Dance for me; I will weep

Outofjoing

MY face, my identity: Steptext dancer Changik Oh is stretched. Photograph by Marianne Menke.

IF YOU PRICK me, will I bleed? They’re words which evoke the Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, offering a glance into the hurtful and ghastly illogic of xenophobia. South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma and Austrian born Helge Letonja in a compelling collaboration take these words and push them further as they take three dancers each from Vuyani Dance Theatre and Steptext Dance Project, respectively, and play on the messy horror of the hypocrisy and hate that challenges our world right now.

It’s an astonishing piece of work backed by a spider-web-like set and placed in a soundscape that feels fit to break your head into shards, with all the sound tools of the trade, from that of gunfire and bombs detonating to techno-base sound that makes your teeth ring in your skull. It is in this space that these six performers dance with much more than their skeletal structure and musculature. They dance with their nerves and their intestines, with their souls stripped raw and their personal narratives exposed and splayed against other people’s values.

When you watch these dancers meld and coagulate with one another and the energy they magick into life on this otherwise bare stage, it feels as though some of these gestures and movements should be outlawed. They don’t seem possible – let alone legal or moral. This is the work of two very strong contemporary choreographers taking no prisoners. You will leave the space feeling assaulted in your sense of identity, your understanding of human possibility.

And, all things considered, you still cannot help but wonder what this work might have been like without the extra added element of the sound track, tough as it is. Indeed: the difficult and protest-driven nature of the work’s focus demands a sound that is explosive but the dance is so strong that it should have been given the chance to stand alone – and you, to be able to watch it without feeling you will be blasted out of earshot while you do so.

  • Out of Joint is conceptualised and choreographed by Helge Letonja and Gregory Maqoma. It features creative input by Serge Weber (composition), Anke Euler (dramaturgy), Katja Fritzsche and Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes), Timo Reichenberger (lighting) and Helge Letonja and Julia Arroja da Silva (set). It is performed by Kossi Sebastien Aholou-Wokawui, Thulisile Princess Binda, Steven Chauke, Mariko Koh, Phumlani Mndebele and Changik Oh at The Fringe, Joburg Theatre complex until August 20, and then at the Jomba Contemporary Dance Festival in Durban on August 23 and 24. Visit vuyani.co.za or http://cca.ukzn.ac.za/index.php/jomba-home
Advertisements

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.

Siva: Seven layers of dance perfection under Sidiya’s capable hand

Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

Magnetic: Julia Burnham in Siva. Photograph courtesy cue.ru.ac.za

You are led into the space by a series of lit thick short candles, evocative of the memorial-imbued candles of Jewish tradition. You encounter a woman being washed by another, in a ritual context that is achingly intimate even though it is cast in the thick of audience traffic. From this point, an emotional stillness is evoked; it is something that is carried through the duration of this exquisite piece, with respect and dignity, fire and heart.

As Siva, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist work for dance choreographed by Luyanda Sidiya, unfolds, bringing together isiXhosa words, flames and some of the most extraordinary physical manoeuvring you might have ever seen, so something remarkable takes place. The work is premised on an understanding of godhead and religious ritual. The number seven features significantly in the work’s iconography.

It was conceived and birthed through the input and energy of both Moving Into Dance Mophatong under the leadership of Sylvia Glasser and Vuyani Dance Theatre, under the leadership of Gregory Maqoma, and here is the resolution of a dance language that melds African traditional aesthetic with contemporary dance rhetoric, taking the values of Glasser’s Afrofusion to a new level.

The work is enervating to look at: it sweeps you body and soul into its complex vortex as it stretches the notion of physical and anatomical possibility. The dancers become like magicians, drawing back to the roots of art making, as they segue with one another, in sequences that will make your head spin.

But more than all of this is the astonishing astuteness which with the work is created. It’s a large cast, comprising ten dancers and an ensemble of three musicians on stage. Like line work in a beautifully made drawing, each component of this work has his or her own place, there is no sense of messy collaboration, and yet, the whole is as complex and imposing as the intricate work of a grand orchestra.

And while each dancer operates with scalpel-like intensity, it is the performance and stage presence of Julia Burnham which sets the work on fire and captures its sense of magic, completely. Already quite a seasoned performer, demonstrating a great and brave repertoire for a diversity of approaches and a willingness to cock a snoot at boundaries, Burnham has, in this work, clearly come of age. She grabs your eye with a ferocity that doesn’t allow you to properly focus on the other dancers, even when she is at apparent rest. It has something to do with her immense sense of physical beauty and vulnerability, something to do with the utter skill in which she intertwines between her colleagues and lavishes within the movement and the sound.

And the sound is the other magic ingredient. Like the inimitable tenor and soprano saxophone of Norwegian Jan Garbarek, the music slithers in and out of the choreography, offering an understanding of dance and music and the magic in between that will haunt you, relentlessly.

The season for this magnificent piece was painfully short. It’s booked to travel to China in November. But between now and then, there are seasons pencilled in: seeing this piece should be a cultural imperative on anyone’s agenda. It will change your life.

  • Siva is choreographed and directed by Luyanda Sidiya. It features design by Xolisile Bongwana (musical direction); Gerard Bester (dramaturge); Oliver Hauser (lighting); Fried Wilsenach (sound) and Andrew Chandler (costumes). It is danced by Xolisile Bongwana, Julia Burnham, Roseline Keppler, Peter Lenso, Lulu Mlangeni, Phumlani Mndebele, Otto Nhlapo, Phumlani Nyanga, Nomasonto Radebe and Edwin Ramoba, and features performances by musicians Phosho Lebese, Tebogo Mokoena and Mpumi Nhlapo at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, August 12-16. Watch this space for announcements of other seasons for this work.

Lulu’s Page 27 casts crepuscular rays on woman

page27

Just when you think you know who’s hot and who’s not in contemporary dance, just when you’re catching your breath after Dance Umbrella, there comes a showcase work so utterly perfect, that all the parameters shift and you’re privileged to see the bar being raised again. Lulu Mlangeni is back on our stages, and it’s reason enough to celebrate.

Mlangeni hasn’t been on the headlines of dance in the last couple of years. She’s not one of the usual suspects in the litany of dance, and while she’s a senior dancer with Vuyani Dance Theatre, she’s diversified her talents, earning accolades in spheres as diverse as the Naledi Awards, So You Think You Can Dance and Dance Umbrella.

This brand new work, Page 27 is quite simply, astonishing. It’s a diptych, featuring Mlangeni herself in the first part, and the VDT ensemble in the second part. Loosely, it speaks of South African women and the torsion and bruising and breaking they have faced through the challenges of apartheid and in a society scarred by domestic abuse and homophobia. It’s a focus on a 27-page journal, and the celebration of Mlangeni’s 27th year of life.

It casts a moving nod in the direction of Miriam Makeba and Winnie Madikizela Mandela, as it casts a fearsomely fine glance at the universal woman, imprisoned and beaten, victorious and traditional, in a skirt that is a mix of Xhosa fabric and camouflage fatiques and beads that splay traditions old and new, without ever being disrespectful or boring. Mlangeni is oddly androgynous at times, and overwhelmingly feminine at others. She becomes impossible to describe as she flexes and streamlines herself against the very present shafts of light, like God’s fingers through a cloud.

Using text and light as though they are tangible substances, the work is muscular and disarmingly tight, running in satisfying correlation with the music. There are choreographed fight sequences to rival those by Sunnyboy Motau and Rachel Erdos, which we saw a few weeks ago on Dance Umbrella, and there is a reflection of a love-hate dichotomy that is so sophisticated, it transcends verbal description. This is the kind of dance that South African dance audiences deserve: it is beautiful and thoughtful, wise and outrageous, without stooping to foolish gimmicks or obscurity. There is an underlying astuteness in the material: while you are aware of the directorial hand of Luyanda Sidiya you will fight to catch your breath in watching the flow of bodies, light and music. And in the end, the tears and the sweat on your cheeks will be indistinguishable.

This show deserves a full house every night of its too-brief season.

  • Page 27, directed and mentored by Luyanda Sidiya, is choreographed by Lulu Mlangeni and performed by Mlangeni and the ensemble for Vuyani Dance Theatre: Julia Burnham, Roseline Keppler, Peter Lenso, Phumlani Life Mndebele, Otto Andile Nhlapo, Phumlani Nyanga and Keaoleboga Shadrack Seodigeng. It is designed by Oliver Hauser (lighting), Veronica Sham (costumes) and Wesley Mabizela (musical arrangements), using work by Dustin O’Hallaran, Steve Reich and Atomos VII. It performs at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until April 5. 011 832 1641.

Ketekang: celebrating so much, it hurts

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

From the moment band leader Tshepo Mngoma lets rip into his electronic violin, in the opening number Bungazani, you are convinced that this anthology of music, theatre, dance and poetry will be extraordinary. And you won’t be wrong, but Ketekang is not without decision-making flaws, which bruise its impact.

Couched in celebratory cliché, the work is not monolithic, and boasts an unusual body of song, poetry and snippets of theatre in its repertoire of 30 works. In many, though, the narrative thread holding them relevant, is disappointingly absent.

What does pin the work together is the choreographic moments. By and large, choreographed and danced by Luyanda Sidiya and dancers associated with Vuyani Dance Theatre and Moving Into Dance Mophatong, they pepper Ketekang with a bold freshness which really takes your breath away. There’s a moment commemorating Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson on June 16, 1976 which will etch itself into your heart. Embodying a sense of the urgency and horror of the situation, it is beautifully constructed, like a piece of poetry.

Similarly, there’s a paean to “dustbin men”, important characters in the grotesque pedestrianism of apartheid. It’s danced with a brusqueness and a sense of potency that will resonate with your heart.

But after the show, as you glance through the rich song list, you might be forgiven for thinking “Really?” There are too many really important iconic works here that jostle with each other for focus. With snatches of Athol Fugard, Khayelihle Dominique Gumede, Zakes Mda and Omphile Molusi, some of them too obscure to trigger memories of the full works, songs from the likes of John Legend, Sibongile Khumalo, Simphiwe Dana and Hugh Masekela are pushed, cheek by jowl with snippets of poetry from people such as Fred Khumalo, Professor Keroopetse Kgositsile and Langston Hughes, to name a few.

There’s an unmodulated richness to this work which makes you so heady your focus sways. And while there are references to dates: there’s a ‘1940’ on the back of one dancer, and the 1976 riots are beautifully clear, the trajectory of time is not convincingly developed, and the work does feel hurriedly put together, with no time for the piece to breathe easily and come into its own.

Also, there’s a jingling and a jangling between South African and American values, accents and works: it’s not clear what this is pitched at.

While the performers, including the gorgeous Aubrey Poo, Lesedi Job and Lebo Toko are honed and articulate and smooth as can be, there’s several jarring elements of discomfort. Costumes are not always comfortable on the bodies of the singers, which troubles the act of watching the work.

The production’s set is defined by a halo of barbed wire that surrounds the piece, teetering between a strangely celebratory image and one of oppression, and a curious interplay of spaces used in the theatre, which are innovative and exploratory, but not always comfortable to the viewer.

In short, Ketekang is magnificently celebratory: it showcases some of the finest musicians, singers and dancers on our stages right now, and gives voice to songs obscure and well known. But it’s a production in which you can’t easily see the wood for the trees and you become lost in the spectacular spectacle of it all. It just tries too hard.

  • Ketekang is directed by James Ngcobo with musical direction by Tshepo Mngoma, choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, set by Nadya Cohen, costumes by Nthabiseng Makone, lighting by Nomvula Molepo and sound design by Gladman Balintulo. It is performed by Caroline Borole; Nokukhanya Dlamini; Lesedi Job; Katlego Letsholonyana; Vuyelwa Maluleke; Mahlatsi Mokgonyana; Aubrey Poo; Sonia Radebe; Dionne Song; and Lebo Toko on stage and musicians Ezbie Moilwa; Godfrey Mgcina;Ntokozo Mgcina; Johan Mthethwa;and Sakhile Nkosi. It performs at the Market Theatre’s John Kani theatre until December 14.

Gregory Vuyani Maqoma: flame-bearer of empathy, pragmatics and SA dance

Gregory Maqoma giving a Master Class at the Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, in 2013. Photograph courtesy Velocity Dance Center.

Gregory Maqoma giving a Master Class at the Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, in 2013. Photograph courtesy Velocity Dance Center.

Everywhere you look, at the moment Gregory Vuyani Maqoma is present: He’s on the current cover of Gordon Institute of Business Science’s Acumen Magazine. He’s one of the judges in the Arts and Culture Trust Award for 2014. He’s just been in New York accepting the prestigious Bessie Award for his company, Vuyani Dance Theatre. He was recently at the Standard Bank Young Artists Award event in Johannesburg, celebrating one of his protégés, Luyanda Sidiya, this year’s winner for Dance. With all of this, Maqoma truly has earned his accolades. On the cusp of this year’s Dance Umbrella, he spoke to My View, about life, the universe, the Moon and migrant workers.

In 1990, Maqoma but 16. He met a white woman who dramatically changed his life. For good. Iconic dancer/ teacher /choreographer/dance anthropologist Sylvia Glasser at that stage was running her groundbreaking dance company Moving Into Dance Mophathong informally. It was a time in the country before it was considered acceptable or permissible for white and black dancers to share a stage. But share a stage they did, and Maqoma quickly became a MIDM flame-bearer.

“Vuyani Dance Theatre started in 1999,” he picks up the story almost a decade later. “I was in Belgium, on a scholarship at the renowned contemporary dance school PARTS;  it was an opportunity for me to look at South Africa from outside. It made me ask myself questions about my role as a dancer/choreographer and where I want to go in life. I had the chance to ponder how I wanted to be part of the changing political landscape in the country and how I was going to contribute to the development and sustainability of dance in South Africa.

“It was then that I created my first independent work, Rhythm 1-2-3, the founding piece for VDT. In that work, I was looking at Johannesburg: its roots, its unpredictability, its energy. It set the tone for what I wanted to do: to create work that responds to my own circumstances; work that was also questioning socio-economic imbalances in this country. It was also a work that got me quickly around the world,” he laughs. “We started getting bookings and before we’d even realised it, things were happening: there was no turning back.

“It was scary. I was 24. I started writing proposals. My first attempt at a proposal failed, but my second, to the Dutch embassy was successful. It was a small, tiny grant, but it was enough for what we wanted to do. Rhythm 1-2-3 was a simple work with just three dancers. The set was made with boxes from Pick ‘n Pay. The work, using visuals and text, was foundational for all my subsequent work.”

But it opened doors in other directions too. He started working with choreographers Moeketsi Koena, Sello Pesa, David Matamela April, Vicki Karras and Mandla Mchunu. ”We were all playing at the Dance Factory in Newtown Johannesburg, making work. It was not about egos. It was about sharing information. It was about working with what we had. We had to make and energise the dance fraternity. That was the founding ethos of VDT.”

Beyond its ethos, the now teenaged company, with a very strong outreach programme has started taking on apprentices this year: “These are dancers who have just left institutions,” Maqoma explains. “It’s an opportunity for them to work as professionals and with professionals. They get to perform in our works. Some have already had the chance to travel overseas with us. It’s hands on experience: the training you get at VDT shows immediate results.

“These apprentices are paid stipends from the company’s savings. At the same time, each apprentice is obliged to visit schools all over Gauteng: we see the results during our annual Vuyani Week at the end of the year. The Week is purely about development. It’s about young choreographers making new work.” It’s also about growing young dance audience.

VDT under the steerage of Maqoma drove contemporary dance which is renowned for its obscurity, into a popular framework with Full Moon, an extravaganza of a work staged at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein, in March this year.

“The work was premised on the idea of creating a social enterprise,” Maqoma explains. “As a company, we needed to be thinking beyond the Lotto funding, to diversify our income streams. We needed to look at a model that was going to be an income-generating one. And works that would be able to go to big spaces like the Joburg Theatre, the Sydney Opera House – into spaces that produce work on that big a scale.

“For me Full Moon was very much about saying as a contemporary black dance company, there is absolutely nothing stopping us from accessing spaces like Joburg Theatre. There is nothing stopping us from dreaming as big as the Alvin Ailey American Dance theatre company. We’ve tried to do this for years,” he grins, recalling how VDT was rebuffed on its tenth anniversary, from staging a work of this scale, with the claim that the theatre was fully booked months in advance. “This time the theatre seemed to realise something.

“I told the theatre’s decision makers, we’re talking 20 years of democracy here, and we’ve never had a black contemporary dance company on this stage. And we’re not only talking 20 years: we’re talking more than 50: there has never been a contemporary black dance company in this theatre: it was opened in 1961!

“So, here we are, I said. We are taking a chance on ourselves, but we want the theatre to take a chance on us too. I also explained that it is easier for our company to get onto the books of the Paris Opera than the Joburg Theatre. I said how do we balance the scale? If the work can appeal to that kind of audience in Paris, what makes it unattractive to Joburg audiences?

“It is about transformation, I argued, saying how this work should be at the epicentre of what democracy should mean,” he commenting on how a good relationship has been established between the Joburg Theatre and VDT. He is positive that Full Moon will have legs in other seasons “it created such a hype on social media. Now we’re in conversation with Artscape in Cape Town. There are possibilities for China; for London: it’s growing its own feet.”

‘Lonely Together’ is the work Maqoma created and performed in collaboration with Spanish dancer Roberto Olivan whom he had met at PARTS in the early 2000s, for this year’s Dance Umbrella in September. “At the dance school, we connected socially. Then we graduated and went our separate ways. Both of us developed dance in our own countries. We kept in touch. We kept meeting at festivals. And then recently we decided it would be interesting, after all these years, and because of the time we have spent giving so much to others, to refocus ourselves on ourselves and to see what comes out. And to focus on the issues that affect us personally. We realised one of those issues is that with the role that we have been playing, we have been extremely lonely in our own leadership: it’s a topic which continued to come back in our conversations, alongside growing and ageing.” The piece performed in Barcelona and Malta.

Maqoma is quick to dispel illusions of easiness or grandeur about his life and career: “Dancing is always a scary challenge for me. That is when you are really naked.” He’s  travelled all over the world. “The glamour is an illusion,” he grins. “It’s a job.

“And running VDT is a job in itself. It is important for me to create a balance for myself. I am not an administrator, so I have to put together a pool of people who will be efficient in terms of administration, which will give me the liberty to do other things. More and more I am taking on the role of artistic driver: Luyanda Sidiya has just been appointed VDT’s artistic director. We have to find a balance of creating a business model: I am good with talking to people, but maybe not so good in writing proposals. My strength is in engaging one on one with people.

“When you say to people I have a product, a something to sell to you, business people will listen. When we’re approaching it as a business, not a charity, our chances are greater.”

This thinking acumen didn’t sprout out of nowhere. “In 1993/4, I was very confused about what I wanted to do with my life. When I wasn’t accepted to study Medicine at Wits University, I took a business course offered by Wits. It was something they offered as a bridging course. Part of my apprentice programme was to be with a company. I worked with Alliance Insurance company for a period of two years. It had many prospects, a comfortable pay, but I knew very well that this was not me. So I do know that world a little,” he grins.

He comes, however of a world in which contemporary culture was irrevocably fused with traditional expression. “As a young boy, I was always the entertainer in the family. My cousins always believed I would be a singer. I loved Tina Turner. I loved Michael Jackson. Pop culture was really in my head. I was always dancing and singing.

“But I grew up quite close to a hostel in Soweto and I think the exposure to traditional forms in the township helped me to have empathy – something I only understood later – I was so very deeply moved and touched by migrant labourers who danced over the weekends. It dawned on me, years later that it was their own way of surviving the displacement of their circumstances.

“And it helped me to be able to create a formal aesthetic which became a bit of a cocktail: I was taking what I was seeing from the Pop culture in which I was growing up, as well as the traditional forms. I was fusing the two. At that stage, I was working with Vincent Mantsoe and we were not even aware that we were creating a medium, an aesthetic and a form that would be the driving force for my work.

“That’s never changed. I always start from the basics in creating new work.”