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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

SIDDHARTHA (article first published : 2000-03-13)

Buddha, the Indian mystic who founded Buddhism, was born Gautama Siddhartha about 500 BC. The son of a prince, he led a sheltered upbringing but at the age of 29 became disenchanted with his privileged material world and decided to leave home in search of his soul. He wandered around the world, had adventures and succumbed to temptations. He studied yoga and meditation and eventually gained the enlightenment that he sought. German novelist, poet and pacifist Herman Hesse used this scenario for his best-selling novel Siddhartha.

Closer to home and the present day, choreographer Jay Pather has taken both the original and Herman Hesse’s story of Siddhartha and interwoven it into a South African context. Where Herman Hesse used a river as the “path”, Jay has chosen a completely opposite setting – the desert. He includes dance styles which range from ballet and classical Indian (Kathak, Bharata Natyam and Orissi) to traditional Zulu and Xhosa dance as well as voice-over narration and projected images. He touches on political aspects and at one point sets his principal character in a township taxi in the Karoo.

Normally this type of multi-cultural mix would make me run for cover because many attempts have been made at creating “cross-cultural” productions and a fair number have failed.

Not so this time. I believe that A South African Siddhartha will go down in South African arts history as a major work. Jay Pather has produced and choreographed an extraordinary dance piece of wide appeal that invites a second visit.

Sarah Roberts’ set and costumes are stamped with her usual highly individual style. A slatted wooden “bridge” hangs from the ceiling and flows onto the stage, extended by a white cloth far to the back of the Drama, representing the “path” that Siddhartha is to travel. She has mainly used white in the form of hanging ribbons, back cloths and costumes. She makes innovative use of clear plastic, being fascinated with the material in an X-Ray context, explaining that “X-Rays can see right through to the bone, to where it hurts.”

And hurt there is, in this 90 minute piece, as Siddhartha leaves his home and family and parts from his friend Govinda to move through various experiences. Along his “path” he is to meet his lover Kamala, ruthless merchant Kamaswami and ferryman Vasudeva who is to be his spiritual guide. He becomes reunited with his son and, while this is to be the only time in his life when he truly feels love and a sense of belonging, his son is stubborn and volatile, constantly defying him.

Expressive and sensitive, Thulebona Mzizi (Siddhartha) just gets better every time we see him perform. He produces the right balance of detachment and self-absorption and the love scene between him and Kamala (a beautiful performance all round by Jayati Bhatia) is compelling and sensuous.

Doubling as Siddhartha’s father and Kamaswami, Vaibhav Joshi displays his impeccable skills in Kathak dance coupled with a good dramatic ability. Ntombi Gasa as Siddartha’s mother never fails to delight, living proof that people with large frames are able to dance with an eloquent and sinuous grace. Sandile Mbili makes a strong Govinda, full of political verve and energy, and the gentle and charming Yashika Moodley is an expressive guide.

Towards the end of A South African Siddhartha, Mzokuthula Gasa (the son) comes into his own as the interaction develops between himself and his father through strong and forceful contemporary movement. Observing and yet part of the proceedings is Quinton Ribbonaar (Vsudeva) who impresses with his focused sense of stillness and quiet strength.

The rest of the company is made up of Claire Angelique Bezuidenhout, Musawenkosi Mbili, Neliswa Rushualang and Eric Shabalala. Principal voice artistes are Nathi Kunene, Junaid Ahmed and Chris Hurst.

Clever use of lighting by Richard Parker adds much atmosphere to this thought-provoking work. Building on Logan Shunmugam’s original visual design, Parker has chosen to place most of his lighting at stage level and from the wings, creating the impression of a changing lighting status while remaining within the clinical feel of white. With imaginative use of percussive sounds, Jurgen Bräuninger’s musical score is comfortably eclectic and he has incorporated works by Deepak Ram, Ravi Shankar, Phillip Glass and Bernd Konrad.

It’s good to see Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre back in business again. It is now a free-standing section 21 Company with its own board and currently working in partnership with Technikon Natal.

I urge all dance lovers to see this production. It’s very much a production of today. Coining Siddhartha’s final words, in the end what matters is “You. Me. Here. Now”.

A South African Siddhartha runs in the Playhouse Drama until March 19. Performances are Wednesday to Saturday (19h30); Saturdays (14h30) and Sundays (18h00) with a schools’ performance on March 10 and a pensioners’ performance on 14 March (both at 11h00). Book at Computicket.




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