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

DANCE UMBRELLA – WEEK TWO (article first published : 2004-03-22)

The casual observer of week two of the Dance Umbrella (2004) might identify a particular trend within the works presented. This has little to do with the intention of the pieces, but rather relates to the level of sophistication of the creations on offer.

Many contemporary choreographers, especially those making work for festivals, claim their work pivots on an ‘idea’ which then informs their movement vocabulary and staging. Compare this to the creator of a classical ballet who might simply be attempting to render a story (often an existing libretto) in dance. Obviously the comparison is over-simplified. Swede Matts Ek, for example, has created a brilliant contemporary dance version of Giselle. The comparison is, however, a useful when one is observing contemporary dance because the success of a contemporary dance piece often depends on how lucidly the ‘idea’ has been communicated. The most successful work is usually that which permits the ‘idea’ to mature into an articulated and textured concept which drives and informs the entire work.

During the early part of last week Swiss choreographer Giles Jobin presented The Moebius Strip, which is a good example of lucid articulation of concept in dance. This was an intriguing work which, at first, saw the five performers simply distributing themselves around the stage in physical isolation from one another while retaining a mutual visual awareness with each other and the audience. Later they formed a snaking train of prone connected bodies, and by turns used each other to ‘climb’ along the human meander. After the performance, a well-known South African theatre director made the vaguely deprecating comment that the piece featured the longest “fade to black” he had witnessed. This, not entirely fair, comment refers to the fact that the piece begins with bright stage and auditorium lighting which gradually fades throughout the duration of the work. The impact of this device is most apparent during the piece’s final section which begins with the dancers arranging, in geometric precision, hundreds of white rectangles across the floor-space. As their bodies blur into the encroaching shadows they move briskly, on all-fours, across the luminous perspective created by this black-and-white checker-board. The sense created was one of alienation. The audience become observers of the frantic activity of ‘other’ beings. The opening lines of H. G. Wells War of the Worlds were called to mind: “We were being observed as someone with a microscope observes creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water”.

Faustin Linyekula presented Spectacularly Empty on Thursday and Friday. The work is inspired by the choreographer’s vision of his hometown upon his return there after several years away: “Kinshasa seems to only live for the looks”. The programme note continues: “It’s as though the city had to feed on everything, including its own materiality, to meet its permanent need for ostentation”. The staging features a white floor cloth covering most of the Wits Theatre stage, with a narrower strip created by black dance mats, retained on one side. Two large wooden frames hung at different heights and an old television, upon which were projected African-city street scenes completed the picture. The trio of male dancers confined themselves to the dance mats, never straying onto the pristine whiteness of the floor cloth. The piece juxtaposes the immediacy of the dancers’ interactions - by turns fluid, staccato, aggressive or comic - with the street-scene projections and another projection of an erstwhile colonial master holding forth eruditely. Revered and infamous names from recent African history are recited as a litany, perhaps referencing what has been but without providing a clue as to what is to come.

Sitting through the first couple of mixed bill programmes this past weekend, (New Moves and Fresh Moves) I found myself thinking in the following terms: “Generally speaking the international choreographers seem to have a more developed control of theatre and symbolism than do the majority of local dance-makers represented on these particular bills”. Another way of expressing this thought is to say that these locals seem unable to turn an initial ‘idea’ into a concept-driven creation that tugs at accepted norms (of perception, theatre, dance).

In the context of a national contemporary dance festival this issue is highlighted because the Dance Umbrella should not simply be another opportunity for girlies with some bad ballet training to teeter about on their pointe shoes, in some insipid piece of choreography, for the delight of their grannies. This platform is intended to showcase the best of the country’s contemporary dance creativity and, during the last 16 years of its existence, the Umbrella has seen the development of some brilliant South African conceptual choreographers. It was a little disheartening, therefore, to see so many works on the New Moves and Fresh Moves programmes that seemed unable to learn from this legacy. Naturally there were exceptions.

The Fresh Moves bill featured Cecil de made Forever Juliet about a vision, rather than an actualization of love. The piece was noteworthy for Catherine Daniels’ fine performance. Louise Coetzer, whose work often uses video projection to replace traditional stage lighting, presented, on video, an untitled piece danced to Laurie Anderson’s Superman. The colour and texture of the video resonated against the minimalism of the music, and the piece would possibly been more interesting if the dancer had appeared in person to provide another dimension – live juxtaposed with celluloid performance. Michael Moloi created Footsteps for the Via Katlehong company which showed the dancers off in both tap and mpantsula.

The New Moves programme saw noteworthy contributions by Thabo Rapoo (Moving Into Dance), Gladys Agulhas and Ignatius van Heerden. However, just as I was giving up hope of experiencing the jolt of adrenaline that comes from seeing a truly innovative piece of work, Hlengiwe Lushaba charged onto the stage with unexpected energy, verve and conceptual intelligence, and restored my faith in the next generation of South African choreographers. The Show is Not Over Until the Fit Fat Phat Lady Sings plays with various ideas, including African physical stereotyping, and takes the audience on tour de force of conceptual theatre and dance. Straying into an area occupied by writers like Jean Genet (particularly in a play like The Blacks), Lushaba has her black performers don black-face, wigs and sunglasses (which turns the single musician into a James Brown clone), and (for the duo of dancing males) hooped skirts, as she shows us what ‘we’ (the viewer, the white audience?) think we know about black bodies and voices.

Names to look out for this week: Nelisiwe Xaba, Bailey Snyman, Natalie Fisher, Moya Michael, Juanite Finestone-praeg, Sandile Mbili, Reginald Danster, Moeketsi Koena, Jayasperi Moopen, Neville Campbell, Athena Mazarakis, Jeanette Ginslov, Gerard Bester - Andrew Gilder




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