A Journey to Johannesburg and Addis Ababa/ Chapter III: These are a Few of My Favorite Things… and People

Second day.  A dance, an exhibit of photos of dancers, a dancer dancing through and about the exhibit of photos of dancers and three more dances. After all this is a festival of dance called Danse l’Afrique danse…and they are. And dance is among my favorite things…as are cinnamon rolls, Johannesburg, Antoine, Boyzie, Panaibra …all on today’s delectable menu. 

As I watch I think how very different this array of dance looks from a typical U.S. showcase or festival. I could not make an apt description for dance experts if my life depended on it…but I can speak for untutored dance aficionados everywhere! 

Here is a place, a continent, where the past is more clearly prologue than in some other parts of the world. History’s influence is strongly felt and it does provide much of the context for the present. Sometimes that means traditions are reflected in the movement, sometimes that the political past and present are referenced—obliquely or very directly (as in today’s INKOMATI).

FIRST THE EXHIBIT: Beginning with the exhibition “Let’s Dance” I can say that Antoine Tempe’s dance photos are simply brilliant. There’s the act of dancing and then the dancer. Antoine manages to portray the heart of the actor (dancer) and the action as one thing…a multi-dimensional entity somehow captured in two dimensions.

Antoine knows everybody in this world of African dance and everyone probably has their favorite story of meeting him for the first time. Here’s mine.

I met Antoine in Madagascar (I think it was Madagascar), a sunny restaurant, a last coffee, getting ready to leave after my first edition of Danse l’Afrique danse. He was the interesting-looking French guy at the next table…we started talking and—since I was, and continue to be, curious about everything African—I asked questions. And heard the story of his walkabout in Burkina Faso or Mali, photographing the local villagers and their lives. Dinner of boiled goat’s head, then sleeping over the leftover goat’s head which was stored under the bed for safekeeping from the animals/rodents of the night.

I was full of awe and envy of this guy. My life as it should have been had I been a little braver, smarter, and more adventurous earlier….  I suppose I don’t really want to sleep over a boiled goat’s head but I choose to imagine that was the actual path intended for me if I hadn’t been waylaid by stuff.

A few of Antoine’s dance photos were on good display in an open space near the Newtown dance venue’s, the day was sunny and spring-crisp and Fana Tshabalala entertained viewers with a lovely bit of dance fun.

PERFORMANCES THEN. There were several, all interesting and engagingly performed. I can only talk about one now…and that is Boyzie Cekwana and Panaibra Gabriel Canda’s THE INKOMATI (DIS)CORD). This work has fascinated me since I first heard Panaibra and Boyzie talk about it several years ago on an extended visit to Maputo, Mozambique where they were developing this quite out of the ordinary idea.

You see, both men happen also to be thinker/philosopher/activist/political kinds of artists. So naturally something as basic to their lives as the troubled relationship of their two countries, Mozambique and South Africa, and the damage that caused in so many lives, was of interest to them.

The Inkomati Accord was a non-aggression treaty between Mozambique and South Africa (named after the Inkomati River which divides the two countries). It did not work as planned, sentenced to die by a myriad of world leaders (including the U.S.) who stood to gain by the ongoing battles between the two.

So Panaibra and Boyzie set out to make a dance based on this difficult (and to most of the world, obscure) topic. Of course. Neither of these artists has ever made work intended to appeal to the broadest possible audiences waiting to be entertained.

I am a historian (meaning I have a college history minor) so I have been curiously and anxiously awaiting this work since the beginning. And, since I admire and love what these two do so much, I was prepared to care about the work—no matter where it wandered.

I am so pleased to report that I am thrilled with The Inkomati (Dis)cord. I believe it is a brilliant uncompromising absorbing important piece of dance theater. It must come to my town before I end my presenting career. It must be contextualized in a thoughtful way because for people unaware of or disinterested in this piece of history (that would be 99% of the population) the stage has to be carefully set or they definitely won’t get enough of the content to care enough about the work. We can do that.

To tantalize you who are reading this…here are excerpts from the description in the program. “The two choreographers use this abortive treaty as a pretext to explore their unique identities, held up to the mirror of a history and geography obliterated by colonial borders….The halting gestures seem to ask the forced stereotype question: how can you be yourself when you’re being pigeon-holed with a prescribed identity? How do you move when every gesture already has connotations: white, revolutionary, tribal, martial, labourer, black?” 

There are powerful dance sequences (the duo between Panaibra and Maria is astounding and so so beautiful), tiresome emoting (that is intended—it mirrors the endless and meaningless rhetoric of political players since time immemorial—and whatever language they speak for the performance you don’t need a translation if you’ve ever listened to one political rant in your lifetime), poetry and dialogue that is pertinent and consequential (if only I understood all of it) and finally a curious grab-bag of paraphernalia which decorates set and performers.  So you understand I think this is a great piece of work!

Then we went home and I ate the rest of my cinnamon roll.

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