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

CHOREOLAB RESIDENCE (article first published : 2007-09-30)

Since inception 10 years ago, the annual Jomba! contemporary dance festival has been mindful of the need to offer opportunities for dance development. This has included specialised dance workshops, choreographers’ forums, dance conferences and last year’s collaborative improvisations. Young upcoming choreographers have been a central focus of these initiatives across the years.

KZN DanceLink, which represents many of the province’s dance groups from all communities, took up the call from both its 2006 AGM and its Dance Indaba at the Catalina last November to provide more in the way of choreographic development. In discussions with the Jomba! organisers it was agreed to pool resources and the result was the ChoreoLab Residence which was hosted by Jomba! 2007. The 11 participants identified through a call-out and proposal process were Thulile Bengu, Sitembiso Gcabashe, Sifiso Khumalo, Mlekeleli Khuzwayo, Vusi Makanya, Sanele Mzinyane, Sifiso Magesh Ngcobo, Sibusiso Ngidi, S’phelele Nzama, Varsha Sharma and Jabu Siphika. Phase 1 of the programme commenced in May 2007 with choreographic workshops mentored by Professor Gary Gordon (Rhodes University) was entirely organised, funded and co-ordinated by KZN DanceLink. Phase 2 took place prior and during Jomba! 2007 under the dual mentorship of Mozambican choreographer Panaibra Gabriel and French lighting designer, Eric Wurtz. Work created by the eleven young artists were showcased over the two weekends of Jomba! 2007.

The eleven works were wide-ranging in their themes and presentation, some choreographers preferring to use bare stages, others exploring the use of costumes, props, organic material, sets or video presentations. Throughout, the lighting was excellent and evocative but the aspect of the works that impressed me the strongest was the use of music. In order to do justice to their works, choreographers require a considerable knowledge of music and the expertise to make it work for them. I commend all choreographers for their choice of music, whether recorded or performed live. Gone are the days, hopefully, of the use of music pieces chosen at random and crassly joined together without cross-fades or any logical link. Many choreographers chose to work in silence – attracting a more powerful focus to the movement itself.

More and more often these days, dancers are required to speak and herein lies a problem. Unless the dancer is properly trained vocally or equipped with a microphone, the dance work is in danger of being at a distinct disadvantage if what is being said is not clearly articulated or – and this was the case in some of the ChoreoLab productions – not heard above the music. The choreographer may wish to say something which cannot be presented in movement but unless this message is as strongly received as the dance, audience members tend to switch off rather than strain to hear or understand. The works included:

S'fiso Kitsona Khumalo’s Untitled was presented in stark black and white, the only colourful shades coming from the lighting. Boxes are placed around the stage, one giving the impression of a bed at one point when there was a sensual romantic scene. Chairs are continually brought on and piled up only to be thrown to the floor when tensions flare. S'fiso Kitsona Khumalo performs with Jabu Siphika and Nathi Mngomezulu and although the piece builds with a percussive theme, there are moments of quiet reflection in the interactions between the couples.

Also costumed in black and white, Sbu Ngidi’s What Kind Of A Man Was I? reflects an interesting scenario. Three chairs, three men, three suits. A suit hangs suspended above swathed columns, jackets are placed over the backs of chairs, and there are shoes and stones. Lots of stones. All carefully and neatly laid out. The piece is performed by Sbu Ngidi with S'fiso Majola and Nhlanhla Kunene in silence until nearly halfway through. It is clearly thought out and very focused. The only problem was that it was difficult to hear the voice-overs above the music.

With Varsha Sharma’s Yatra, it was time to focus on the female persona. Four dancers – Varsha herself, with Kajal Bagwandeen, Kymmona Maharaj and Akashna Deokumar –clad in impersonal white tunics are snuggled together in a womb-like warmly-lit scenario amid lots of smoke. To a pulsating heartbeat they intertwine, flow, fall and flop. The figures then rise (grow to adulthood?) and their movements are stronger but remain united. A downcast figure shuffles along, trapped in shackles. I understand that the work has something to do with facing one’s fears but this didn’t read clearly to me. While visually attractive, the piece needs re-working and stronger focus.

Vusi Makanya’s I'm Planted but not Wanted featured Phumzile Makhanya; Sinenhlanhla Siphika; Mandisa Makanya; Lindokuhle Sihlangu; Londiwe Ndlela; Nolwazi Majola and Nokwazi Sihlangu from the Kwa Mashu School of Dance. The piece had some strong images – a silhouette coming from a circular cut-out screen at the back of the stage and more could have been made of this technique. This circle also suggested the imagery of a moon and there was an exhilarating section where the moon rose in all its glory and the dancers reacted in joyous celebration. While the choreography was fairly repetitive, this was a disciplined group of dancers (some of them very young) dressed in long-sleeved black tunics.

Beautiful held dramatic tensions marked Sthembiso Gcabashe’s Change which featured Slindile Mpanza and Sanele Mzinyane. A man - inseparable from his chair – sits in a long strip of lighting. A woman dances. He watches. To a sensual breathy jazzy blues score, they play out the relationship game. He removes himself from the comfort zone of his chair and, testosterone to the fore, makes many overtures. Quizzical looks don’t lead to anything. They rush at each other, circling forward and back, eyes connecting. There is a beautiful lead up to the first proper touch – bringing the tension to exquisite breaking point. There is a lot of humour in this piece, which was one of my favourites.

After the monochrome style of the previous five pieces, it was a joy to have some colour on the stage with Sanele Mzinyane’s Red which was performed with Thulisile Khumalo; S'thembiso Gcabashe and Slindile Mpanza. In traditional ethnic costumes, the work deals with the eternal triangle – in this case, two women, one man. It’s a stylish piece performed to a quirky mediaeval kind of music. There is some good imagery, some of it coming from a video screen. A cameraman leaves his position in the front row and calmly walks onto the stage and into the wings – an unforgivable intrusion normally but we discover the reason is to replay what he’s just filmed. The performers therefore now confront their past.

uBombi Bam lobu by Jabu Siphika featured Jabu herself with Vusi Makanya and Busisiwe Deyi. Using scarlet as a strong focus, her costumes were well-designed, flowing and elegant. The use of a portable stage area provided a performance area but the underneath space (the hidden nether regions, as it were) offered an area of expression where the dancers could utilise the percussive capacity of the structure to indicate a state of frustration of captivity. The lighting here played a strong part in terms of identifying ever-shrinking boundaries.

S'fiso Magesh Ngcobo is always recognisable by his wide smile and the audience response was immediate to his appearance as a cheery soul in his Amageza which he performed with Zinhle Dladla; Ntokozo Mthethwa and Pulane Pharasi. Sifiso made a good choice of music, using silence where needed and incorporating a later sweeping orchestral theme. The lighting was splendid from moody silhouette or creamy expanse to a bright invigorating phase. Amageza (handsome young men), is about relationships - girls with handbags and bright shiny earrings appear, couples dance but eventually the men end up back together without female companionship. The piece is full of delightful little quirky moments.

Thulile Bhengu titled her piece Uthingo lweNkosazana (Rainbow) in which she appeared with Nombuso Ngubane; Nobuhle Khawula; Busisiwa and Baxolile. The voiceover talks about “echoes of psychological turmoil”, two women in white sit on upturned baths, a third is writhing in a foetal position. The women right their baths and start to wash – it starts to rain mud but they continue to wash. Clothes get dirty/washed clean/get dirty again and so it goes on, such is life. I enjoyed the piece and liked its structure but I lost much in the dialogue that was difficult to hear over the music so I possibly missed issues that were important.

Mlekelele Khuzwayo’s Equality featured dancers Nobuhle Khawula; Sbusiso Ngidi; S'fiso Majola and Nhlanhla Kunene (with poetry by Janet Matlariana). At the beginning of this piece, the front curtain didn’t go all the way up which disturbed me initially until I realised that Mlekelele intended it this way so that we viewed the opening in a narrower space. In silence, the dancers carefully place building blocks. A man with a wheelbarrow delivers more blocks, his slow and deliberate approach almost confrontational before he walks into the audience and sits down. He reminds us that all people are “given the power to rule and the capacity for choice” and that we should “learn to humble” ourselves. The building (of a nation?) continues.

The best piece for me was the last one - Sphelele Nzama’s Umphafa which had live accompaniment on traditional instruments from the acclaimed Woodpecker Percussionists, all dressed in colours of red dust. Branches of the umphafa tree are used in traditional cleansing rituals and this work starts off in clouds of smoke. Wearing flimsy gear, Sphelele is just discernible in the midst of the plumes, seemingly drifting with the smoke. He finally stands and moves towards a demarcated area of sand. Spiderlike like he then crawls, thundering drumming like gun shots mow him down, the rhythm gets more frenetic. Taking off his flimsy garments, he moves into the area of sand and clay to be cleansed. One of the moist poignant images of the whole Choreolab Project was the sight of a candle burning in Sphelele Nzama’s Umphafa in the space where young percussionist and drum-maker Siyabonga Khuzwayo would have sat. Three days previously, Siyabonga died tragically in a violent incident in Albert Park, Durban, near a petrol filling station when he was assaulted and knifed. A stark reminder that in the midst of all this choreographic beauty, excellence and achievement, we are all very vulnerable. - Caroline Smart




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