We, the fallen giants

Noah

ONLY connect. A scene from PJ Sabbagha’s Noah. Photograph by John Hogg.

SOMETIMES A WORK reaches your sensibilities in an ineffable way, giving voice to your most secret and unuttered notions of the rawness of loss, love and letting go. Sometimes that work can touch all those nerves and succeed in being so supremely beautiful and wistfully unhinged that you throw all levels of intellectual unpicking to the wind and allow yourself, body and soul to be enfolded in what you are experiencing. The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative brought Noah to this year’s Dance Umbrella, a work which embodied all of these values.

It’s a piece premised on the biblical tale of Noah, the bloke instructed by God – in the face of derision from his peers – to build an ark in anticipation of a great flood that would drown all the bad people in the world. The ark was to be made of certain woods at certain dimensions, and it would contain two of each kind of species of animal. Benjamin Britten constructed his quirky opera Noye’s Fludde about it, in 1958 – as did countless other creative practitioners over the years. It’s a biblical tale which lends itself to popular memory and moralising.

Rather than take a conventional narrative flavour, however, this work looks at the tale from within the water. From within the souls of those left behind. The fallen giants. From the empathetic perspective of the birds at the end of a light, magicked into relevance with solar power, rather than an olive branch, the integration of dancers and swimmers, shadow bodies and real ones coalesce to create something that you feel you must whisper about when you engage with it. It’s a feast of dancing in the dark and videography that’s cropped to focus on what is essential. And yet, yet, the work is not precious in the stuffy, earnest sense of the term. It’s stream of consciousness at its most sophisticated. As you watch the bodies of the dancers entwine and intertwine, become ambiguous and lose their sense of self, and their sense of scale, so do you feel enriched at having encountered the meditative magic of this experience.

Unequivocally, Noah, alongside this year’s works by Steven Cohen and Robyn Orlin, captured the potency of what Dance Umbrella is, was and could always be. This triumvirate of important South African dance works which touch the soul of a developed aesthetic and a sophisticated understanding of how dance can stretch makes for a magnificent swan song to a treasured festival.

  • Noah is conceived by PJ Sabbagha and created by Sabbagha in collaboration with the cast: Nicholas Aphane, Athena Mazarakis, Shawn Mothupi. It features creative input from the cast (set and costumes), Cold Play/Nicholas Aphane (music), Thabo Pule (lighting and technical design), PJ Sabbagha (video filming) and Jessica Dennyschen. The video performance is by the cast and Collen Makua, Mpho Makuwa, PJ Sabbagha, Oupa Sibeko and Lucia Walker. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performed on March 16 and 17 at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.
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Nightmare in the Amphitheatre

Chauke

RIDING on the back of a blinded man. Lionel Ackerman and Thulani Chauke in Nothing Makes Sense. Photograph by John Hogg.

LET US BOMBARD our audience with flashing lights, a small dark venue simmering with the residue of stage smoke as they come in, and bits and bobs of sampled sound, thrown at them with such aggression that the context is illegible and the synapses of their brains forget how to behave. After that, we can show them how wonderfully we dance. This seems to be the thinking in Thulani Chauke’s contemplation on violence, entitled Nothing Makes Sense.

Featuring Chauke opposite Lionel Ackerman, a dancer with one leg, it’s actually a fine work premised on ideas around brokenness in society. Chauke dances the work either incapacitated in a white bag, or with a black box on his head, which renders him sightless, and the give and take, throw and catch between the two is wonderful to watch.

However, it’s an interesting lesson about the fourth wall and audience participation: does the work need to spill out emotionally into the audience’s lives in such a way that they are traumatised by the experience? Maybe. We saw this in Sello Pesa’s work, in this festival, as well as Robyn Orlin’s. In Pesa’s piece, the audience was confused as to where the lines were drawn. In Orlin’s, members of the audience were called upon to perform in an impromptu and potentially humiliating context. But in Chauke’s what we get is an infringement of audience sanctity. No one rushes into your space, and physically rattles your cage, but the technology blasts your head off.

And while Chauke’s point about violence and physical ability is absolutely clear and well-defined, blinding your audience with induced migraines is not really the most productive way of letting them engage in the magnificence of your dance. It’s a pity. Chauke and Ackerman are tough and careful dancers, and their movement is strong and articulate, but the work doesn’t sing to the audience.

  • Nothing Makes Sense is choreographed by Thulani Chauke. It features creative input by Khaya (costumes), Thulani Chauke (music) and Thabo Pule and Thulani Chauke (lighting and set), and it is performed by Lionel Ackerman and Thulani Chauke. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performed on March 17 and 18 at the Wits Amphitheatre in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

The magnificence of Albert

Albert

MY orange, my orgasm: Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza indulges with abandon in oranges for Africa. Photograph by John Hogg.

AS THE SONOROUS chords of Mozart’s Requiem sweep you completely off your feet, expect to have all your senses, including that of expectation, utterly seduced, mashed and repurposed. Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza plus Robyn Orlin and Marianne Fassler have created a brand new piece called And so you see … our honourable blue sky and ever enduring sun … can only be consumed slice by slice … and it debuts in Johannesburg this week. There’s one opportunity for you to experience it for yourself. Because experience it, you must: who knows when this combination of talents might appear on Johannesburg’s stages again.

A known collaborator with Orlin in the international arena for several years now, Khoza who debuts here on Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella stages, is an inyanga. He’s also a very extraordinary performer who makes mincemeat of audience expectations, playing with precious values and the ineffable monster of political correctness with gay abandon. He is not afraid to comment on his own identity, as he orgasmically plunges into oranges in a way that will grab you off guard. The only protagonist in this larger-than-life piece, Khoza fills the stage with his voice and his laughter, with an edge of fear and a cloak that evokes a peacock’s tail feathers in full abundance; he sits like royalty and takes on Christ-like connotations, he dances with Putin and warbles like a cockatoo. He has unquestionable nobility and exudes an atavism from behind a cellophane mask, yet he is as vulnerable as you or I.

Over the years, Robyn Orlin has selected performers with mad little edges with whom she has collaborated. Think Ann Masina and Toni Morkel, Gerard Bester and Nelisiwe Xaba, to name a few. Khoza joins these ranks and brings a level of performative fire to the work that will keep you sitting on the edge of your seat because right up until the last nuance, you don’t know what to expect. Unlike any of Orlin’s pieces so far, And so you see … takes a completely different tilt into the audience. Does it break Orlin’s own rules? That’s difficult to say. But what is clear, is it shifts the parameters of expectation even wider, and as you sit there, you weep with joy at the spectacle, at its anarchy and at the fact that anything goes.

And so you see … is about a performer’s body which is glorious and magnificent in its celebration of itself, man breasts and all, as it’s about the true heart of Africans – we dance with our weapons, thus putting them to much better use than killing. The work enfolds political narrative and the demon of homophobia. There’s a moment of forced audience participation and a kiss blown to the Cullinan diamond in Queen Elizabeth’s crown. Citing everything from Sara Baartman to how Africans thank, it’s a rollicking and sophisticated piece of work that makes you remember why Dance Umbrella always had a heart of fire.

  • And so you see … our honourable blue sky and ever enduring sun … can only be consumed slice by slice … is choreographed by Robyn Orlin with Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza and Léopard Frock. It features design by Marianne Fassler and Leopard Frock (costumes), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Nono Nkoane and Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoze (music), Laïs Foulc (lighting) and Thabo Pule (camera work). It is performed by Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performs again on Wednesday March 14 at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

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.

The ineffable, uncomfortable beauty of Robyn

butterflies

COCKING a snook: Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe (on screen) and Eric Languet (in the tutu) in Robyn Orlin’s “in a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling …” Photograph by Thomas Lachambre.

ONE THING YOU have to disabuse yourself of when you enter the audience of a Robyn Orlin work is that you’re safe, there in the dark, as you take your seat. That no one will interfere with you or embarrass you. And it’s such a powerful dynamic that it sets the world on fire and fills the Market Theatre to the rafters. Whether it fits into the safety precautions of a theatre filled with members of the public, is another whole question.

In truth, this shaky perception of your own safety, be it emotional or physical safety, is something you should hold onto in entering the space of any live performance. What they’re doing for you is about challenging many things, including your right to be there – and to be comfortable there, while a performer is baring their soul, their guts and their body to you. Sometimes in that order. Traditionally however, this is not the case. For the price of a ticket, you get to sit anonymously in a darkened room and see someone do something that might be extraordinary and revealing and painful. Whichever side of the audience spectrum you sit on, Orlin’s work casts shivers in your direction.

And what a privilege it is to see performers of the calibre of Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet in this construction of two propositions, in a world full of butterflies it takes balls to be a caterpillar and … some thoughts on falling … , a work which is as much about caterpillars and falling as it is about the narrative of dance, and the way in which Orlin has the bravery to tear strips off traditional practice. And get away with it.

The work opens in a stage full of audience members and an auditorium covered in small brightly coloured pop-up tents. And as it unfolds to important songs such as Strange Fruit, sung by Nina Simone, you realise the poetry between a chrysalis and a pop up tent. Tambwe stretches, she sings, she prates, she embraces the stages with complete authority, engaging with her unbelievable costume in a way that dazzles. You don’t, however, know what to expect, and you laugh and you shiver at the things she does, with her dress, the webcam, the audience on stage, the tents, the reality of being a caterpillar, or ultimately a butterfly, and what it all means in the bigger picture.

She’s shooed away unceremoniously by Languet, in a trench coat. In a work that confronts balletic tradition as it comes face to face with the expectations of gender in dance and the constant fear of falling. Is he Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who flew to the sun with wings of wax and was melted and cast into the sea? Is he everyman who boasts hubris and suffers the indignity of a fall? There’s a conflation of values which entraps your thinking. He moves his ageing body like a sylph, a naiad, and you forget that he is human. You sit there in a spiral of thoughts, of realities, feeling afraid that he might fall on top of you as he has done to other audience members. You’re mesmerised by the magnetic focus of the webcam as you stare into the enlarged face of Tambwe.

There’s an ineffable, unspeakable and above all uncomfortable beauty that is breached in the concatenation in both their performance and with their different details that force you out of conventional thinking. The work feels too long and yet too short. Your head spins with the issues being tossed in your direction and you feel you can’t take any more, you can’t breathe… but alas, when it is over, there is a part of your heart that remains aflutter, there’s a part of your subconscious which murmurs, ‘did I really see that?’

But big kudos are due to the theatre itself and the organisations who made it possible for this work to travel: we don’t often get to see contemporary dance of this calibre in South Africa.

  • In a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling … is created by Robyn Orlin. Featuring design by Laïs Foulc (lighting), Birgit Neppl (costumes) sound (Cobi von Tonder) and Thabo Pule (technical direction), it was performed by Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet on December 6 and 7 at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown.

Lest we forget

ubu

OH, Ma, have you forsaken me? Pa Ubu (Dawid Minnaar) faces some awful truths, cast by Ma Ubu (Busi Zokufa) onscreen. Photograph by Val Adamson.

WHEN 20 YEARS have elapsed after your first experience in the presence of true greatness, you might have forgotten the unequivocal brilliance that a work such as Ubu and the Truth Commission has brought to South African theatre. And indeed, more than 20 years on, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brought exposure of the horrendous atrocities that were part of the secret political landscape and a semblance of closure to apartheid, might also have slipped into the nebulousness of memory. The value of the current staging of this work can not be understated.

Ubu Roi was an anarchic character penned in the late 19th century by French playwright Alfred Jarry. When it saw light of day onstage in Paris in 1896, it was nothing short of revolutionary. The character’s opening word was famously “Merde!” (shit) to the horror of Parisian audiences. The inflammatory nature of the work is celebrated as having lit the fuse for the anti-establishment movement Dada.

What William Kentridge, in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company and Jane Taylor, evolved in Ubu and the Truth Commission is a rich mêlée of every bit of sinister absurdity that Jarry’s Ubu represents, conjoined horrifyingly with apartheid’s values. And there opens a splendid miasma of everything from horror to hilarity and back in a production that will haunt you forever.

Busi Zokufa and Dawid Minnaar reprise their original roles of Ma and Pa Ubu respectively. He’s out there perpetrating brutality on black people. She thinks he’s cheating on her with other women. But the truth is revealed through the lies that he’s literally fed to the couple’s pet crocodile, Niles. In an impossibly fine mix of political association, fact, diatribe and fantasy, the truth and lies and terrors in the night which saw people being electrocuted and tortured, burnt to ashes and dismembered, in the name of the ‘Swart Gevaar’ are brought to the fore.

In the 1990s, when this work was emerging, Kentridge was working with hand-made film, and the rough edges we see in this work resonate impeccably with the narrative as it unfolds. Zokufa and Minnaar, supported by puppeteers Gabriel Marchand, Mongi Mthombeni and Mandiseli Maseti, are in impeccable form: the sense of possibility evoked by a shower that becomes the translator’s booth for the TRC, a suitcase that is the body of a three-headed dog, the vulture on stage, a cat that turns into a camera tripod and microphones that wriggle away from lies, not to forget the interplay of shadow, technology and performers is astonishing yet profound, witty and terrifying all at once.

Your head is consumed by the parallel language of apartheid and its transgressors, by the smooth and astonishing relationship between human being and wooden puppet, by the interfacing of translations central to the texture of the TRC and by the way in which this work, by all accounts, a terrible tale about a man whose soul is rotten by power, remains deeply entertaining and a resounding achievement. This is truly one of contemporary South African theatre’s most important classics, and the privilege of seeing it again in Johannesburg cannot be underplayed.

  • Ubu and the Truth Commission is conceived and directed by William Kentridge and Janni Younge, and written by Jane Taylor. It features design by Adrian Kohler (puppets), Wesley France (lighting), Warrick Sony and Brendan Jury (Music) and Robyn Orlin (choreography). It is performed by Gabriel Marchand, Mandiseli Maseti, Mongi Mthombeni, Dawid Minnaar and Busisiwe Busi Zokufa, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until September 11. Call 011 832 1641 or visit co.za

Weighing, wanting and kneading

Oupa Sibeko

REACHING for the light: Oupa Sibeko in Black Dog, performing in Namibia. Photograph by Ben Skinner.

A YOUNG SOUTH African man will reveal his soul at the National Gallery of Namibia, on August 5. He will be armed with a heavy industrial chain, a broken telephone, an old-fashioned scale, and woman’s stocking, amongst other things. He will also be armed with the fire of self-belief. Meet 23-year-old Oupa Sibeko who spoke to My View just before flying to Namibia.

“The only library I need for my work comes from my roots,” he says. Sibeko was orphaned as a baby. “I come from a lack of family. I have always yearned to have a family. But then I had to learn to appreciate the fact that the absence of family can actually make me strong. Rather than to derail me, it can help to make me a better person in life,” he speaks strongly of the need to not be a victim.

Sibeko was raised by his grandmother, on a farm west of Johannesburg. She was a hardworking and strong woman and she died when Sibeko was just eight. “Since then I was raised by my uncle, who is there when he’s drunk. But when he’s sober, we cannot find a point of communication.”

It was the fire in the sensibilities of that eight-year-old, that held tight to not only his dreams but also the money he inherited from his grandmother, and that brought him to university, years later. That eight-year-old was also a repository for images. He speaks of his gran doing laundry, kneading bread and of the day she died. He speaks of an ability to draw from these memories to create work.

Instinctively he found comfort in performing. The enactment of a nightmare he’d experienced, in a first year class by Joni Barnard made him realise he was on the right track. “I found myself just moving. Was I dancing? Was I walking? I don’t know. But I found myself just doing it. I didn’t have to explain it to myself or to anyone else. It felt right,” he adds that Wits gave him the safe space he needed to play.

After graduating in 2015, Sibeko won a residency in Iceland. Not only had he never flown in an aeroplane, he’d also never slept in a double bed before, but rather than project parochial naiveté, he quickly learnt to roll with the punches. Even when curious Icelandic teenagers flocked to touch him, because of the novelty of black skin for them, he reeled with trauma, but braved it.

“I wanted to be something better in life. Education was so important to me. I came with nothing. I only had my gran’s savings. I didn’t even know its worth. As soon as I had an opportunity to apply to Wits, I did. I used all of that money to register for the degree. For me this money was like her ashes. Was I going to put them in a river and let them go? Was I going to go to a hill and just throw it in the air? Or was I going to make something of my life. Wits was where I put it.”

At university, Sibeko rapidly learnt to make sacrifices of his creature comforts and he often slept all night on campus, like a stowaway. His commute between university and home was almost two hours, involving – often not reliable – public transport. “What was important was this degree. I needed this cultural knowledge. That was all.” He describes the multitude of accents he encountered at Wits and the bamboozling array of values university life tossed his way.

Unequivocally, he describes his lecturers, Gerard Bester and Toni Morkel as the people who touched his sensibilities the deepest, who pushed him further than he thought he could go. “These are the big guns,” he glories in Bester and Morkel’s association with choreographer Robyn Orlin and their work with the Hillbrow theatre. “I also look at Steven Cohen for his bravery in taking chances that are designed to spark controversy. And at how performance artist Albert Khoza, presents himself. It is fantastic.”

The work he performs in Namibia is called Black Dog. “I try to understand my masculinity in this work. It is not about an initiation where a young man is sent to a mountain to be circumcised. It is about self-initiation: I had to clean myself up, sort myself out and decide what kind of a man I would be.

“When I was a child, there were three characters in my life besides me: my gran, my uncle and a black dog. This dog wasn’t a pet: like the rest of us, it had to forage and hunt for itself. And this work is a reflection on myself as a black dog of sorts.

“How should I perceive men? Not all men are drunk and neglectful like my uncle. And women? I only knew my gran until I was eight. I do not know how to respond to her memory as an adult.

“In the work, I play with tangible things.  I weigh myself on a scale … but it is doing more than just weighing my body mass, it is weighing my life, it is weighing where I come from, it is weighing how far I can go. For me, with all these pokes and needles in life, the bottles which are broken which I had to go through, I had to put myself through this journey on my own.

“Part of me is not scared to perform this work in a context which may be sensitive. I choose to be naked. The vulnerability is important.  I know it is a conservative audience, but it is important that they are challenged to address what I am doing.” The exhibition in which Sibeko is taking part is called Conversations. “I’m not having a conversation with anyone. I am the subject and the object. I’m having a conversation with myself, but provoking conversation, among others. This is how it goes forward,” he adds.