Stretched wishbones and backbones

GulaMatari
A man who could sprout wings at any time: Vincent Mantsoe in his work Gula Matari. Photograph courtesy Dance Umbrella.

THE OPENING NIGHT of Dance Umbrella 2018 was one filled with gasps. Gasps at the formal announcement by its artistic director Georgina Thomson that this, the 30th iteration of the contemporary dance festival was to be its last. And gasps in response to the quality of work curated for the festival’s first day. It was dance to make your hair blow back and stand on end; historical dance that made you remember why this genre peaked so rapidly in this city, from the late 1980s. Dance Umbrella served as the platform to make things without meaning in the rest of the world, grow wings, become heroes and redefine values.

But wrapped carefully in these headlining events of the evening was something else. A glossing over. Will the dance fraternity be able to resurrect a project as focused and fierce as this little festival which has in all its 30 years of existence not once been allowed the luxury of not having to fight for its life, to hustle for its daily bread? It’s a reflection on the fickleness of the broader industry that sees initiatives wax and wane, come and go and nary a real helping hand offered in this often grotesque battle for survival. All too often, people and institutions whose doors have been knocked on again and again, who leave a project to die an ignominious death, turn into the proverbial bystanders, who mourn. They could have helped. They didn’t.

All of these values made the works, Gregory Maqoma’s Mayhem and Vincent Mantsoe’s Gula Matari, particularly prescient choices for the festival’s opening night.

If you perchance to visit the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, you will see a miscellany of angels painted in frescoes on the churches walls and ceiling by 13th century Italian artist, Giotto di Bondone. These are not just any common or garden angels. They are emotionally distraught, emotionally focused and sophisticated angels. Some weep, some screech, some are quiet, most are not. Something similar happens in Mayhem, where the characters are broken in different ways. Either physically or emotionally. They dance with a brokenness and cavort with a red ribbon led by a man who has one leg, and while the first part of the work’s sound track feels as though a massive balloon is bouncing on your ear’s tympana, the work swirls and pumps with a sense of energy and fervour. And all too soon, it is gone.

In the 1950s, something completely outrageous and remarkable saw light of day. Throwing formal music principles to the wind, it looked out the window and saw birds. This was contemporary French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, an essay written with the piano and birdsong. Vincent Mantsoe’s Gula Matari rocks your equilibrium in a similar way, as it redefines movement and balances you in the audience between the cusp of bird and man. It’s a completely outrageous work, which includes performances by four other dancers. Truth be told, Mantsoe’s presence eats up your attention to such an extent that the rest of the cast feel as though its superfluous and the dimming light at the work’s end, your enemy.

Dance Umbrella, for thirty years was the jewel in the crown of Johannesburg culture. Sometimes a tarnished jewel, filled with works that confronted and unstitched audiences; sometimes an unequivocal sparkler, reflecting on the real and beautiful skills that were driven to new and professional heights. This year’s festival is going to rattle away, on the wings of time. You need to be there for dance as well as historical reasons.

  • Mayhem is choreographed by Gregory Maqoma. It features design by Didintle Fashion Institute (costumes), Wesley Mabizela (music) and Mandla Mtshali and Oliver Hauser (lighting and production). It is performed by Thulisa Binda, Sinazo Bokolo, Nathan Botha, Julia Burnham, Katlego Lekhula, Lungile Mahlangu, Phumlani Mndebele, Thabang Mojapelo, Musa Motha,  Otto Nhlapo and Roseline Wilkens.
  • Gula Matari is choreographed by Vincent Mantsoe. It features design by Portia Mashigo (costumes), Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors (music), Oliver Hauser (lighting and technical) and is performed by Vincent Mantsoe, Gregory Maqoma, Lulu Mlangeni, Otto Nhlapho, and Shanell Winlock.
  • Mayhem and Gula Matari constituted the opening performance of this year’s Dance Umbrella. The works perform again on Wednesday March 7 at the UJ Theatre, in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.

Quintessential Giselle in Masilo’s hands

Giselle
MET his match: Albrecht (Kyle Rossouw) feels the wrath of the flywhisk of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (Llewellyn Mnguni). Photograph by John Hogg

IF YOU’VE EVER questioned the true value of the arts in this world, you need to see Dada Masilo’s Giselle. Summarily, and without hesitation it will strip you of any doubt. You might emerge crying from the experience and emotionally shattered, but you will be sure that what you just experienced was unadulterated magic and relentlessly transformative.

The ballet of Giselle is one of dance’s anomalies. It was composed by Adolphe Adams, today a relatively unknown composer, in 1841, and it rose to balletic prominence as one of the genre’s unequivocal commercial classics. It boasts the collaborative input of the headline creatives of the day, in Théophile Gautier, Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo. In truth, and in structure, it’s not that different from various other romantic tales of the time: peasant girl meets boy. They fall in love. He’s the wrong boy, according to her mom. He finds another. She goes mad with grief and dies of a broken heart. And then she becomes a virgin demon in hell, where she gets to persecute the boy who jilted her. With various variations on the theme, it’s a well-trod story.

What Dada Masilo does with it is something completely extraordinary. For one thing, she vigorously strips it of blandness, with the emotional content of the work stitched boldly into its choreography, it is akin to what Yael Farber has done with Ibsen’s Miss Julie in her Mies Julie (2012), or what Mark Dornford-May did with Bizet’s Carmen in his U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005). Indeed, there are a couple of moments in the work’s first half in which you expect the dancers to roll out a Carmen sequence or even to roll a cigarette or two: there’s a kind of African folksy level of nuance that filters through the material, seamlessly.

But as it unfolds, this work takes on its own tough and exquisite character, not stinting on emotional input. Masilo takes the lead, and unlike some of the works that she’s performed and choreographed over the last couple of years, it sees her enfolded in its intricacies with integrity and thoughtfulness: her skill as a dancer and as a character are showcased impeccably. Indeed: this is the Dada Masilo that audiences fell in love with nearly 10 years ago. She’s alive with an electricity that makes you want to put brakes on your ability to watch: the dancing is lithe and virile; it’s rapid and fierce and it will leave you completely breathless.

And while Masilo still has that ability to grab your eye and not let it go, even if she is dancing a routine with the company, it’s an exceptionally fine company, featuring dancers such as Liyabuya Gongo and Kyle Rossouw, to name but a few, who will make you sit up and look with great care: you might not have paid a lot of attention to these dancers in the past, thinking them generally a competent part of ensemble work. Dada Masilo’s Giselle is a coming of age work, not only for Masilo, but for the whole company.

The work features simple and devastatingly effective costume design and a clear sense of colour coordination, placing the Wilis – the evil demons from the underworld – in a deep red which is not gender specific as it is infused with traditional African associations. It also is underpinned by a piece of music by Philip Miller that lends even the lightest most ostensibly romantic moments deeply sinister undertones that cannot be ignored. Featuring a wide range of sound and a multitude of styles of vibration and concatenation, it’s a score which coheres with an utter perfection with the work on stage, allowing the dancers themselves to vocalise particular moments which exacerbate the sense of local colour, as they reflect the nuances in the story beautifully.

The only flaw in the work is the choice of William Kentridge’s drawings as a projected backdrop. They’re magnificent drawings, but once the performers appear on stage, you cannot actually see the drawings: and when you do manage, with great difficulty, to steal your eyes away from the dancers to look upon these charcoal landscapes, the image has changed: there’s a lack of coherence here – why these images are used and why they change in a sequence is not clear. Thankfully, in the second act, which takes place in hell, there are no arbitrary landscapes that might threaten your focus on the dancers.

This work is unequivocally the crowning glory of Masilo’s career so far. It will, in the next few months, continue taking her around the world, including to La Biennale de la Dance de Lyon in France, and Sadler’s Wells in London, next year: if you are intending to go to Grahamstown this year for the National Arts Festival, this piece alone is sufficient impetus to justify the cost, the difficulties of being in the Eastern Cape in winter, and the vagaries of the road trip. If you aren’t but are in Johannesburg in late July: this is one of the unequivocal headlines of the 969 Festival.

  • Dada Masilo’s Giselle is choreographed by Dada Masilo and features creative input by William Kentridge (drawings), Philip Miller (music composition), David April (directorial assistance), David Hutt, Songezo Mcilizeli and Nonofo Olekeng (costumes) and Suzette le Sueur (lighting). It is performed by Nadine Buys, Zandile Constable, Liyabuya Gongo, Thami Majela, Dada Masilo, Ipeleng Merafe, Llewellyn Mnguni, Khaya Ndlovu, Thabani Ntuli, Kyle Rossouw, Thami Tshabalala and Tshepo Zasekhaya. It performed for a short season at the UJ Theatre in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, and travels to Grahamstown where it will perform at the Rhodes Theatre on June 29, 30 and July 1 (Visit nationalartsfestival.co.za) Thereafter, it performs at The 969 Festival, hosted by Wits University, in the Main Wits Theatre on July 29 (Visit https://www.inyourpocket.com/johannesburg/969-festival_2173e )

The terrifying secrets that bind us

scorched
LOVE and loss in Lebanon: Wahab (Mpho Osei-Tutu) with Nawal (Ilse Klink). Photograph by Jan Potgieter, courtesy artslink.co.za

SOUTH AFRICAN AUDIENCES are not generally privy to strong theatre works that engage meaningfully with a Middle Eastern narrative, clean of the clutter of political positioning. Standard Bank Young Artist for 2016, Jade Bowers, brings you Scorched a play written by Wajdi Mouawad in 2003 and in many respects, the narrative muscle of this work holds it all together. Beautifully written, it is a complex tale of the atrocity of war, the bond of family and the immutability of maths, cast in the Lebanon wars of the 1970s that presents hairpin narrative twists and turns in its denouement that will simultaneously frighten and replenish you.

With an ingenuous and haunting pared down set, featuring an astonishing fine use of suitcases and red thread that demonstrate a foray into not only the predicament of the alien, but also into the ritual of burial itself, set designer Nadine Minnaar presents an eloquent, sophisticated reflection on what it means to be a civil war refugee. Death and the inability to belong, are issues that are allowed to segue together magnificently in the manipulation of the suitcases, which become so much more than repositories of possessions.

Further, Bowers has cast a guitar and mandarin player in the form of Matthew MacFarlane who lends the work the precise, gentle and sometimes witty interplay of sound and texture that makes the piece sing and never forces it to bend in the direction of fashionable harsh electronic sound that would have crippled the delicate dynamics at play here.

But beyond all of these elements, Scorched boasts a script replete with the kind of rich and subtle weaving of contemporary narrative with legendary notions that filters through the novels of Turkish writer and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, playing with the preciousness of ancient tales and giving them a relevance you can taste like blood on your lips. It’s a mix of values that makes your head spin as you are plummeted into the rich aesthetic of Middle Eastern story-making.

Sadly, most of Bowers’s cast of seven, a couple of days into the work’s brief Johannesburg season, seemed to be trying so hard in shouting out their words and overacting, that this almost three-hour long work becomes rather bamboozling. There is a great focus on the minutiae of travel and conversational details, which feel like they muddy the flow of the story, at times.

But then, you get sucked into the plight of Nawal Marwan (Ilse Klink), a woman who has loved and lost and held quietly to terrible secrets. You lose yourself in how this character has been scripted, and how her twin children, Janine (Cherae Halley) and Simon (Jaques de Silva) deal with the mysteries of her life, but it is the harshness of the set which seems to come back to bite the work ultimately.

With the exception of Halley’s genteel and focused performance, and some moments of singing by Ameera Patel, so utterly refined that it makes your hair stand on end, the characters, embodying a multitude of roles, seem to be attempting to compensate for the emptiness of the set, by making unnecessarily grand gestures with their bodies and often shouting in a way that hurts the subtleties of this beautifully evolved and emotionally devastating work.

It’s a pity – this piece brings together some of the cream of South African theatre talent, including Klink and Mpho Osei-Tutu, but they seem to struggle with the rather brutal concrete space that the theatre offers.

  • Scorched is written by Wajdi Mouawad and directed by Jade Bowers. It features design by Nadine Minnaar (set), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Camille Behrens (costume construction) and Matthew MacFarlane (music) and is performed by Gopala Davies, Jaques de Silva, Cherae Halley, Ilse Klink, Mpho Osei-Tutu, Ameera Patel and Bronwyn van Graan at the University of Johannesburg, in Auckland Park until August 5. Visit jadebowers.com