History and politics and protest should be, can be, always will be at the heart of meaningful art—including dance. This week at Dance Umbrella, the traditional Reed Dance is reconsidered, Julius Caesar revisited and Chief Maqoma remembered. Remarkable!
Dance Umbrella has nurtured, encouraged and presented the best of South African contemporary dance since 1989 as well as hosting important international companies. Through the most tumultuous years one can imagine for any country the festival has continued to showcase the internationally acclaimed talents of South African dance, make South Africans proud of their dancing sons and daughter and open the eyes of the world to this pool of innovation and originality in dance. Congratulations to everyone!
UNCLES AND ANGELS: The festival opened with Nelisiwe Xaba and Mocke J Van Veuren and an interactive dance/video work titled Uncles & Angels. Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Xaba’s work would not have expected this piece to be about pudgy celestials and their kindly old uncles. And in that sense she did not surprise!
According to Xaba, Uncles and Angels “explores questions of chastity, virginity testing, purity, and tradition…” focusing on the traditional Reed Dance as practiced for both tourist dollars and political gain in KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland. Uncles and Angels is a dance of protest about girls and the antiquated rites that encourage sexual predators and an unrealistic approach to one of South Africa’s main social issues, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS.
Xaba does dance like an angel, albeit a slightly wicked one. She is an elegant feminist whose powerful presence is extended and magnified through the stunning videography of Van Veuren.
EXIT/EXIST: Gregory Maqoma is never afraid to tell stories, both personal and political. And in so doing he dances a fine line of literality versus abstraction. Everyone has an information threshold… “Too much information” has become a common phrase. For some pure abstraction is preferable. However Exit/Exist is NOT an abstraction to be viewed through a purely personal or a determinedly detached lens. It is a story about somebody and something to which the viewer should pay attention.
Exit/Exist is the historical and familial tale of Chief Maqoma, Gregory Maqoma’s ancestor. While the theatrical accoutrements of storytelling are all about, they never overwhelm the strong, pure, beautiful dance and music of Gregory and his collaborators.
Chief Maqoma and the Xhosa nation battled the English over land and cattle, wanting their existence to be about more than simply existing. The Chief’s fight for freedom for his people moved the cause forward then and now his descendent, a dancer, continues the struggle to make all African voices heard.
The music performed by the group, Complete, feels like it represents decades or even centuries of voices raised in hope and protest.
I hope Gregory Maqoma never stops being the dancer in his dances. I can see him at 75, still completely mesmerizing in these remarkable solos with music as the equal partner to the dance—the story never overwhelming but never missing either.
QAPHELA CAESAR! Is a big dashing dance opera of which Julius Caesar would surely have approved. It was performed in the Old Stock Exchange Market Hall which gave it just the right aura of self-importance (in a good way!) and encouraged hectic over-the-top behavior and emoting.
Jay Pather, director and choreographer, is making a political statement as well as revisiting this classic tale as an always great framework for creative storytelling. He says, “My interest lies in the tension between the ‘Caesar’ and ‘Brutus’ characters, representing the good fight of the past and the political expediency of the present…”
Qaphela Caesar is full of confusion and contradiction but one is always curious about the next evolution of character and setting and action—never taking anything for granted based on previous familiarity with the story.
One test of any work is whether it engages you in spite of jet lag. I can attest to the fact that these three pieces easily overcame any tendency to lag. EXCELLENT FIRST WEEKEND.