Elu’s yizkor

putyourheart
BLESSED is the light: Cohen lights the candelabra in Put your heart under your feet … and walk. Photograph by Pierre Planchenault.

THE CLEAVAGE BETWEEN art and sacred ritual is very ancient. And it’s not often that contemporary art reaches richly and bravely beyond the limitations of what our society thinks art is, or should be.  It’s, after all, dangerous and unmapped terrain. But Steven Cohen, who has never shied from creating his own boundaries and dancing to his own taboos, does just this in Put your heart under your feet … and walk, a work headlining this year’s Dance Umbrella.

It’s a work so invested with its own sense of integrity that it will shatter you. It is not about perfect pointes or co-ordinated dance steps, but in its unperfectness, it shimmers with real values that reach the core of you, because you are alive. Cohen’s focus in this work, which is a developed version of the recent eponymous exhibition he hosted at the Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein, is loss. The loss that comes of deep love.

It’s all implicit in the props and footage shown in this intensive work, which lifts you into a realm of being governed by things like a frock made of wind-up record players; a boulevard of broken dreams, as the Marianne Faithfull song declares; shoes pinned onto mini upright coffins, and a gesture of endocannibalism, understood in several cultures to be the ultimate level of empathetic mourning. It’s a work which brings the Jewish ritual of lighting candles into the construct of an elaborate candelabrum, as it touches on the horror of being buried. And it’s a work in which he shows footage of undance he performed in a Johannesburg abattoir some time after the death of his partner of 20 years, Elu.

Featuring Cohen’s characteristic head make up, and a stage full of shoes – doctored dance shoes that represent a taxonomy of his and Elu’s dance and undance careers that skirted rules and birthed unimagined aesthetics – the work evokes on the structure of Cohen’s Golgotha. Staged in Paris in 2009, Golgotha dealt with the loss Cohen suffered in the passing away of his brother.

In Put your heart under your feet … and walk, the ultimate energy you feel is one of profound aloneness. Cohen’s face is displayed enormously on the theatre-wide projection in the work. It’s there and then it’s out of focus, lost. And then, Cohen himself appears on stage, dwarfed terrifyingly by the projection, and horribly alone, struggling to retain his focus and dignity in the face of insurmountably heavy and difficult physical challenges.

It’s about the crippling rawness of knowing that your loved one is gone. It’s like a bloody stump that cannot heal. This is not a dance work. It’s a work of impeccable love. And in sharing this intimacy with an art audience, Cohen courageously brings something akin to ancient religious values into the theatre. You might not need to see the rest of Dance Umbrella — indeed, you might not need to see anything onstage again, if you have had the privilege of being in the presence of this work.

  • Put your heart under your feet … and walk is choreographed and performed by Steven Cohen. It features creative input by Cohen (costumes), Joseph Go Mahan, Leonard Cohen and Marianne Faithful (music) and Yvan Labasse (lighting and technical). It performs, as part of the 30th iteration of Dance Umbrella, on Friday March 9 at the Wits Theatre, Braamfontein at 9pm. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

When the Old and the Beautiful becomes the Dark and the Lovely

Doing it in the dark: Tony Bentel on the piano, with Fiona Ramsay on vocals. Photograph by Germaine De Larch.
Doing it in the dark: Tony Bentel on the piano, with Fiona Ramsay on vocals. Photograph by Germaine De Larch.

Picture the scenario: the scene is cast, with a fabulous director, a seasoned duo of performers and a tuned piano. Chairs are placed, the tone is set. And then the power goes down. “It’s scheduled!” yell some. “It’s not!” yell others. But still, it’s dark as pitch, and the show’s about to start.

This is what happened for the opening performance of the second season of The Old and the Beautiful, tonight, a song and piano work which tears apart and glories what it means to age. And in spite of incipient darkness, acts of God or other irritating lurgies, the show must always go on, and it did: against the velvety blackness of the night, the wavering harsh circle of a torch or two and in the glow of some strategically placed candles, the performers gave a very privileged audience a taste of the full production.

It was perfect. Glorying in the gravelly, ‘telegram from hell’ kind of work of Marianne Faithfull, the breathless and breathtaking ‘Maybe this time’ from the 1972 film of Cabaret and a piece from the rich experimental heady days of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, the work is funny and subtle and humble with its self-deprecating pizzazz moments, but one in which the centre is firmly cast with a great deal of soul. And a hefty dollop of cynicism.

Watching this in the dark with the performers – Fiona Ramsay on vocals and Tony Bentel on piano – unable to rest on any gimmicks by way of amplification and lighting, you realise the value of true commitment to a discipline. And it makes you shiver. And weep.

Nine years ago, in 2005, a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Bill Flynn as Bottom, suffered a similar indignity. It was load-shedding season at the time and half way through the work, the power was out and pandemonium began to break out in the theatre. But the tale wasn’t allowed to end with disgruntled audience members blindly feeling their way home. No: director Dorothy Ann Gould clapped her hands and announced that the show would go on, in the garden. It was a midsummer’s night. And the magic was real.

Similarly, the Old and the Beautiful began its December season with priceless and classy aplomb. It’s a true gem of a work, bringing together the considerable talents of Bentel and Ramsay. You might not be privileged enough to see it in the utter dark, but see it, you should: a delicate and gritty reflection on the fabric that make us all human and vulnerable.

The Old and the Beautiful is compiled and performed by Fiona Ramsay and Tony Bentel and directed by Janna Ramos-Violante. It performs at POP Arts, Maboneng, in central Johannesburg, until December 7.