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.

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

Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy

Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy

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.

Lulu’s Page 27 casts crepuscular rays on woman


Just when you think you know who’s hot and who’s not in contemporary dance, just when you’re catching your breath after Dance Umbrella, there comes a showcase work so utterly perfect, that all the parameters shift and you’re privileged to see the bar being raised again. Lulu Mlangeni is back on our stages, and it’s reason enough to celebrate.

Mlangeni hasn’t been on the headlines of dance in the last couple of years. She’s not one of the usual suspects in the litany of dance, and while she’s a senior dancer with Vuyani Dance Theatre, she’s diversified her talents, earning accolades in spheres as diverse as the Naledi Awards, So You Think You Can Dance and Dance Umbrella.

This brand new work, Page 27 is quite simply, astonishing. It’s a diptych, featuring Mlangeni herself in the first part, and the VDT ensemble in the second part. Loosely, it speaks of South African women and the torsion and bruising and breaking they have faced through the challenges of apartheid and in a society scarred by domestic abuse and homophobia. It’s a focus on a 27-page journal, and the celebration of Mlangeni’s 27th year of life.

It casts a moving nod in the direction of Miriam Makeba and Winnie Madikizela Mandela, as it casts a fearsomely fine glance at the universal woman, imprisoned and beaten, victorious and traditional, in a skirt that is a mix of Xhosa fabric and camouflage fatiques and beads that splay traditions old and new, without ever being disrespectful or boring. Mlangeni is oddly androgynous at times, and overwhelmingly feminine at others. She becomes impossible to describe as she flexes and streamlines herself against the very present shafts of light, like God’s fingers through a cloud.

Using text and light as though they are tangible substances, the work is muscular and disarmingly tight, running in satisfying correlation with the music. There are choreographed fight sequences to rival those by Sunnyboy Motau and Rachel Erdos, which we saw a few weeks ago on Dance Umbrella, and there is a reflection of a love-hate dichotomy that is so sophisticated, it transcends verbal description. This is the kind of dance that South African dance audiences deserve: it is beautiful and thoughtful, wise and outrageous, without stooping to foolish gimmicks or obscurity. There is an underlying astuteness in the material: while you are aware of the directorial hand of Luyanda Sidiya you will fight to catch your breath in watching the flow of bodies, light and music. And in the end, the tears and the sweat on your cheeks will be indistinguishable.

This show deserves a full house every night of its too-brief season.

  • Page 27, directed and mentored by Luyanda Sidiya, is choreographed by Lulu Mlangeni and performed by Mlangeni and the ensemble for Vuyani Dance Theatre: Julia Burnham, Roseline Keppler, Peter Lenso, Phumlani Life Mndebele, Otto Andile Nhlapo, Phumlani Nyanga and Keaoleboga Shadrack Seodigeng. It is designed by Oliver Hauser (lighting), Veronica Sham (costumes) and Wesley Mabizela (musical arrangements), using work by Dustin O’Hallaran, Steve Reich and Atomos VII. It performs at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until April 5. 011 832 1641.