We, the fallen giants

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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.

Elu’s yizkor

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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.

Kaddish for Elu

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HORROR of loss: Steven Cohen in his work ‘fat’. Photograph courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

SOMETIMES THE RAW howl of loss is the only thing possible. Sometimes it is more potent than any words which are in danger of teetering anywhere near the threat of idle platitude. Sometimes the raw gesture, the unthinkable act of personal anger and sadness in the wake of loss is more appropriate than the mannered one that is societally acceptable. If you have watched a loved one degenerate into base matter through illness, before they vanish from your life, part of Steven Cohen’s current exhibition will hit you in the solar plexus and it won’t let go until you have howled that memory back into subservience. put your heart under your feet … and walk! is a potent and utterly beautiful tribute to Elu, Cohen’s life partner who passed away suddenly in July of 2016. It resonates unapologetically with deeply personal references and a brutality of fresh and alarming aesthetics which Cohen and Elu developed over the last 20 years.

In many ways, this exhibition seems deceptively modest in size. It comprises three videos and a room full of ballet shoes. And as such, it is an informal taxonomy of Cohen and Elu’s rich collaborative career. As you look at each different installation of used and bruised, torn and smashed pink pointe shoes on their little podium, you recognise snippets and talismans drawing from the rich and taboo ethos of South African performance history – of which Cohen and Elu were the centrifugal force from the late 1990s – effectively pulling and pushing at the sense of possibility in a medium that had no history yet, in this country.

There are monkey skulls in ballet shoes, hunched like demons; there’s a mummified cat strapped to a shoe. Hitler puppets and anti-semitic propaganda vie with ornamental roosters and Victorian purses. There’s an anal probe and a startling array of sex toys and domestic tools, not to forget an elephant’s tail, a pair of purses made of real toads and a pair of phylacteries strapped over a rolled up Torah Scroll.

There’s a piece of Vallauris pottery in direct and shattering reference to Cohen’s unforgettable work Golgotha (2009), which too, dealt with loss – that of his brother. And as you ponder each tableau, each combination of values with the ballet shoe pinned or sewn, nailed or enfolded around the historical reference, you see in your mind’s eye, snippets of a career that was almost thwarted by a frightened public, but a career that developed nevertheless.

Cohen speaks and writes of the Elunessless of his life, since the passing of Elu. But when you enter this space, there is something so richly personal, so irrevocably about the dancer himself, that it feels that Elu is present. Immortalised. Dancing with his characteristic sense of anguish and self-belief, in these shoes, or those. In pain and in joy.

The eponymous phrase that serves as the title of this exhibition was uttered to Cohen after Elu’s passing. It was uttered by Nomsa Dhlamini, the woman who raised Cohen and became a significant collaborator in his later works.

Cohen explains in the gallery’s flyer when he told Nomsa – who was then 96 – that Elu had died: “I asked her how I could continue life alone, she said ‘put your heart under your feet … and walk!’” The first video work that you encounter in this exhibition is one of Cohen having the soles of his feet tattooed with this phrase. The rest comprises a real manifestation of how he is making this come true.

And effectively, that’s where the aesthetic, moral and emotional pinnacle of this exhibition lies. The video works which are screened in the second half of the gallery space. Named simply fat and blood, these two works have a duration of just over 6 minutes each and yet, as you sit there in the darkened space and the abjection of these images infiltrates your head and your heart and your ability to breathe fluently and your mind’s sense of smell, they will touch you in a place that you might not have known you had, until this experience. And when you emerge from having watched them, you will be stilled. And silenced. And it will feel like hours, aeons, have passed.

In these works, Cohen brings his grief to a South African abattoir, and dressed in a white tutu, with his characteristic head of makeup and butterfly wings, he is filmed dancing his heart out, in wrenching tribute to the loss of life. It’s a tribute to the stuff and muck that constitutes what a living being is and a paean to all that in the world that must be. It’s like watching a crime, a snuff movie, a manifestation of great religious sacrifice all rolled together. It’s the kind of work that is art but transcends art and pushes it back into the realm of spiritual gesture.

It isn’t easy to see. It’s not meant to be. But it is devastatingly potent and will not let you go flippantly. Above all in this quintessential gesture of tribute and mourning, of horror and celebration, Cohen’s aesthetic remains intact and doesn’t begin to touch the slippery mess of sensationalism that pervades the grimy commercialism of our world. Indeed, you might be told to see it, for sensationalist reasons. But if you’ve looked properly, when you have emerged, you will be a different person. As you might have been when you visited Deborah Bell’s recent exhibition, or Minnette Vári’s.

  • put your heart under your feet … and walk! by Steven Cohen is at Stevenson Johannesburg in Braamfontein until November 17. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.

My body, my heroism

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THE reeds and I. Oupa Sibeko’s iQhawe. Photograph courtesy MAP Contemporary Gallery.

THERE’S A DENSE stillness articulated in the tough and unselfconscious photographs of performer Oupa Sibeko in his solo exhibition iQhawe. But as you look, you realise there is considerably more to these heroic images, cast pristinely onto a white background, which situate the artist in traditional reeds or nakedly.

For one thing, it’s an exhibition which comprises not only posed photographs – the works have been choreographed, if you will, by Sibeko, and photographed by Ben Skinner – these confrontational images conflate identity and bring together  cultural secrets with taboos, reeds with heroism in a black body painted white, and not only are they enticing, but they are also frightening. But you can’t readily look away.

iQhawe speaks of the Japanese dance form known as Butoh, where an engagement with the dancer’s body in relation to the dancer’s soul and the context of the dance is palpably intense and thoughtful. The movement is agonisingly slow. It’s like a form of worship or meditation. This is dance that reaches beyond the confines of convention or entertainment. It is dance which reaches back into the atavistic annuls of what dance was about a thousand years ago or more. It was about using the body to converse with the gods; being cognisant of one’s vulnerability, and prowess, of one’s beauty and terror.

Sibeko is an artist who continues to demonstrate a searing lack of fear in pushing the limits and questioning them guilelessly. Staging his performed work as a photographic moment is, of course, a marketing gesture, but it is more than that, too. Like Steven Cohen before him, among others, Sibeko, in capturing this powdery ether of his personal energy and culture, enables you to hold on to it all with the kind of intensity you lose in the transience of watching dance happen.

But also in Sibeko’s works, similar in a sense to that of the work of Ayana V Jackson, there’s a frank and almost deadpan engagement with the brutal structures of historical colonialist photography. Here’s a young man, imbued in his sense of self, in his Zulu culture, in his reeds and his body. He isn’t a specimen for scientific purposes. His photographs exist not for the need to be consumed in a racist rhetoric. He is what he is. A hero. A godhead. An angel. An emissary of his own values. Unapologetically.

  •  Reeds of iQhawe by Oupa Sibeko, is at MAP Contemporary Gallery in Melville until February 18. 011 726 3638 or visit www.mapcontemporary.co.za

Take me through the streets of Bertrams

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ANYTHING you can dream of: Jean (Toni Morkel) and residents of the Gerald Fitzpatrick Nursing Home in Bertrams. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

“I BOUGHT A shirt like this for my son-in-law for seven ront,” she says in a stoutly white South African accent, as she presents a second-hand shirt on a wire hanger, in the shop of Gerald Fitzpatrick House and Nursing Home. The shirt contains a sign that mysteriously says “Listen to me”, and as you put the earphones of the iPod secreted in its pocket to your ears, a story emerges: a story of beaches and sand. Of time gone past and days of wine and happiness. It’s like looking at old black and white holiday snaps. You can almost taste the salt-laden wind with the memories, some in English, others in Afrikaans, French or Portuguese. She is Jean (Toni Morkel), the introductory character in Izithombe 2094, a site-specific play by Alex Halligey which embraces the heart of Johannesburg’s suburb of Bertrams, from the inside.

It’s a theatre experience not for the faint of heart or uncomfortably shod. Wear a hat, carry an umbrella and join in at your own risk and with an open head and heart. Pay what you can. Halligey presents the idea of theatre along the streets of Bertrams with a candidness that will take you by surprise, whether you know the terrain or not. As the work unfolds, dotted as it is with a myriad of characters, anecdotes and pivotal moments – which comprise both staged and impromptu situations, you find yourself pondering and wondering how much of this is actually part of the experience, and how much is about the place itself.

Premised on the idea of the power of the director to take and shift and mould her audience in a particular direction, revealing certain things to them through the vehicle of seasoned performers, there’s a level of trickery in this work which will keep you on your toes. The beautiful graffiti, the magnificent people with stories to tell – tales of poverty and hope, tales of Ethiopian bread and refugees from the Congo, tales of special relationships and the sharing of a last cigarette, tales of people drowning in storm drains, and above all tales of neighbourhood. Not every story in Izithombe is told in words and has logical sequences. Not every bit of ‘treasure’ you might find in the work’s 90 minute duration is something you can see and hold in your hand – some of it you take away with you in your heart.

Opening up the vista of this generally poor and down-at-heel suburb of Johannesburg, close to the city centre, Halligey blurs the boundaries of theatre, audience and context with a frisson of the unexpected and sense of total delight. Here’s a man – Ronnie Maluleke – reciting poems to God on the street corner. There’s a woman – Kibibibisch – a political orator standing outside the refugees’ shelter, called Bienvenu. There’s the most elegant woman in Bertrams, Sylvie (Lindiwe Matshikiza). Here’s a group of school children, dancing and singing to one another in a rotational game which reaches across the street outside their school. Suddenly the world turns in upon itself and you feel that you are a part of this community and this play in a way that is indefinable.

And yes, throughout the 90 minute walk through the suburb, past the informal shops with their wares laid out on the pavements, and the hole-in-the-wall tuck shops and braai shops, the farm made of a bowling green, past the former house of Daisy de Melke, the last woman to have been hanged to death in South Africa, you don’t really lose sight of the fact that you are in a creative work. But unlike works of this nature, such as Brett Bailey’s Blood Diamonds of 2009, which saw a tightly controlled environment, and led audience members by the trembling hand of a black child through the cemetery at night, Izithombe 2094 is more nuanced, more surprising, and in that regard, more in touch with the texture and nub of Bertrams.

We don’t, in South Africa, have a strong tradition of site-specificity in our theatre. It slips into the terrain of the radical, the experimental. You may think of the term and cast your mind in the direction of impromptu performers such as Steven Cohen, who in the past became renowned for “upstaging” or “downstaging” (depending on your own values) events like the Durban July or a bridal show in Killarney with his distinctive costume and presence.

With a nod to all of these traditions, including the choreography of Robyn Orlin, in a particularly memorable “beach” scene in the farm, cast against the background of an astonishingly vivid soundscape, Izithombe shows its mettle and its presence, setting the stage – and the streets – for new possibilities.

  • Izithombe 2094 is researched, conceived and directed by Alex Halligey, assisted by Baeletsi Tsatsi. It features performances by Lindiwe Matshikiza and Toni Morkel and support from Tiffani Cornwall, Fiona Gordon, Michael Inglis, Kibibibisch and Ronnie Maluleke. It performs from Twilsharp Studios, 40/42 Gordon Road on September 3-7. Visit http://bertramsstoriespro.wixsite.com/2094

Weighing, wanting and kneading

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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.

Broken Bird, Fly Free

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OUTSIDERNESS personified: Elu in the Goatfoot God — Pan. “I’m on the outside. An outcast in the dance community. They’ll never accept me. I don’t know why,” Elu told dance critic Adrienne Sichel in the 1990s.

A DANCER WHO was capable of provoking guttural fear in his audience and critics because of the unstinting quantity and quality of beauty, bravery and intensity he was able to give his performances, South African choreographer and performance artist Elu, passed away suddenly after a six-week illness, on July 17. A dancer not afraid to shatter all traditions relating to dance in the name of the fierceness and the magic that he was creating, Elu was a quietly spoken person, with strong opinions and passionate beliefs. He contributed significantly to the performance art discipline in South Africa and was the life partner and creative collaborator of Steven Cohen from 1997.

Born in Pretoria on June 17 1968, Elu was trained in contemporary dance and classical ballet at Pretoria Technikon. But it was from 1992 that he began developing his own approach to the medium of dance, engaging with the world from within a perspective enhanced by his unremitting readiness to push the boundaries of his body and his audiences.

Elu debuted professionally at Barclay Square in Pretoria in 1992 with a work called The People’s Lib and When to Pass the Ashtray and he created several other pieces over the next couple of years, for platforms such as the Dance Umbrella and the Arts Alive Festival. Elu met and began collaborating with Steven Cohen in 1997 in a turnkey work for both their careers, called The Art of Kissing, which was part of the Arts Alive Street Theatre festival, of that year, but was also staged as an impromptu performance outside the Supreme Court of Johannesburg, where the couple stood on a podium and kissed for several hours. Inside the court, anti-homosexual legislation was under review, at the time.

Describing himself as an “Afrikaans-speaking pagan working with an English-speaking Jew”, Elu – a name he adopted, which is an acronym for “Elephant Lion Unicorn”, playing into the therianthropic nature of the creature that he was most comfortable recognising himself as – was profoundly supportive of Cohen’s developing ethos. Between 1997 and 2002, Elu and Cohen together made deeply important works for the growing discipline of guerrilla performance art in South Africa. These significantly anarchic pieces dealt with the notion of impromptu appearances for audiences that were not sanctioned by the safe environment of a theatre or dance stage, and included Living Art, a suite of four seminal works, for which Cohen won the Vita Art Award of 1998.

There are unforgettably beautiful images captured by photographers such as the late John Hodgkiss, Caroline Suzman and John Hogg in works by Elu including Intersection, choreographed by Cohen, where Elu danced in a tutu with a gun strapped to his head in busy intersections of Johannesburg, to speak of the violence in our society. In a series of works entitled the Goatfoot God, Pan, Kudu, Tristesse and Broken Bird respectively, Elu developed a rich and meaningful iconography which was about the serenity of a mythical entity and the rottenness of a contemporary urban society corrupted from within. He was a dancer able to explore frenetic ferocity as he was able to express extreme vulnerability and beauty with his face and body.

His work of 2001, Dancing with Nothing But Heart broke new ground. It was premised as a comment on a lack of funding for the arts and was performed at that year’s Dance Umbrella. The work had no music and no costumes. Elu was naked and danced with an ox’s heart, bought from the inner city butchers for a few rand.

Cohen and Elu were head-hunted by Régine Chopinot of Ballet Atlantique in Paris and invited to spend a one-year research residency in La Rochelle in 2002. Elu was a central collaborator and co-choreographer with Cohen in I Wouldn’t Be Seen Dead in That which was developed in La Rochelle and travelled to South Africa to be the key note work of 2003’s Dance Umbrella. But it was also in that year, that Elu performed Pan 1 and Tristesse at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

Elu’s exceptional repertoire reflected upon him as an intensely beautiful and sophisticated performer engaging the realities of paganism and the challenges of a world fraught with confusion and evil in a way that was timeless and seductive. His contribution to the field of dance was never, during Elu’s lifetime, given the pride of place it truly warranted. Elu’s struggle for the last decade of his tragically short life was sadly not unique in the arts fraternity in South Africa. He died alone, away from the ability to make new work, excluded from the reach of critical acknowledgement, financial support or medical assistance. An outsider – as he described himself to art critic Adrienne Sichel in the 1990s – to the very bitter end.

Polished fireworks for ballerinos and plastic girls

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ME AND MY PLASTIC GIRL: Mamela Nyamza in The Last Attitude. Photograph: John Hogg

Silence is a complicated medium to use in contemporary dance. As is ballet. Particularly if it is being put under a rich loupe filtered with a deep understanding of gender binaries, 19th century European frills and trills and crazy little mannerisms that have become something looked up to with God-fearing respect by loyal audiences.

Veteran dancers who both started their careers in classical ballet, close to 20 years ago, Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza have pooled their considerable energies, talents and inner fires to create a fantastic piece of deeply polished work that unashamedly and relentlessly rips into the vulnerable underbelly of European culture and all the pretentious nuances it represents. They do so with the kind of sophistication, savvy and wisdom that doesn’t rubbish or disrespect the genre, but instead holds it – and our society – up to a telling and incisive mirror.

The Last Attitude teases out an understanding of the role of both genders in classical favourites like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote and La Bayadère, and in doing so, it makes biting fun of the insipid, almost ghoulish female ensemble, and the emotionally piffling but physically taxing role of the male leads, but there’s a twist in the tale that opens up questions about gender and to a lesser extent, race, most compellingly.

European classical ballet brings with it relentless rules and a sense of order which is respected by dancers across the board as the most rigorous and fundamental training. Many of them have been outspoken in describing it as the best formative structure a dancer can get. But it brings with something else, that is equally rigid: Gender binaries. Whether you are a boy or a girl, ballet has a very specific uniform and characterisation for you. If you’re neither all boy nor all girl, but have a talent and a yearning for the discipline, what do you do?

While The Last Attitude has the kind of levity and wisdom that keeps even the most restless of audience members focused, it never stoops into a sense of victimhood: Taking a reflection on the politeness of ballet and ripping it to haunting shreds, Nyamza and Xaba are effectively doing what France-based performance artist Steven Cohen did in 2000 – only they’re working from within the ballet conventions and not from a position of “undance”.

They’re working from within the safety of the formal stage and not constructing their piece as dance guerrillas, and yet, the fierceness and the antagonism toward a whole litany of tradition that they articulate with their bodies, their costumes, their plastic mannequins and their gestures is made of the same kind of dynamite as Cohen’s.

The Last Attitude is an important work, not only for Dance Umbrella, but for the genre of contemporary dance. Along the lines of what Dada Masilo is doing in her oeuvre with the questioning, twisting and stretching of great classics, this work opens doors, asks questions and throws out exclamations. And yes, it’s very technical in how it is rendered, but the mesmerising presence of both dancers is simultaneously so pointed and poised that you hesitate to breathe as it might break the work’s impeccable silences.

  • The Last Attitude is choreographed and performed by Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza. It features work by Boyzie Cekwana (dramaturge), Oliver Hauser (lighting design), Carlo Gibson (costumes) and music by Tchaikovsky and Minkus. It is also performed by Amy de Wet, Samkelisiwe Dlamini, Megan Gottscho, Nthabiseng Modau, Jade Morey, Chanelle Olivier, Nicole Oriana, Kemelo Sehlapelo and Celia van Tonders. It performs at the Dance Factory in Newtown, until February 28, as part of Dance Umbrella 2016. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za

Oh, Pretoria: you’re breaking my art

PAMoped

How does a municipal structure in place for decades, get broken with abandon? Is it a process? What breaks first that is deemed not important enough to fix? The abysmal current state of Pretoria Art Museum is a crying shame to its proud, polished history. It feels as though the best solution is to shut it down and give the vagrants who dry their smalls on the Bartholomeu Dias sculpture in the museum’s park, a roof over their heads.

You drive into PAM’s parking lot – the museum campus occupies a full block of central Pretoria, including lavishly sized grounds and a generously structured building. It’s a weekday at the end of the year. People are on leave from work. Children are not at school. The parking lot has two police vans parked at random in the shade. Their occupants sit in their vehicles, doors open and legs out. It’s lunchtime. They eye you quizzically over their greasy burgers: “What are you doing here?” they seem to ask. There are no other cars.

You ignore that. Mount the stairs to the 1970s-styled venue. And look to the right. The grass is bald; freshly washed T-shirts are drying on the bronze public sculptures.

The security guard sits in her belted bulging regulation trousers, fingers at her weave, phone at her ear. She clearly uses all her airtime and battery power in this job, daily. With her chin, she instructs you to sign the visitors’ book; she doesn’t deign to pause in her conversation to greet you.

You enter the space. The next security guard, behind the desk grins vacantly: R22 he asks. He doesn’t offer a receipt. And if you think of the numbingly boring life he must lead day in and day out sitting in that chair, with maybe three visitors a month you feel this arbitrary sum can be viably chalked down to charity; you let it go.

You ask where the Keith Dietrich exhibition is; the man gesticulates vaguely. “There’s art everywhere,” he frowns. “This is a gallery.” He returns to his catatonic lassitude immediately.

The first thing you encounter on your left is the museum’s curious collection of ceramic art. It’s so precious and fragile no one is allowed to see it. You’re only allowed to peer through the thick and dusty glass at how the works are irretrievably ramped against one another, frozen in time.

And there is Dietrich’s show. It’s a gem in a slum. <<See my review of it here>> Having had your fill of this beautiful, terrible, sophisticated reflection on society and slavery, your instinct is to flee, at once. But fatal curiosity holds you back. And oh my goodness: cheek by jowl with Dietrich’s show is a group of the most wretched little JH Pierneefs imaginable.

Exhibiting art is a complicated exercise. It’s about PR as much as it is about art history. But, it’s also about the behind-the-scenes magic that makes a theatre set design into a whole world, and a dance venue into a place of dreams: an art gallery needs proper lighting. Maybe the Pierneefs in this show are not wretched, but with stunted lighting and a devastating sense of sameness, your mind gets numbed. The works are ignominiously killed. Your sluggishness drags you forward.

There’s an exhibition by contemporary photographer Michael Meyersfeld in the next space. It features giant texts on the wall which scream out at you so loudly they destroy the work completely. You come away unable to remember what the words say or the photographs depict. It’s not clear who made these aesthetic decisions or sanctioned them. Or why.

The next space presents the work of Artists’ Proof Studio artist Bambo Sibiya. Beautiful drawings and extraordinarily fine linocuts hang in a place where clearly the lighting guy got side-tracked. It’s also a space where the low ceiling fights so obviously with the work exhibited, you can’t breathe properly.

Had enough? Probably. But the day would not be complete if you’d missed PAM’s final disappointment. This dreadfully dry potted history of South African art, from San Rock art, through the mists and mothballs of high apartheid to art produced in protest and concept, has been on show for at least a year – I brought students here last February – and everything’s still in the same dusty sequence. You come away from it with moist eyes. From lots of yawning.

It’s in the long, potentially elegant space of the Albert Werth Hall, named in honour of PAM’s first curator, who enthusiastically took up the museum’s reigns in 1963. From the 1990s, this was where the Sasol New Signatures competition happened. [Curiously this competition is still hosted at PAM, but clearly not in the Albert Werth Hall]. It was here where the remarkable, fabulous work of Dutch-born artist Daphne Prevoo was showcased in 2005, an unequivocal highlight for that year, if not that decade, searing images into visitors’ minds that are still there <<see my review of that here>>.

Art history is a funny discipline. While it contains the rollicking beasts in the hearts and sensibilities of talented, sensitive people on the forefront of society who saw things differently and had the courage to say so, it’s about beauty, as it’s about politics and circumstance. And it’s about fun. And horror. But an exhibition is seldom a self-generated miracle. A curator’s hand matters.

Steven Cohen’s Selfish Portrait (1999) an upholstered chair silkscreened and hand-coloured, is the gem on this side of the slum, but it isn’t exhibited in a way to make you swoon.

There’s also lovely Walter Oltmann, Cyprian Shilakoe’s represented, as is William Kentridge. But the show is stripped of wow, bleached of life.

You exit the building. All you want to do is blindly hit the highway, saving off your thirst for the first cheerful roadside fast food place. There’s nothing here to offer you solace. Or even refreshment. Drinking toilet water feels dodgy. The Spar over the road looks skanky. Besides, you haven’t stamina to walk further than your car.

While PAM reeks of apartheid thinking, it really did evolve: the collection started in 1930, in Pretoria’s town hall. PAM’s erection was completed in the 1960s. Indeed, South Africa’s prime minister HF Verwoerd – the architect of apartheid himself —laid PAM’s foundation stone. But the forward thinking in the collection from its very inception was kick-started by work bequeathed from the estate of Sir Max Michaelis (1852-1932), a mining magnate and art patron.

Michaelis’s collection, valuable though it may have been, largely comprised work by Northern Dutch masters from the 17th and 18th centuries, which was already well represented in Johannesburg and Cape Town. It did, however also include work by local masters: Pierneef, Pieter Wenning, Frans Oerder, Anton van Wouw and Irma Stern.

The city council developed PAM’s focus on local talent; the initiative developed its own momentum.

The space was enlarged in 1975 and 1988 and upgraded in 1999. But then what?

Not only does the space today have paltry visitors, creative energy or attention to curatorial detail, not to mention no sense of the sacredness that would make the very idea of hanging freshly washed broeks on the side of a sculpture anathema to even a vagrant, but it also has no internet presence.

It’s unforgivable. Yes, times are tough; money’s too tight to mention and arts funding is always in business’s cross-hairs. But by the same token, this creative industry is replete with talented, brave, passionate people who understand how earning money and doing things that matter must balance. Come, come, Pretoria. It’s time to think out of that box. Or surrender it to the homeless.

<<This article was posted five days ago, on December 25. There has been unprecedented response to it, including a blog which looks at the broader sociopolitical situation. Read it here.>>

Goldendean and the treachery of the pronoun

Bold: Goldendean. Photograph by Delwyn Verasamy
Bold: Goldendean. Photograph by Delwyn Verasamy

Walk into any environment. Engage with strangers. What are the basic signifiers that enable you to do so? For one thing, language. For another, gender. An understanding of whether someone is a girl or a boy fundamentally affects how you respond to them. Call it upbringing. Call it social context. Call it psychology.

But what happens in a situation in which the very pronouns that you have been using all your life, are revealed as tainted? As potentially offensive to one to whom they do not apply. Everything, but everything, gets cast into disarray, and you are threatened with a kind of paralysis in expressing yourself.

Dean Hutton’s debut performance in The Cradle dismantles your sense of comfort in the world in a way that leaves you unsure who you are when you leave the space – and even unsure as to who you had been from the outset.

This is not to say that it messes directly with your own sexuality, but rather, it presents such a rich conundrum of being that it can shake you to your very foundations. On the exhibition’s opening night, an environment, a sense of mystique was created, and as you entered the space, your every sense was subtly seduced with tactile richness that made it difficult to be in the space for a long period of time because it was so intense.

From the fact that you were instructed, at the outset, to either take off your shoes or don plastic shoe-protectors, to the smell and feel of the soil so richly blanketing the space, to the sound of the bell, both in the performance itself, and the videoed performance, a sound which was also punctuated with that of a water fountain in the exhibition space and that of thunder on the sound track, every element played together to embrace you.

People were shy to begin navigating the space. The sacrosanctity of it all was complete. The artist, in golden nakedness, stood amidst the soil, sweeping swaths of it clean: perhaps in the shape of a map of Africa? Either way, Hutton wore a large bell at the waist. It rang and rumbled as Hutton swept, dangling like a metallic scrotum.

There is a sublime subtlety which contains Hutton’s nakedness as it contains the images of Hutton’s dogs, Comet and Luca or the natural environment on film. Audiences do not laugh with characteristic embarrassment that you might anticipate from such a situation. Having conquered their shyness, they move into the space and respectfully interact with the artist, who responds to them, while sweeping and ringing bells.

Hutton’s work on The Cradle begs comparison with that of South African-born performance artist Steven Cohen, who is currently based in Lille, France, given the use of performance, of nakedness, of environment. Hutton’s aesthetic, however, digresses vehemently from the invasiveness of Cohen’s persona. There’s less of a sense of adornment here, and more of a critical self-exploratory nakedness. The work is unsettling in a different way.

A low point in this extraordinary piece, was the positioning of Alberta Whittle in her role as Mummywatter. Playing with the ancient myths surrounding the Mami Wata, which ties the notion of the mermaid with that of fertility, Whittle performed the piece adorned in flowers and an impenetrable blueness. She sat in a plastic bath, making origami of money and distributing pieces of paper which reflected on the sangoma flyers that are handed out sporadically in urban South African traffic. A powerful performance in her own right, embracing enormous mystique, Whittle was positioned against the far wall of the gallery.

You were so swept away by Hutton’s presence and performance that it became easy to overlook what Whittle looked like, or was doing. This element of The Cradle should have been more confrontational, posing different challenges to the visitor.

Hutton’s debut as a performance artist is a gesture that cannot exist without follow up: a new character has emerged into South Africa’s performance art litany. What happens next?

  • The Cradle, an exhibition of new work by Dean Hutton in collaboration with Alberta Whittle and Anna Christina Lorenzen is at GoetheonMain, at Maboneng downtown Johannesburg, until October 25.