Have we forgotten what we’re here for?

CarmenOped
FOR the superficial love of just being in the audience.

WHEN A MAN comes on stage just before a heavily touted show starts, to announce his great respect for all the people performing here because no one is earning money for doing so, is this a thing you’re meant to clap about? There is a huge problem in the arts industry when expensive tickets get sold on the backs of performers giving of their time with no serious acknowledgement of their skills. When amateurs take to the stage and real money changes hands for the questionable privilege of watching them do their shtick, who suffers? The industry itself, which includes the performers who leap at the chance to work, even if it is under people who know not what they do; and the audiences, who get royally conned of their time and their money and more seriously, perhaps, the idea of what good art actually is.

It seems reasonable to expect, when a production is professionally marketed, on radio stations and social media, when it is staged at a mainstream auditorium and when it comes with a price tag of between R200 and R475 a seat, that what you will pay for will be something of quality. You might not be condemned for wanting to understand it to be about a sense of event, not in terms of the bling in the audience or the food served at interval, but because of the bottom line technical expertise injected into the work itself. You might expect this, but contemporary Johannesburg, it seems, is flooded with something of a different stripe.

Call it unabashed mediocrity. Call it kowtowing to the idea of the money generated by promoting something and pretending it were professional. Call it blatant disregard for the real structures, effort and challenges that make performed theatre, opera or dance so difficult. Call it what you will, but the danger in this type of show that’s flourished and touted as a great wonderwork and collapses in a rush of angry people leaving at interval does more to damage the industry than it does to build it.

And yes, the corollary is blatant and feels extreme: would it be better to have dark theatres and nothing on stage than to fox would-be audience members with way under par productions, where the orchestra is too thin, the performances devastatingly bland and the ensemble laughably weak? Maybe it would. What would this mean? People with talent would lose their dreams or leave the country to chase them. Or perhaps they would go the extra mile in finding whatever it takes to make, mount and stage a work of unequivocal quality.

Perhaps this industry needs to take a step back and consider how easy it is to stage a show at a major theatre in this country. How easy is it to publish fiction? How easy might it be to show work at a major art gallery? Is it about the flash of some money at the right people? Is it about a spot of nepotism or curtseying in the direction of SEO talk? The wheel does turn and quality has a tendency of always, eventually rising to the surface; but when big budget productions are mounted, marketed and received with no regard for skill, or for acknowledging skill and paying professionals properly, we all suffer.

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

Baby in a pickle

caucasianchalk
BIG issues: (from left) Koketso Motlhabane, Aubrey Poo and Izak Davel. Photograph courtesy Joburg Theatre.

THE DELICIOUS PRESCIENCE of a bit of Brecht in Johannesburg this month, in the wake of the start of the #ZumaMustFall movement cannot be understated, and this complex, political, thoughtful and challenging extrapolation on the surreal humour of injustice and Solomonic solutions in The Caucasian Chalk Circle hits the mark with accuracy, insanity and abandon. It’s a fabulously layered work which brings in great dollops of Brechtian principles, spiced up with a frisson of Alfred Jarry resonance and lots of rudeness, a peppering of contemporary freedom issues and generous sprinklings of slapstick physicality.

It’s a work which allows each one of its large cast to shimmer, with wit and seriously quirky characterisation, but it’s not flawless. This is a problem in the original work, but it’s one that proves unresolvable by this director and cast.

Framed in contemporary times – which would have been roughly the 1940s – it’s a very shoutily performed prologue and is punctuated with service delivery issues and a land grab, that lends it the lingo in contemporary parlance in South Africa. There are two arguments: a business of self-sustainable farming goes head to head with one of farming for profit. It’s goats against potatoes. And the issue gets explored and developed with the tool of a play within a play. Or rather two plays – the first deals with a young woman with noble values and the second with a corrupt judge.

This is all well and good, but this land issue is not revisited at the end of the play. Yes, there’s a metaphorical sewing of associations between the situation of the child in the one tale, and that of the land in the other, but the dots are not connected for clarity’s sake, and you’re left hooting and clapping at the end of the work, but still anticipating a bit more.

Narrative flaws aside, the work does feel long and over acted in parts, and while you can doff your hat to Brechtian values, and wow in admiration of Aubrey Poo’s delightful sense of authority as he sings and embraces the whole stage, sometimes the diction is so loud that it is incomprehensible. Having said that, it’s a rollicking historical essay featuring ingenious set design decisions which comprise a miscellany of wooden crates and some beautiful stark landscape drawings in white chalk on a black ground.

Further, the work is very articulately choreographed and there is an astonishing sense of visual balance in the onstage bizarreness. Koketso Motlhabane plays Grusha, the young woman central to the first tale who by happenstance feels pity for the abandoned baby of the Governor. She manifests an utterly lovely stage presence, an admirable counterfoil to Neka da Costa’s interpretation of the governor’s wife, and her beautiful singing voice lends her role the kind of cohesion which makes you sit up and focus.

Humour and catastrophe segue together in this messy and unsettling tale of intrigue, lifelong promises and justice, compassion and money, which above all, is about the craft of performing.

  • The Caucasian Chalk Circle is written by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Alistair Beaton and directed by Lebohang Motaung. It features design by David Sizwe Arends (set), Allan Kolski Horwitz (costumes) and Timothy Le Roux (choreography). It is performed by Neka da Costa, Izak Davel, Marcus Mabusela, Mimi Mahlasela, Koketso Motlhabane, Nyeleti Ndubane, Aubrey Poo and Jacques Wolmarans, and performs at the Fringe, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein until April 23. Call 0861 670 670 or visit www.joburgtheatre.com

Hold my hand and we’re half way there: West Side Story’s unequivocal victory

westsidestory
LOVE in the face of turf wars. Tony (Jonathan Roxmouth) and Maria (Lynnelle Kenned). Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT TAKES SPECIAL skill to tease open one of theatre and literature’s greatest works and to reinvent it. It  takes even more special skill and creative bravery to be able to produce a work on stage that has been produced on myriads of other stages all over the world and in various mediums, and to make it fresh. Producers Eric Abraham and Daniel Galloway, for the Fugard Theatre, are to be congratulated on the unequivocal victory they have achieved with West Side Story.

Premised on the unadulterated beauty of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this tale of poverty and crime, love and hate in a post-Second World War, post Depression context on the West Side of New York, touches all the keystones that are triggers to the kind of clichés that give clichés their schmaltzy reputation, but with a set which is at once dazzling and subtle, some extraordinary stand-out performances and a deeply honed and polished reflection of violence and social context, to say nothing of sheer brilliance in design, it’s up there among the best theatre experiences in this city, of the decade.

It begins, however, with some unnecessary and uneasy gimmickry in the resonance between lighting and music and the spirit of the work doesn’t grab you by the throat from the work’s first bars of music, or first steps of dance, as you may anticipate.  The scene is cast with bland clarity, as the two gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, strut their stuff and tease their respective foes into internecine violence. The women in the bridal factory tend to be shrieky. But as the work unfolds, the incredible crescendo it achieves in balancing narrative with design, showcasing Jonathan Roxmouth opposite Lynnelle Kenned with their devastatingly fine voices in the leads, sweeps you away, heart first and not only do you forgive the opening blandness, but you forget it, too.

Making incredibly sophisticated use of the horizontal in the massive concrete-evocative set, an understanding of space and time but also depth of focus is compelling, and with this geometry, something completely extraordinary happens. The tale is a predictable one and you know how it ends, and the songs, from Maria and Tonight, to I Feel Pretty and Somewhere are so well known, they punctuate the piece with familiarity.

But what this director and his enormous cast have achieved here is an offering of a tale which will trigger your tears in spite of everything: the fierce love between Maria and Tony, which flies in the face of their respective gangs’ ideologies is handled with a sincerity and a flamboyance that is not just about the spectacle or the drama. It’s rich with life and fraught with texture. It’s not only about gritty New York values, and a self-conscious use of 1950s slang and dance sequences. It’s something that is lifted to the level of the timeless universal.

Kenned is relatively new on Johannesburg’s stages and slight of build, but supremely skilled vocally, she embraces the whole stage and the whole audience with her presence. Even whilst she is climbing scaffolding or in the scene but off central focus, your eyes rest on her. There’s a demureness and an innocence that evokes Olivia Hussey’s 1968 portrayal of Juliet in Franco Zefirelli’s version of the Shakespeare classic, and a brassiness which gives her soul. But when calamity strikes and death happens, that torsion between her and her lover and her brother is palpable. It’s a moment you won’t readily forget.

If you see one musical this year in Johannesburg: this is it.

  • West Side Story is based on an idea by Jerome Robbins and a book by Arthur Laurents and directed by Matthew Wild. It is designed by Leonard Bernstein (composition), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Jerome Robbins, Louisa Talbot and Richard Lothian (choreography), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder assisted by Marga Sandar (musical direction), Conor Murphy, Johan Engels, Carl Gersbach, Nadine Minnaar and Gerhard Morkel (set), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Joshua Cutts (lighting) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Grant Almirall, Matthew Berry, Cameron Botha, Daniel Buys, Caitlin Clerk, Elzanne Crause, Keaton Ditchfield, Adrian Galley, Nurit Graff, Reg Hart, Natasha Hess, Christopher Jaftha, Stephen Jubber, Lynelle Kenned, Bianca Le Grange, Richard Lothian, Carlo McFarlane, Ipeleng Merafe, Sven-Eric Müller, Kirsten Murphy Rossiter, Brendan Murray, Sibusiso Mxosana, LJ Neilson, Thami Njoko, Chloe Perling, Sabelo Radebe, JP Rossouw, Jonathan Roxmouth, Zolani Shangase, Gemma Trehearn, Craig Urbani, Sarah-Ann van der Merwe, Filipa van Eck, Tamryn van Houten, Tevin Weiner, Duane Williams and Kristin Wilson. The orchestra comprises Elsabe Laubscher (coordinator), Serge Cuca, Elbe Henkins, Ivo Ivanov, Daline Wilson, Dorota Swart, Song Ha Choi, Evert van Niekerk, Katrien Jooster, Ane van Staaden, Viara and Adrie Naude (violin); Carel Henn, Susan Mouton, Maureen Marler and Gerrit Koorsen (cello); Christi Swanepoel (double bass); Helen Vosloo, Anna Maria Muller and Handri Loots (flute); David Sendef and Donny Bouwer (trumpet); Siya Charles (trombone); Shanon Armer (horn); Brahm Henkins (bassoon); Gerben Grooten (percussion); and Chrisa Smit, Carl Ashford and James Green (reeds), conducted by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder assisted by Marga Sander. The band comprises Dawid Bowehoff, Matthew Foster, James Lombard, Justin Carter and Aldert du Toit. It is at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex, Braamfontein, until March 5. Call 011 877 6800 or visit www.joburtheatre.com

Lost in the Wood

robinhood
DIRECTIONLESS and forlorn: Little John (Phumci Mncayi) and Friar Tuck (Desmond Dube), doing the traffic light jive in their bid to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

INDEED, THE SILLY season is already upon us. But silly is as silly does and when the volume and strobes in an auditorium are ramped up to deafen and blind an audience in order to compensate for a messy hodge-podge of a story featuring political- and market-related humour that is so tired you have to be seriously drunk to laugh, you can only despair. Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood the city’s highly punted pantomime for the year, takes silly to a new level of incompetence. It features so much self-indulgent clap-trap in its narrative flow, choice of music and ribaldry that not only does the story lose its way spectacularly, but it is also crushed under the weight of too many agendas.

With stand-out performances by Graham Hopkins as the evil villain Norman the Nasty Sheriff of Nottingham; Kate Normington in the role of an Irish geriatric fairy called Silly Sylviana, the Spirit of the Forest; Desmond Dube as Friar Tuck and the very talented Dale Scheepers as one of the hapless ‘babes in the wood’, Tokkel; it is not the performers or the choreographers who can be condemned. They do their best. They’re immensely skilled. But they’re working in a context which so lacks narrative definition that it feels as though anything goes. The work is an unsuccessful mashing together of a bunch of tales surrounding Robin Hood, the medieval activist who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and that of Hansel and Gretel, two poor children condemned by a nasty step mother to die in the forest. Both these central classics are pinned to poverty, patronage politics and corruption rhetoric specific to the time in which we live, only it’s not funny.

Sadly the political shenanigans of the time have been so widely laughed at, analysed, criticised and condemned by all and sundry that the humour has begun to pall. And in this production in particular, it’s as subtle and nuanced as a sledge-hammer hitting a fly.

Where the two tales meet and why they’re pushed together is a mystery. Pantomime is traditionally such a complex and bawdy bit of burlesque to begin with, it’s not clear why this production needed even more frills than normal by taking on two stories at once.

The requisite over the top drag character is played by LJ Urbani with immensely tragic make-up, in the role of the wicked step-mother, but the moments of genuine hilarity are few and far between. If you can look beyond the arbitrary and irresponsible use of strobes, and forget that the sound is at such a decibel level that you feel the vibration in your teeth, there’s still not much left, particularly for the littlies. When this production is not messily presented in its narrative, it’s seriously scary or crudely cruel. Thus the entertainment value is substituted for a kind of sensory assault. If that’s your thing, you might love it. When audiences of large scale musicals shout hysterically on cue at every drum roll, it’s either because they think they should, or because they’re crying about the money they’ve just spent so badly. In terms of big shows fitting the family entertainment bill for the end of year treat, this one certainly doesn’t cut it.

  • Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood is written and directed by Janice Honeyman. Featuring design by Graham McLusky (lighting), Rowan Bakker (musical director), Richard Smith (sound), Bronwyn Lovegrove (costume co-ordinator), Nicol Sheraton (choreographer), it is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Izak Davel, Desmond Dube, Darius Engelbrecht, Clive Gilson, Nurit Graff, Kyra Green, Graham Hopkins, Dirk Joubert, Dolly Louw, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Noni Mkhonto, Phumi Mncayi, Candida Mosoma, Bongi Mthombeni, Tshepo Ncokoane, Kate Normington, Carmen Pretorius, Dale Scheepers, LJ Urbani, Natasha Van Der Merwe, Maryanne Van Eyssen and Jaco Van Rensburg. It features a live band under the baton of Rowan Bakker and Drew Rienstra on keyboards, comprised Deon Kruger (guitar), Kuba Silkiewicz (bass) and PW Van Der Walt (drums), and is at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until December 30. Call 0861 670 670 or visit joburgtheatre.com

Alas, too young

acceptance
MY Lord: Jerry Mofokeng plays the Judge. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

A MAN STANDS on an otherwise empty stage. He wears pajama pants under a jacket, a children’s party hat on his head. And an expression of utter perplexity on his face. Thus begins Eva Mazza’s play Acceptance, an essay on the what ifs surrounding the tough monstrosity of contemporary filicide. It’s a moment of sheer haunting mystery which brings an element of poetry to an otherwise prosaic text.

Indeed, it’s not a moment that is capitalised on and grown in the texture and nub of this thematically important play. In 2014, a South African-born woman living in England suffocated her three young children to death. They were born with a degenerative condition called spinal muscular atrophy.  She was ultimately acquitted on charges of manslaughter. It was a story that took the world by an emotional storm and it is upon this narrative and the dilemmas it confronts that Acceptance is hung.

Asking several pertinent questions and splaying issues of handicap and murder, psychiatric illness and culpability wide, the play is hampered by a lack of nuance both in its writing and performances. The production speaks of a youthful enthusiasm: its casualty is a lack of convincing gravitas. And in many ways, it needs to grow more on the proverbial drawing board.

Reading the work’s précis, you might expect to be juddered into the horror of the angry ghosts of children badly done by, or the horrible whirligig of emotions of a damaged woman overwhelmed with a situation she cannot handle, but instead you are confronted by fairly wooden performances and a too-clear line of narrative, which opens up the perspective of the voiceless as it pleads the case of the victims. There are moments that feel like a synchronised poetry recital, and others which are meant to be crushed by monumental stress, but lie preciously fallow.

The presiding judge in the original case (Jerry Mofokeng) is awoken out of the blue, late one night by an annoying young white man (Francois Viljoen) at his door. Is this the scene of a heist? It feels troublingly disrespectful. When the young man’s two sisters (Lea Viver and Lisa Darryn Overy) enter the space, you realise there’s something more at play here. The work unfolds with a guilelessness which is disappointing: it’s too chronological, too literal and it answers too many of the questions it poses.

As a result, this work, reeking of immense potential, is thwarted. Had the cast been older, more sophisticated in their ability to represent young children, to get under the skin of murdered people seeking justice, this work would have exploded values and made your head spin. Instead it feels like an advocacy drama.

  • Acceptance is written by Eva Mazza and directed by Simona Mazza. Featuring design by Gavin Head (set construction) and Tara Senior (sound), it is performed by Jerry Mofokeng, Lisa Derryn Overy, Francois Viljoen and Lea Viver at The Fringe, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, until October 16. Call 0861 670 670 or visit www.joburgtheatre.com

Even the shadows get to trip the light fantastic, here

Impact1
MAN in a frock: Muzi Shili captures the verve in Hinkel’s Bolero. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein

CONTEMPORARY DANCE HAS a reputation for being self-indulgent, inaccessible and boring. Very occasionally however, you do get a real opportunity to see something extraordinary. And that occasion is often so rare, in a season so brief that you have to act quickly. Impact 1 is exactly what dance should be: it’s a shortish evening comprising three works that will make you sit up and focus, and leave you feeling rewarded.

Several years ago, showcases of this nature were de rigueur for several of South Africa’s dance companies. But the trend waned. Hopefully Impact 1 and 2 will engender a new understanding of contemporary dance outside of the traditionally February timeframe of Dance Umbrella.

First up is José Agudo’s beautiful contemplative piece, A Thousand Shepherds, danced by members of Cape Dance Company. This essay in the movement of shifting sands, fire and nomads is evocatively supported by Vincenzo Lamagno’s music and caressed into full life by Wilhelm Disbergen’s magical use of light. There are moments in this work when you feel as though the dancers are able to become submerged in the floor, or defy gravity entirely and rise from it. And where you lose your sense of context entirely and feel as though it’s just you watching these mesmerising performers. Like dervishes, they work together and apart, offering glorious synchronisation, mysteries, politics and history as they immerse themselves in their floor-length cowled robes, genuflect and move as though mercury or electricity was sprinkled through their limbs.

Curiously, the second piece, Belinda Nusser’s Phase 5 Confronted bears a number of similarities, in structure, movement and ethos with the Agudo work. Danced by members of Tshwane Dance Theatre, with the addition of Nathan Bartman and Ipeleng Merafe from CDC, this piece is supported by music by Amon Tobin Murcof and Massive Attack, which feels like a concatenation of rough pebbles, ball-bearings and marbles running down your spine and through your brain. Sometimes this sound lends you a delicious feeling of coolness and at others, it jars. The dance itself involves sophisticated movements, but on the whole, it has an aura that is cold and intense and there are moments when the ethos of the piece teeters over into something that feels like an exercise routine rather than a dance work.

The final work on Impact 1 is an adaptation by Alfred Hinkel, the founder of Jazzart, of his iconic 1976 Bolero, which is danced to the eponymous work by Maurice Ravel, a jazzy balletic piece which first saw light of day nearly 90 years ago. This delicious celebration of dance brings in men in skirts, women flaunting their curves and playfulness, maturity and a sense of authority that makes you remember why Moving Into Dance Mophatong has the reputation and history it does. Conjoined with Disbergen’s  masterful lighting, even the shadows of these performers trip the light fantastic. Dancers such as Muzi Shili, Sunnyboy Motau and Eugene Mashiane bask and make love with the music, the movement, the very business of being alive in the world, melding very African dance gestures such as gumboot, with the European shimmer and beat of Ravel, that will leave you buoyant and singing bars of the music all the way home.

What a joy it is to be able to watch contemporary local dance in the beautiful, well designed and dignified premises of the Mandela. Not only is it time for contemporary dance to be showcased more aggressively in curated shows of this nature, but it’s time for the Joburg theatre to become a proud and exclusive venue of local talent.

  • Impact 1 performs at the The Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until August 21. It comprises the following pieces
    • A Thousand Shepherds choreographed by José Agudo and featuring music by Vincenzo Lamagna, lighting by Wilhelm Disbergen and costumes by Kimie Nakano. It is performed by the Cape Dance Company under the artistic direction of Debbie Turner: Ciara Baldwin, Nathan Bartman, Lwando Dutyulwa, Carmen Lotz, Odwa Makanda, Ipeleng Merafe, Thamsanqa Njoko, Mthuthuzeli November, Louisa Talbot, Gemma Trehearn, Lee van der Merwe and Marlin Zoutman;
    • Phase 5 Confronted choreographed by Belinda Nusser, featuring music by Amon Tobin Murcof and Massive Attack and lighting and costumes by Belinda Nusser, assisted by Gwendolyn Gourley-Botha. It is performed by members of Tshwane Dance Theatre, under the artistic management of Liyabuya Gongo and Laura Cameron: Nathan Bartman (by permission of CDC), Laura Cameron, Liyabuya Gongo, Thabiso Khoma, Ipeleng Merafe (by permission of CDC) and Kyle Rossouw;
    • And Bolero choreographed by Alfred Hinkel, featuring music by Maurice Ravel, lighting by Wilhelm Disbergen and costumes by Veronica Sham, Wilhelm Disbergen and Avril Bennet is performed by members of Moving Into Dance Mophatong under the artistic directorship of Mark Hawkins: Oscar Buthelezi Teboho Gilbert Letele, Eugene Mashiane, Thabang Mdlalose, Mandla Sunnyboy Motau Ntuli, Sussera Olyn, Asanda Saru Rudah, Macaleni Muzi Shili and Thenjiwe Soxokoshe.
  • Impact 2, comprising works by members of TDT and MIDM, runs from August 24-26 at the Fringe Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex, Braamfontein. http://www.joburgtheatre.com/impact-no-2/

Sister Act’s nuns are too dumbed down for their own good

That's her, in the red shoes: Deloris (Candida Mosoma) with nuns () Photograph by Mariola Biela.
That’s her, in the red shoes: Deloris (Candida Mosoma) with nuns. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

Take an ensemble of the best voices in the business right now. Befrock them in an array of habits and foreground the stage musical based on the eponymous film which saw Whoopi Goldberg’s rise to popularity in the early 1990s, and what do you get? Sister Act is one of those musicals mooted as a must-see and a block buster, but the final product reeks of 1990s flaws in patronising and overwhelmingly silly dialogue and humour which causes it to drag its feet, particularly in the first half. On paper it is too good to be true – and it is.

But if you’ve made it so far, stay for the second half, because this unashamedly feel good bit of musical theatre gets so warmly into its stride that it whisks the rest of the night away and will leave you with a grin on your face.

The question that might remain in your head is do stage musicals with this amount of pizzazz and energy really have to be so very dumb? The humour in this more than 20-year-old work is clunking and unfunny, revealing the characters as so grotesquely simple it hurts. If you think of the dialogue characterising works like The Sound of Music or Chicago – as two very different productions in this genre – you get an understanding of their universalism and timelessness through the impeccable sense of wisdom and dignity applied in the development of each character: the lowest-common-denominator humour in Sister Act arguably is the element which causes it to stumble as a production.

It’s the tale of a young black female singer who finds herself unwittingly vulnerable to crooks and bad men. A nearby church is in dire financial straits and agrees to hide her. Her musical arranging skills, maverick personality and flippant disregard for church rules win the day, enabling the church to gain the kind of street cred that will keep it relevant. It’s numbingly predictable, but tightly woven, in terms of nuances and several ‘wow’ moments, in the set, bringing together the mystery and majesty of implied church architecture with all its arches and stained glass windows intact.

The work features stand out performances by Candida Mosoma as the lead, Deloris; Kate Normington as the Mother Superior and Keith Smith as the monsignor, but it is the combination of the stark costumes and a lot of the ensemble work that keep its professionalism sizzling. Also, significantly, the male ensemble collaborations, featuring the bad guys and the cops, is worthy of mention: a level of totally fabulous sonority and balance is evoked by the guys in this girl-power story.

Sister Act makes for a rambunctious but safe evening’s entertainment. All the elements are in place and are handled with due colour, sound and light, but there’s an element of fire, a point of performative glory that the work as a whole lacks.

  • Sister Act, based on the book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. It is directed by Janice Honeyman with design by Sarah Roberts (costumes), Declan Randall (set), Trevor Peters (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Nicol Sheraton (choreography) and is performed by Bjorn Blignaut, Caroline Borole, Vanessa Brierley, Caitlin Clerk, Anne-Marie Clulow, Elizca Coetzer, Judy Ditchfield, Toni Jean Erasmus, Trudy Fredericks, Germandt Geldenhuys, Zane Gillion, Clive Gilson, Themba January, Dolly Louw, Mervin Marvey, Noni Mkhonto, Phumi Mncayi, Candida Mosoma, Kate Normington, Dean Roberts, Brenda Sakellarides, Andrea Shine, Shelly Simon, Nqobile Sipamla, Keith Smith, Lebo Toko, Carmen Tromp, LJ Urbani, Natasha van der Merwe and Zano. It performs at the Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until August 15. Call 0861670670 or visit com

Gregory Vuyani Maqoma: flame-bearer of empathy, pragmatics and SA dance

Gregory Maqoma giving a Master Class at the Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, in 2013. Photograph courtesy Velocity Dance Center.
Gregory Maqoma giving a Master Class at the Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, in 2013. Photograph courtesy Velocity Dance Center.

Everywhere you look, at the moment Gregory Vuyani Maqoma is present: He’s on the current cover of Gordon Institute of Business Science’s Acumen Magazine. He’s one of the judges in the Arts and Culture Trust Award for 2014. He’s just been in New York accepting the prestigious Bessie Award for his company, Vuyani Dance Theatre. He was recently at the Standard Bank Young Artists Award event in Johannesburg, celebrating one of his protégés, Luyanda Sidiya, this year’s winner for Dance. With all of this, Maqoma truly has earned his accolades. On the cusp of this year’s Dance Umbrella, he spoke to My View, about life, the universe, the Moon and migrant workers.

In 1990, Maqoma but 16. He met a white woman who dramatically changed his life. For good. Iconic dancer/ teacher /choreographer/dance anthropologist Sylvia Glasser at that stage was running her groundbreaking dance company Moving Into Dance Mophathong informally. It was a time in the country before it was considered acceptable or permissible for white and black dancers to share a stage. But share a stage they did, and Maqoma quickly became a MIDM flame-bearer.

“Vuyani Dance Theatre started in 1999,” he picks up the story almost a decade later. “I was in Belgium, on a scholarship at the renowned contemporary dance school PARTS;  it was an opportunity for me to look at South Africa from outside. It made me ask myself questions about my role as a dancer/choreographer and where I want to go in life. I had the chance to ponder how I wanted to be part of the changing political landscape in the country and how I was going to contribute to the development and sustainability of dance in South Africa.

“It was then that I created my first independent work, Rhythm 1-2-3, the founding piece for VDT. In that work, I was looking at Johannesburg: its roots, its unpredictability, its energy. It set the tone for what I wanted to do: to create work that responds to my own circumstances; work that was also questioning socio-economic imbalances in this country. It was also a work that got me quickly around the world,” he laughs. “We started getting bookings and before we’d even realised it, things were happening: there was no turning back.

“It was scary. I was 24. I started writing proposals. My first attempt at a proposal failed, but my second, to the Dutch embassy was successful. It was a small, tiny grant, but it was enough for what we wanted to do. Rhythm 1-2-3 was a simple work with just three dancers. The set was made with boxes from Pick ‘n Pay. The work, using visuals and text, was foundational for all my subsequent work.”

But it opened doors in other directions too. He started working with choreographers Moeketsi Koena, Sello Pesa, David Matamela April, Vicki Karras and Mandla Mchunu. ”We were all playing at the Dance Factory in Newtown Johannesburg, making work. It was not about egos. It was about sharing information. It was about working with what we had. We had to make and energise the dance fraternity. That was the founding ethos of VDT.”

Beyond its ethos, the now teenaged company, with a very strong outreach programme has started taking on apprentices this year: “These are dancers who have just left institutions,” Maqoma explains. “It’s an opportunity for them to work as professionals and with professionals. They get to perform in our works. Some have already had the chance to travel overseas with us. It’s hands on experience: the training you get at VDT shows immediate results.

“These apprentices are paid stipends from the company’s savings. At the same time, each apprentice is obliged to visit schools all over Gauteng: we see the results during our annual Vuyani Week at the end of the year. The Week is purely about development. It’s about young choreographers making new work.” It’s also about growing young dance audience.

VDT under the steerage of Maqoma drove contemporary dance which is renowned for its obscurity, into a popular framework with Full Moon, an extravaganza of a work staged at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein, in March this year.

“The work was premised on the idea of creating a social enterprise,” Maqoma explains. “As a company, we needed to be thinking beyond the Lotto funding, to diversify our income streams. We needed to look at a model that was going to be an income-generating one. And works that would be able to go to big spaces like the Joburg Theatre, the Sydney Opera House – into spaces that produce work on that big a scale.

“For me Full Moon was very much about saying as a contemporary black dance company, there is absolutely nothing stopping us from accessing spaces like Joburg Theatre. There is nothing stopping us from dreaming as big as the Alvin Ailey American Dance theatre company. We’ve tried to do this for years,” he grins, recalling how VDT was rebuffed on its tenth anniversary, from staging a work of this scale, with the claim that the theatre was fully booked months in advance. “This time the theatre seemed to realise something.

“I told the theatre’s decision makers, we’re talking 20 years of democracy here, and we’ve never had a black contemporary dance company on this stage. And we’re not only talking 20 years: we’re talking more than 50: there has never been a contemporary black dance company in this theatre: it was opened in 1961!

“So, here we are, I said. We are taking a chance on ourselves, but we want the theatre to take a chance on us too. I also explained that it is easier for our company to get onto the books of the Paris Opera than the Joburg Theatre. I said how do we balance the scale? If the work can appeal to that kind of audience in Paris, what makes it unattractive to Joburg audiences?

“It is about transformation, I argued, saying how this work should be at the epicentre of what democracy should mean,” he commenting on how a good relationship has been established between the Joburg Theatre and VDT. He is positive that Full Moon will have legs in other seasons “it created such a hype on social media. Now we’re in conversation with Artscape in Cape Town. There are possibilities for China; for London: it’s growing its own feet.”

‘Lonely Together’ is the work Maqoma created and performed in collaboration with Spanish dancer Roberto Olivan whom he had met at PARTS in the early 2000s, for this year’s Dance Umbrella in September. “At the dance school, we connected socially. Then we graduated and went our separate ways. Both of us developed dance in our own countries. We kept in touch. We kept meeting at festivals. And then recently we decided it would be interesting, after all these years, and because of the time we have spent giving so much to others, to refocus ourselves on ourselves and to see what comes out. And to focus on the issues that affect us personally. We realised one of those issues is that with the role that we have been playing, we have been extremely lonely in our own leadership: it’s a topic which continued to come back in our conversations, alongside growing and ageing.” The piece performed in Barcelona and Malta.

Maqoma is quick to dispel illusions of easiness or grandeur about his life and career: “Dancing is always a scary challenge for me. That is when you are really naked.” He’s  travelled all over the world. “The glamour is an illusion,” he grins. “It’s a job.

“And running VDT is a job in itself. It is important for me to create a balance for myself. I am not an administrator, so I have to put together a pool of people who will be efficient in terms of administration, which will give me the liberty to do other things. More and more I am taking on the role of artistic driver: Luyanda Sidiya has just been appointed VDT’s artistic director. We have to find a balance of creating a business model: I am good with talking to people, but maybe not so good in writing proposals. My strength is in engaging one on one with people.

“When you say to people I have a product, a something to sell to you, business people will listen. When we’re approaching it as a business, not a charity, our chances are greater.”

This thinking acumen didn’t sprout out of nowhere. “In 1993/4, I was very confused about what I wanted to do with my life. When I wasn’t accepted to study Medicine at Wits University, I took a business course offered by Wits. It was something they offered as a bridging course. Part of my apprentice programme was to be with a company. I worked with Alliance Insurance company for a period of two years. It had many prospects, a comfortable pay, but I knew very well that this was not me. So I do know that world a little,” he grins.

He comes, however of a world in which contemporary culture was irrevocably fused with traditional expression. “As a young boy, I was always the entertainer in the family. My cousins always believed I would be a singer. I loved Tina Turner. I loved Michael Jackson. Pop culture was really in my head. I was always dancing and singing.

“But I grew up quite close to a hostel in Soweto and I think the exposure to traditional forms in the township helped me to have empathy – something I only understood later – I was so very deeply moved and touched by migrant labourers who danced over the weekends. It dawned on me, years later that it was their own way of surviving the displacement of their circumstances.

“And it helped me to be able to create a formal aesthetic which became a bit of a cocktail: I was taking what I was seeing from the Pop culture in which I was growing up, as well as the traditional forms. I was fusing the two. At that stage, I was working with Vincent Mantsoe and we were not even aware that we were creating a medium, an aesthetic and a form that would be the driving force for my work.

“That’s never changed. I always start from the basics in creating new work.”