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.

Sunrise and war with a Ndebele sheen

PhumaLanga
WAR dance in plastic tubing: doing it for Mamela. Photography by Christo Doherty.

IN THE EARLY 1990s, if you wanted to bring South African flavour to the table, particularly if you knew nothing at all about this country, you were safe with a generic bit of Ndebele-ness. The symmetry, the easy geometry and the clean colours based on that community’s traditional wall painting and beadwork were disseminated willy-nilly across the marketing landscape from the time that BMW made Esther Mahlangu a celebrity. Ndebele dolls proliferated everywhere; they were bastardised in ways that were so appalling they were fascinating. But now, under Mamela Nyamza’s watch, the material is taken and wrenched and stretched into a new and utterly mesmerising direction. As are the dancers. And the effect? Ndebele clichés will never be the same again.

Comprising a dizzy mix of plastic, including corrugated swimming pool pipes, plastic armbands and the like, the adornments of the six dancers in Phuma-Langa echoes with a Ndebele doll aesthetic as you watch the performers move with exaggerated stiltedness. Add to the mix blindness and chalk, plastic rifles and the notorious Bok van Blerk De La Rey song which sidled with a military and racist veneer into South African culture ten years ago until the mantle of aggressive Afrikanerdom, and you have the kind of discomforting concatenation of values for which Nyamza is so respected.

It’s an immensely uncomfortable work to watch, as it must be. In focusing on the province’s bloody history, Nyamza draws on the complexities of expression. And on the utter arrogance of crudely taking someone’s name in your mouth and mauling it, without taking the time to discover how it should be said. It’s not a new idea here; it has been tossed with aggression at South African dance audiences by the ilk of choreographer/performer Hlengiwe Lushaba, some years ago. In this work, Nyamza’s dancers contort over their own names in a way that is almost out of control, blending Butoh facial ethos with an almost physical humour. But it won’t make you laugh.

Control is the work’s essential ingredient: While some challenges presented resemble a kind of extreme team-building exercise, where the contestants have to push their breathing, balancing and fumbling skills to the max, peacefulness pervades almost contradictorily. In this rigorous, punishing work which borders on the nonsensical, Francesca Matthys, Lorin Sookool and Nomfundo Hlongwa each embrace the discomfort of her costume, the difficulty of the choreography and the challenges of singing and blowing pipes with a statuesque stoicism that makes you weep.

This is an astonishingly fine work which brings together disparate values, touching on everything from the province’s name, to the traditional African musical instruments played in the region, with a guttural and sophisticated sense of authority. It looks playful and easy, but isn’t. It touches the fabric of the culture in Mpumalanga with an urgent intimacy that will not allow your focus to abate or disperse. And in the 19-floor-descent of the building’s elevator, as you try and puzzle out that all that you saw in this piece, so do you realise it reaches deep into that stuff of culture that makes you, you.

The venue offers underground parking in the garage on Jorissen Street directly beneath University Corner; don’t forget to remind the guard who lets you in that you will need to be let out as well.

  • Phuma-Langa is choreographed by Mamela Nyamza as a part of her residency at Ebhudlweni Arts Centre, Emakhazeni, Mpumalanga under the aegis of the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collective. It features design input by Sasha Ehlers (costume and set) and Thabo Pule (lighting). It is performed by Nicholas Aphane, Nomfundo Hlongwa, Francesca Matthys, Thulani Lathish Mgidi, Shawn Mothupi and Lorin Sookool until September 16 at Emakhaya Theatre, 19th Floor, University Corner Building, Braamfontein. Contact Neli on info@forgottenangle.co.za for reservations.

A dance for the tree gods

Nothingbutsilence
MYSELF my forest: Nicholas Aphane in footage from With Nothing But Silence. Photograph courtesy Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative.

IN 2005, PJ Sabbagha put his choreographic name behind a most exceptional project. Still Here was earth shattering in its delicate sense of raw beauty and was important for that reason. But as an advocacy piece engaging with HIV/Aids, it was important for other reasons too. Over the years, Sabbagha and his company the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative have unrelentingly challenged boundaries in terms of issues and aesthetics, possibilities and the substance of dance. This work, With Nothing But Silence They Turned Their Bodies To Face the Noise is no different: structured with the complexity of videoed work, shadow and articulation through costume and context, weeping and filmed trees, it confronts the sticky and grotesque mess that our planet is in. It is an extraordinary piece of performance, for our time.

Melding together dance with hand drawn dance costumes, Greek extrapolations with a soundscape that touches water and wind, landscapes and trees, it takes place in a set that is transfixing in its detail, astonishing in the sum of its parts, and the sense of authority commanded by Mazarakis. It is here that a hat of flowers takes on virtual sinister attributes, that bodies move like mercury, curving against one another, casting the light in a way that gives voice to shadows that dominate and liaise with the visual clout of the piece.

Like Still Here, it’s a complex, almost abstract work with forays in a range of directions, and during its 60 minute duration, you get the urge to shout “Stop! I didn’t see exactly what that was! Do it again!” Many things happen at once in this work which takes you from the magnificent bluegum trees of Mpumalanga to the here and now on stage. You see dancers emerging from piles of leaves and sheets of crumpled paper, engaging the world with its brokenness. The sound track is bumpy with pimples in the technology and the give and take of movement coheres uncomfortably with that of the sound, forcing the dancers over terrain which is as tough and unsettled as the world they’re depicting. The dance work is twisty and inchoate and offers a unique language of movement, which distinguishes it and grabs you by the eye, again and again.

And all too soon, suddenly it is over, leaving you with a sense of loss: the work’s structure is repetitive and patterned, rather than chronological. You’re sucked into its dynamics and find yourself mesmerised by bodies contorting themselves into torn and emotive positions, by dancers who shout, shouters who dancer, and a collaborative mix which leaves your heart uneasy and your mind racing. More’s the pity that the work only had a single performance in this year’s Wits 969 Festival.

  • With Nothing But Silence They Turned Their Bodies To Face the Noise is directed by Athena Mazarakis and choreographed by Athena Mazarakis and PJ Sabbagha in collaboration with the cast. It features creative input from Nicholas Aphane (Music/Sound score/Composition and performance); Sasha Ehlers (production and costume design); Thabo Pule (lighting) and Jessica Denyschen (videography) and was performed by Nicholas Aphane, Nomfundo Hlongwa, Francesca Matthys, Athena Mazarakis, Shawn Mothupi, PJ Sabbagha, Oupa Sibeko and Lorin Sookool on July 15, in the Main Wits Theatre as part of the Wits 969 Festival, Wits University. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

Welcome to hell

BeginningEnding
COME FLY WITH ME: Hlengiwe Lushaba takes the floor in this thoughtful essay on urban homelessness. Photograph by Neo Ntsoma.

It was Mary I of Scotland who first stated “in my end is my beginning”, a comment uttered on her imminent death, and her quest for immortality. It’s a strange and yet completely fitting starting point for this great monster of a dancework, choreographed by Sunnyboy Motau, which meshes values as it draws on clear influences and sidles up to a reflection of the bitter cruelty that urban society brings the homeless. And as you drive home from the experience, every glimpse you get of a vagrant on the street pushing his monumental load of rubbish, or settling in for the night with the cold comfort of the pavement at his cheek and the hostile context of a sleeping city at his back, will ring with echoes of the work.

Blending stories with stories, movements with movements, people with one another, In my end is my beginning, evokes complex pieces such as Argentinean choreographer Constanza Macras’s magnificent Hell on Earth, which was performed in Johannesburg in 2009, or the interstices of paintings like Hieronymus Bosch’s scenes of hell in his Garden of Earthly Delights of 1480, in which it balances interruption with equilibrium and is rendered with violence and gentleness, deep sadness and immense joy, because of all the things that are going on at the same time.

Curiously, it is backgrounded with a busy urban soundscape, but also live guitar music, composed and played by Matthew MacFarlane, which lends it a gentleness that breaks very valuable ground of its own and forces the gesture and the experience into a new and as yet unexplored sense of possibility in this dance environment.

While it rests, narratively, on the bleeding bloody miasma of uncertainty that a homeless person has to face in the absence of the safety net of family, society or even police on a day to day basis, the work features choreography that will make you gasp and a veritable catastrophe of gestures that intermingle seamlessly.

Your eye is torn hither and yon as you focus on this one-legged beggar with a duck that dances, that woman who carries a boulder of plastic on her head, as she sweeps away books with her broom; that woman who, dressed in a celebratory array of plastic bags sits monumentally on an improvised throne with bubbles ejected all around her; the guy who solemnly sits at a swing, using the seat as a desk-like surface. Ultimately the stories amalgamate into a texture rather than a metanarrative and you find yourself floating on the sense of mad freefall conveyed by the context.

The stage set is dark. It’s complex, with projections of graffiti and urban wildness cast across the rude space of the Laager Theatre, with its quasi-industrial raw concrete architecture, the wire mesh fencing and the fire escape ladder central to the space all flowing in tune with the work’s dynamic. You expect to smell the odour of dank dampness and dried urine: it feels as though you, too are part of this basement-like space where companionship is sought, love found and unfound, where death is ever present and despair the backdrop to the insanity that shows its face.

With several nods in the direction of Robyn Orlin, the work does stands on its own and reflects the work of some potent young performers, as well as the well established performance methodology of the utterly magnificent Hlengiwe Lushaba, whose singing voice and witty, sometimes terrifying, but overwhelmingly dignified stage presence, is arguably the work’s binding ingredient. She speaks to God through a baking powder tin as she sings with such abandon that the real God must hear her.

Reaching closure in a most glorious yet haunting gesture of hope that is fragile and bold simultaneously, In my end sees Motau drawing from the litany of teachers he has grown under, but demonstrating he has a very clear and bold choreographic voice of his own.

  • In my end is my beginning is choreographed by Sunnyboy Motau mentored by Mark Hawkins featuring design by Wilhelm Disbergen (set and lighting) and Shadrack Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes). It is performed by Jaques de Silva, Thabo Kobeli, Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, Tshepi Mashego, Given Phumlani Mkhize, Shawn Mothupi, Sonia Thandazile Radebe and Nosiphiwo Samente, with Matthew MacFarlane on guitar. It performs at the Laager Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until February 28. Call 011 832-1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za.