Umbrella – in the past it has stretched over 10 days, jam-packed with productions – entails at least a three year lead, in terms of planning, funding and so on.

“The National Lottery has been our saviour,” she speaks of next year’s Dance Umbrella. “They really fund you properly. They partner you. Our funding for next year is already in the bank. We know that Dance Umbrella 2015 will happen, in February/March, as usual. Thank God.”

For most of its 26 years, Dance Umbrella was staged in the first quarter of the year. Last year and this, for funding reasons, it has piggy-backed on the Arts Alive festival, hosted by the city of Johannesburg, in early September.

Thomson agrees that this year’s Dance Umbrella is the smallest ever. “But it’s tight.” With seven works over the seven days of the festival’s duration, it is a festival in which you can easily see everything. The works are cherry picked and really promise something wonderful.

It features a lot of collaborations, with performers SA audiences know and love, including Vuyani Dance founder Greg Maqoma, who debuted under Sylvia Glasser’s tuition at Moving Into Dance and dances opposite Roberto Olivan in a piece called Lonely Together, to Cargo: Precious, the highly acknowledged dance focus on the story of Saartjie Baartman, choreographed by PJ Sabbagha and directed by Sylvaine Strike, which debuted at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last month.

There’s also a Brussels-based company from Zimbabwe, performing a piece called Baobab Shadows, choreographed by Harold George, and a piece from Portia Mashigo who has been working with people from Mpumalanga, entitled More In Than Out of Time. Another of Sylvia Glasser’s protégés, Luyanda Sidiya, the artistic director of Maqoma’s company presents ‘7 Pillars’ and Moya Michael, a Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance collaborates with Belarus dancer Igor Shyshko in a work called ‘Darling’ focusing on the horror of growing up under apartheid in South Africa, or in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in Russia.

The Dance Umbrella’s headline work is Les Nuits (The Nights). It’s choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj, who runs world-renowned Paris-based dance company and is focused on The Arabian Nights. “I saw them perform in Reunion, and I have to say I have never seen anything like it. And I have been around for a long time. They blew me away. The work is balletic, but it is new. It is pure dance at its best. At its very, very, very top best. Whatever else you might see on any stage, you will never in your life see something like this. Ever,” she promises.

“Next year, we are doing a little bit of reconstructing in that we are stopping the Stepping Stones aspect of Dance Umbrella,” she continues. “It’s a decision which has been a long time coming. When it started 20 years ago, it was called the Fringe. And it was a fringe in which Moving Into Dance and the Tech and various other companies used to bring in younger dancers, but slowly it evolved into becoming more of a community focused thing, which is not a problem in itself: the problem arose in the reality that over the last five years or so, the same work keeps coming  back.”

She explains that after various approaches, she realised “these people are working and dancing in their communities. They are having great fun and they love Stepping Stones for this reason, but they do not want to take their work to the next critical level.

“We’ve replaced it with a new project called Street Dance, which comprises pantsula, hip hop and probably other forms. We’re working with Matthew Manamela, who used to dance with Adele Blank’s Free Flight Dance Company. He’s going to go to five different regions in Gauteng, together with David April and/or Sifiso Kweyama, to audition.”

The whole model of this aspect of the Dance Umbrella will change. “People must enter. Twelve groups will be selected. They will then be workshopped and developed into the presentation that they will be doing at the Dance Umbrella.

“We are also partnering with Sibikwa with a project called Negotiating Space which will be at the new big gallery space in Maboneng, Museum of African Design (MOAD). The project is loosely based on what they did a couple of years ago, with installation works in city spaces. People keen to participate will have to look at the gallery and construct their proposals accordingly.

“And then there’s a young choreographers platform, which will focus on getting students from any training programme to enter. And then the main programme is commissioned and/or international.

“The only work I can definitely tell readers about at this time is one by Constanza Macras, from Berlin who has been residencing here.  She’s going to be premier the work she’s been workshopping here.” Dance fans will remember her astonishing 2008 work, Hell on Earth, which involved street children and a glorious miscellany of approaches. She also mentioned that Jay Pather, director of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts in Cape Town, will be presenting a big installation “all over Johannesburg.” No foreigner to site specificity, he is remembered for his 2005 work at Hillbrow’s Constitution Hill, The Beautyful Ones Must Be Born and his 2012 Qaphela Caesar, which forced the Cape Town City Hall and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange into a completely unexpected focus.

Next year’s Dance Umbrella will be staged at the two Soweto Theatres, the Dance Factory and the Market Theatre in Newtown, as well as the MOAD Gallery. The Wits Theatre will be busy renovating at that time.

For further information on this year’s Dance Umbrella, visit www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011-492-0709.