Rain Dance

My rain-starved being is feeling less famished. Another week before I head back to my desert—will I be saturated with early morning lush peace and writing quiet—and thunder and morning’s green damp and the Market Theater plaza’s wet night neon shining?

Festival Mode. At noontime everyday there’s dance talk at the Market, led by Adrienne Sichel, a dance writer and critic here for many years; she may in fact know more about dance in South Africa and on this continent than anyone else.  Adrienne is a striking older woman, rangy, blonde, pony-tail and jeans or sometimes suited and elegant, self-effacing you think until you realize how confidently she is addressing absolutely any dance subject related to Africa. The artists do want to talk—about how and why they make dance instead of doing what their mums and dads thought they should do, about politics of dance and the politics of ignoring politics in dance, about relationships within dance companies and between schools and locations and states and countries, and between the artists and the traditionalists of the Zuma government.

Attending a dance festival is an art in itself. The pace is maybe a bit slow in the beginning, haven’t started running into old friends, meeting new ones yet. Feeling out the best places for a wine or coffee, studying the programs to make sure you get to all of the performances and talks you don’t want to miss. Expectations are high! You know and love some of the artists, sometimes in spite of a particular piece, but mostly because you know who they are and what they mean to do with their dance. You expect all of the new work you will see to be brilliant. You expect to gain insight, broaden horizons, find new artists for your programs and you expect an agreeable surprise here and there.

The reality is almost as good as the expectations. Indeed all of the above happens! Artists show new sides of their creativity as they explore new ideas…black and white for example…what is that about in 2010? They make a new thing out of placing their own unique movement on a physically-opposite dancer. Or an artist you didn’t know gives you a new perspective on HIV/AIDS. How is that possible? And sometimes artists offer work that’s not quite ready or not well-conceived or executed or… you’re cold and tired and annoyed because the performance started so late…so the artist doesn’t get his/her creative due. In spite of never intending to slight any artist’s creative endeavors in any way, it does happen.

And over a beer and veggie lunch you talk to someone who surely ranks among the most idiosyncratic and perceptive artists you’ve met. A pattern develops. There’s another intellectually-stimulating or amusing or lazy lunch…and another. Afternoons might be for hanging out around the Market Theater and schmoozing with old friends and new. The Market has enough leather couches and chewy crusty chocolate-oozing soul-satisfying Brownies to sustain a visitor for a very long time. It’s all so damn civilized and thoughtful and…exciting.

About Neli

Nelisiwe Xaba is a pure treat for me, a South African woman, one of few recognized female choreographers from here, and a true free dance spirit it seems. She is indeed as smart and funny and creative as some of us have suspected from following her work for awhile. In the first piece of hers I ever saw she spent considerable time in one of those large blue and red-stripped plastic shopping bags so prevalent in Africa. But that was then and the level of sophistication has jumped ten-fold. The work performed in the Market Theater the last few nights, BLACK!…WHITE?, is all new and all elegant. Political at its base, quirky and visual in execution, an exploration of  just what it means to be black or white in a world where Neli believes this is a, if not the, main social/political question. Neli is also working with Malian and Brazilian choreographers on a piece with religion as its central thesis—certainly a work to which only someone with Neli’s irreverent worldview could do justice. But there is no funding for the piece and after all Mali, South Africa and Brazil are a bit far apart so maybe the work will never get made.

Most intriguing to me, Neli has made two dances about the Hottentot Venus, a pretty young South Africa woman taken to London to “display” her extraordinary physical feature, a rather substantial derriere, to European society. A book I am reading, The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman/Born 1789—Buried 2002, will surely clarify how many tales of Saartjie’s life are apocryphal, how many bona fide. The second of Neli’s two pieces is called something like “Sarkozy rejects the Venus” and is the story of IF Saartjie had come to France!  I cannot imagine how these pieces could not be original and a pure pleasure given the peculiarity and history of the story and Neli’s wit and political sensibilities. This is a project that, with some luck and careful planning, we may be able to get to Albuquerque!

About Vincent

Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe can truly be given the label charismatic, a reality of which I was reminded last night at Dance Umbrella’s GALA opening. Vincent’s new work, SAN—destined for Albuquerque in October—was described in a previous post and I’ll come back to it in a minute. For now however I must talk just a little about the older solo, GULA. Made in 1992, it is a favorite of mine for all time. Vincent becomes a bird…as simple as that. I’ll use the description from the program to bring you further into why I like this work so much. “Gula Matari (The Birds) choreographed by the fabulous dancer Vincent Mantsoe, makes the dancer into a bird-being. One can only be fascinated by the simplicity and the accuracy of the disjointed and staccato gestures and is one of the most beautiful solos of the global contemporary repertoire.” Ayoko Mensah, Africultures, 1999”

I have a further relationship with GULA which attaches me even more deeply to the piece. In the 90s a richly-programmed and well-orchestrated artistic showcase/ conference/ festival of the African performing arts was held biennially over at least six years in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. MASA (Marché des Arts du Spectacle Africain) was my introduction to the broad range of contemporary performing arts on this continent and I was enchanted with it all. The bustling city of Abidjan, West African culture, new programs, colleagues, artists. It was a multi-layered sensual experience of tropical heat, skinny roasting chickens and fat roasting fish, the baguettes and verbosity of French colonialism and everywhere the background of West African music and vendors and traffic. In the midst of this, in the grand and rather ugly conference/arts center built for the people of the Ivory Coast by the Chinese, I saw GULA. What to say? Thank you Vincent. GULA is an exquisite gem of performance to be lodged carefully on a protected shelf but taken down as often as possible for the sheer pleasure of communing with this delicate bird being.

Just a little more about SAN—a journey begun by Vincent in a book of photographs of the rock carvings left by the Khoi-San people as they left their southern African homelands and sought new shelter. Called ‘the living people of the desert,’ connected to the origins of the human race, the Khoi-San are honored and accompanied by Vincent Mantsoe and his dancers on this leg of their trip.  Persian poetry and song offer a background somehow integral to the dance.

Vincent’s movement is so distinct that it seemed impossible that it could emanate from body types other than Vincent’s own.  His tightly constructed and sinewy body seems to be the uniquely correct container for the control, the possession so necessary to express the power of his work. So, seeing that movement placed on a rangy red-headed French guy and three women required some double-take moments for me initially—and then I LOVED IT. Aude Arago and Desiree Davids were completely mesmerizing, such different bodies channeling Vincent’s moves…extraordinary!

A Little about PJ

The surprise of Wednesday was a piece by PJ Sabbagha called DEEP NIGHT. There’s a message, all about HIV/AIDS and how deeply the “tiny, sophisticated virus permeates our minds, bodies and hearts…”, great dark video backdrop and remarkably strong and charismatic dancers in a hard-pounding, in-your-face piece. I’m looking forward to seeing the piece in its entirety on a DVD or in real life in the near future.


There was an elegant GALA reception last night where Jo’burg’s art elite mingled with champagne and tiny egg rolls in hand, sheltered from the rain, looking slick and sophisticated, schmoozing animatedly, taking on their ‘important reception’ personas. Less and less my cup of tea as I happily age out of the expectation that I might possibly ever be charming.

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