Blood memory the anchor in AILEY – a documentary on Alvin Ailey, Encounters Film Festival 2021Review by Tammy Ballantyne
Etched in the deep tissues of my mind is the tour of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) to SA in 2015. Seated in the Teatro at Montecasino, the performance washed over me, as I revelled in Rennie Harris’s “Exodus”; Robert Battle’s “Takademe”; “Polish Pieces” by Hans van Manen; “After the Rain” by Christopher Wheeldon and the final rousing iconic signature Ailey work, “Revelations”.
It wasn’t just the virtuosity or the acclaimed technical prowess of this company which struck me; it was the proclamation of pride in identity, of the dancers’ realisation of their own (his/her)stories, of that deep well of Ailey’s gifted vision to tell black American stories of hope, joy and tribute.
This was the second visit of AAADT to SA, the first having been in 1998, when Mandela was in the audience. Ailey himself is an essential connection to the history of SA contemporary dance; his work has inspired and encouraged many of our own dancemakers to find unique and different ways of telling our stories and holding a light up to the past. Two of our own gifted dancer/choreographers, David Matamela and Mamela Nyamza, received scholarships to train with the Ailey School in New York.
AILEY, a moving visual journey through Ailey’s life and process of creating was explained by director Jamila Wignot in a panel discussion on the documentary: “ We started with his voice; the poetry, the personal and the witness testimony. I wanted to use a visual language; there are no static frames, it is always moving…strip away the talking and let the movement do the talking.”
The documentary takes us on a journey from the studio where Rennie Harris is creating a new work to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the company to black and white archival shots of Ailey’s childhood in rural cotton-picking Texas and his mother, to old footage of Ailey’s choreographic works interspersed with brief interactions with seminal company members over the years and their poignant and vivid memories and observations of this man who gave them all a voice.
George Faison, previously an Ailey dancer, speaking in the film and also on the panel, talked of first seeing Ailey’s work and how “he entertained my thoughts and dreams that a black boy could actually dance, could escape…The history, our story was there.” Judith Jamison, who became Ailey’s muse for many works, danced with the company for 15 years, became the artistic director and is now Artistic Director Emerita shares how Ailey validated her “African-American-ness; her church…prowess and fluidity.”
Harris emotionally speaks of “the dancer as physical historian who holds the past, present and future information stored in the body.” This is ultimately the anchoring of the documentary – in Ailey’s own complex and lonely history as an only child moving constantly with his mother in search of work; of his discovery of the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo at age 14; of seeing the great Katherine Dunham and black male dancers on stage who elevated Afro-Caribbean rhythms, blues and spiritual music to the forefront; of his focus on the black American identity having to navigate spaces and shifting geographies.
“We speak on behalf of those who cannot; give voice so we can be recorded and archived. We can take the power and control who gives access,” said Gregory Vuyani Maqoma in the panel discussion. For too long, black histories have been told by white historians and Ailey found a way to change this. However, the struggle of the lonely artist and the violence of silence around this loneliness and Ailey’s solo battle with HIV AIDS and eventual death in 1989, hangs solemnly over the film; all the things that were unsaid, the shame and stigma of living with AIDS in that era, is unpacked beautifully and textually by the critical voice of Bill T. Jones (never an Ailey dancer but a sometime collaborator): “There was this shame of your ‘dirty life’, you had to edit out that history. He was alone but he participated in the editing.”
Wignot’s desire to make “a love letter” to Ailey is realised in this breath-taking documentary that takes us into the lived experience of this extraordinary man who insisted on declaring “I am”. This remains deeply significant today as Harris reminds us that “we are still feeling the same way today; as a culture we are unwanted.” The shots of the work being created in the studio, remind us of the grim reality of black Americans every day, but through this, we remain connected to Ailey’s insistence of not focussing on the oppressed voice, of acknowledging struggles but looking always for the beauty in what Wignot calls ‘the intact human community”.
World premiere Sundance 2021
A film by Insignia Films, Just Films Ford Foundation, +ImpactPartners
Jamila Wignot (director)
Jamila Wignot and Lauren De Filippo
Annukka Lilja (editor)
Daniel Bernard Roumain (original score)
* AILEY is featured on the 23rd edition of Encounters South African International Documentary Festival 10 - 20 June 2021.
The Ar(t)chive NPC partners with the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative for the world premiere of the My Body My Space Public Arts Phone Festival 2021 in mentoring and training dance writers.
As part of the My Body My Space: Public Arts Festival 2021 – ‘festival on your phone’, The Ar(t)chive undertook to produce a series of short-form reviews on many of the works being presented on this innovative platform. With the death of newspapers and more traditional forms of media, dance writing and general arts reviewing have had to find ways to stay alive and become accessible to new audiences. Covid-19 accelerated the dive into new digital forms of expression and also how people receive and comment on works we are more used to seeing as live performance. With MBMS2021 going completely digital, the opportunity presented itself to offer a nuanced and curated response to the festival. The Ar(t)chive team, consisting of dance researcher, writer and editor, Tammy Ballantyne Webber, and three exciting writing voices – Thobile Maphanga (KZN), Kivithra Naicker (South Korea/KZN) and Ntshadi Mofokeng (GAU) – rolled out very tight, short-form reviews to complement the platform.
This particular collaboration with MBMS2021 serves to contribute to encouraging dance writing in different spaces and offered a form of mentorship and guidance within a peer-review process – it was a shared process as opposed to an isolated idea of writing and produced a body of work that adds value to the artists and viewers alike .
To access the festival send ‘HI’ to +27600110444. The reviews can be found under the NEWS menu on the Whatsapp platform, or with the direct prompt ‘REVIEWS’. MBMS21 is funded by The National Department of Sports, Arts and Culture and The National Arts Council of South Africa.
Read the festival reviews below (Arranged Alphabetically by Writer)
Kivithra Naicker (South Korea/KZN)
A place to be in Smangaliso Ngwenya’s “Home?” by Kivithra Naicker
“Home?” By Smangaliso Ngwenya
Grass mats unfold and found pieces of broken board are placed like a house of cards all while the sound of a beating heart reverberates throughout this piece. There are proverbs about ‘home’ in every language and culture. Lovers tend to believe home to be a person, not a place. I have lived by the idea that I have to leave home to find home. Ngwenya’s use of physical theatre and dance reminds me that every creature works to build its home. This is particularly apparent when the performer tries to clean the space, brushing and blowing away bits of dried grass. The camera angles create a sense of watching a creature (a bird perhaps), deciding to emerge from its nest.
Hesitance and fear of the outside world is clear in Ngwenya’s movements as the camera shifts between the grass mat wall and the broken boarded shelter. The sonic contrast of a pulsating heart against what sounds like metal pieces being dragged against a concrete surface, builds the anxiety in the piece. There is a sense of uncertainty as the gust of a strong breeze arrives while Ngwenya moves between ‘homes’ to a park bench. This is a work that unpacks the deadly stress of not having a safe place to be, something often taken for granted by so many of us.
Invocations in “Alone” by Kivithra Naicker
“Alone” by Selina Mohlala
The camera pans over a figure shrouded in brick orange fabric, cross-legged, bowed torso, insect-like. Set against a transcendently wispy soundscape by Thabo Ramaine, this work has the feel of a Shaolin monk-dancer at play. Choreographed and performed by Mohlala, she evokes a ritualistic quality in costume, music, and movement: draped in fabric from head to toe, she exquisitely transforms in shape and form with each movement.
The setting is a pathway between a house and a wall, nature performing with Mohlala. Only a sliver of the dancer's face is seen before she artfully uses the body to magically morph into shapes. It’s almost like meditation, yoga, and martial arts meet dance. The physicality shifts to hurling the body through the length of that space...a spirit has come out to play.
Magnificently at 1:45 minutes, the wind appears to perform with her, augmenting the fabric to expand into a human balloon. The use of costume in this work is outstanding as the performer manoeuvres in it, present and balanced at all times. “Alone” is an invocation in which Mohlala humbly works with the elements to show us that we are actually never alone.
Making our own way by Kivithra Naicker
Kewalehile Mohonna by Bigboy Ndlovu
Performed by Ntombikayise Khumalo, Tawanda Mandara
When will we arrive at the paradise of acceptance and how much longer should we suffer the arduous journey to get there? This is the feeling I get from Bigboy Ndlovu’s Kewalehile Mohonna; full of questions and somewhat of a plea to just be: “...if I were to open my eyes, what would I be?” questions the poet alongside the chaotic movement and dramatisation in the choreography. While at times a bit too literal, the hunger for acceptance, of needing to be and feel seen is ever present. Ndlovu bravely tackles homosexuality and community in search of acceptance in a time when it is hard to come by.
This is a piece brimming with feelings that often drives the work to feel pedestrian in both movement and spoken word, without losing the message. The camera direction tends to distract and complicate the choreography unnecessarily with the music and spoken word adding too many layers. Beneath the camera effects, music, and poetry, the choreography itself is indeed moving. Ndlovu fuses contemporary movement with gritty street dance using the body to communicate frustrations and anxieties.
At 2.35 minutes into the film, we finally arrive at a moment of clarity. The duet beautifully captures the essence of this work in its simplicity as though all insecurities have painfully melted away. An evident moment of self-acceptance.
A fish on dry land in Alfred Mothlapi’s “Breathing through it all” by Kivithra Naicker
“Breathing through it all” by Alfred Motlhapi
A waterfall of plastic bottles strung together. More attached to a hat conceal the performer's face as he swims on the spot - arms outstretched in backward strokes - emotionally and physically swimming upstream. I recently saw a quote by Carla Ardito that read: “Learn how to exhale, the inhale will take care of itself” in an instagram post by a friend and artist whose recent sculptural work is light boxes that read ‘BREATHE’. A simple, yet crucial reminder in survival. “Breathing through it all” is a two-part episode in which Mothlapi conveys the difficulties of performing something as automatic as breathing. This struggle is set against an acoustic montage of heavy and light sound effects.
The soothing sound of flowing water is constant but fails to calm the tension. Mothlapi’s foot-twisting and tapping movements indicate a state of unease and unrest. The sound of water gushing in episode two heightens the nervousness. At times, it is as if Motlhapi emerged from a Jackson Pollock painting, moving to still the mind and self amidst chaos.
The performer exudes a particular state of restlessness in movement and energy. There is nothing light or airy about this work, a challenge to breathe through it all.
Archival Gems: a snapshot of Christo Doherty’s photo exhibition “Look back in delight” by Kivithra Naicker
“Look back in delight: Four years of My Body My Space in photographs” by Christo Doherty
For years, emerging artists and performers were mainly concerned with simply performing their work, documentation often being a bonus. While perusing Christo Doherty’s photographic exhibition, I am reminded of the important role of the photographer in relation to performers and performance.
This photographic exhibition is indeed a delicious visual delight documenting 24 performances in slide format, narrated by the choreographers and performers. Doherty encapsulates the concept of the exhibition as “somewhere between an internet meme and compressed “arts” television.” Vivid images slide by, less than 50 seconds per performance, teasingly enrapturing the senses. Doherty’s curation is a delicate balance of the painful and the playful. We begin in silence, paying respect to the gracious Themba “Dredz” Mbuli, a gift and a huge loss to South African dance. The visual journey of Mbuli’s “Dark Cell” unpacks the emotive quality of the performance with each image. Thulani Chauke’s powerfully gentle presence recurs in the exhibition with “Messed up Swans” exuding a particular sense of unbridled joy.
Doherty sensitively captures the essence of every performance, each emitting its own charm. From the deconstructive work by Unmute Dance Company; to PJ Sabbagha’s mystical “Forest Dance” which tests the eye to spot the trees from the dancers; to the superhero-esque “Fly Qhawe/Fly Man” by Oupa Sibeko, the feast does not stop!
The intimacy of Jade Bowers “Jungfrau” comes through in each shot of two bodies moving and breathing together while the intricacies of a blanket, foam, and the tears of Kwanele "Finch" Thusi’s “Cindir Sile” (performed with his father), are palpable. Doherty successfully captures and arranges ephemeral moments of site-specific performance that takes us on a journey through time.
...and when you are poor, nobody cares by Kivithra Naicker
“Currently (G)old” by Molatelo Tracy Maffa
If there is one thing South Africans can get on board with (especially during a pandemic), it has to be laughter. We are a nation that laughs at our problems and pain; a nation that will find humour even in the darkest of times. Loadshedding pun intended! Maffa satirises the very real issues people face in a chuckle-inducing five-part docu-series. An original concept by KWASHA! 2019, “Currently (G)old” succinctly captures the absurdity and futility that marks the lives of South Africans.
Sibusiso Mkhize in episode 1 cleverly portrays our president as he addresses the nation. The confused silence that follows moments of ‘serious talk’ emphasises the tendency of government officials to say a lot, without actually saying anything. Maffa’s use of Robert Sobukwe’s inaugural speech (April, 1959) as a prelude and conclusion to episode 1 is as relevant as ever.
We meet Charmy (Venus Chappie), advocating for student rights at WITS during a pandemic, and Elizabeth (Agnes Kitavi), echoing the plight of waterless, sanitiser-less, cramped living conditions, highlighting the privilege that is social distancing. Episode 4 welcomes the obnoxious ‘South African Karen’ called Janice (Miriam Mayet); the trolley-pushing mall-walking loud-talking shopper who exhibits the ignorance and privilege of the middle class. Through these characters, Maffa has created a hard-hitting series in “Currently (G)old” - hilarious and painful in one breath.
Activism is very much Art! in “I want [to do] more” by Kivithra Naicker
“I want [to do] more: A piece of protest in progress” by Hayleigh Evans
It took two failed attempts at typing in the prompt POPArt only to arrive at no video but a passage of text until I realised this ‘performance’ diverges in the best way. Yes, the digital fatigue is strong, along with a general reluctance to absorb text off of a screen but please follow through, especially if you too, want to do more.
Evans calls this “a social-good experiment” as she and the POPArt team set out to create a project based on the desire [to do]. 2020 was a year of protests with people coming together amidst a pandemic in solidarity for and with each other in defiance of police brutality, GBV statistics and other injustices. Desensitisation to violence and cruelty is a common factor in our society but still, hope is not lost.
Evans curates an inspiring community-based performative-protest using Whatsapp to reach a wider audience. Audience participation is called upon in following the POPArt1 prompt if you have something to protest. A series of questions leads to an invitation to respond however one would like (an image, artwork, song, poem, video, voice-note). You are invited to become an activist for your cause, to respond , and to discover and connect with like-minded members. I It is as simple as it sounds: a space to act even as we isolate. After all, if we want more, we surely have to do more.
You can’t see faith in “Prayer Room” by Kivithra Naicker
“Prayer Room” by Lorin Sookool
A pair of feet stick out from two church pews turned upside down, twitching, physically responding to the audio conversation that plays through this work. In “Prayer Room”, Sookool captivates frame after frame as she playfully, and sometimes, eerily, performs with unused church pews. An audio-visual response to the lives of three senior citizens based in Durban during Covid-19, Sookool draws from conversations conducted over a two-month telephonic research process to amplify the power of human connection in this piece.
“Prayer Room” proves that God lives in the details - in the care and friendship in Sookool’s voice as she speaks to each person, mostly listening. Laughter, chatter about “bathing in dettol” accompanies Sookool’s shift in movement between light and heavy, burdened as she carries a pew on her back. There is a physical response to the laments of the government failing the Wentworth community in the movement. The sound of a siren signalling the arrival of food is erratic and laborious, exhibiting struggles of a normalised chaos.
Videographer, Tania Vossgatter, captures the simple aesthetic of this solo performance, creating shadows and trios of a dancing Sookool - walking, rolling, running through, and with the pews. The lighting warms with the conversation as the speakers unpack their connection to love and faith, their weapon of choice in trying times. A familiar, yet remarkable work.
Boxed in with the new ‘normal’ in Christelle Dryer’s “What the World” by Kivithra Naicker
“What the World” by Christelle Dryer
A breeze blows us into a blue house toward a resting being in a box, gradually awakening from a deep slumber. At the sight of Christelle Dreyer in the box with one leg out, I feel as though the dancer in those musical jewellery boxes has come to life. The sweet sound of the piano lulls the senses as the performer acquaints herself with the surroundings. She remains in the box, surveying the environment top to bottom, contemplating stepping out.
As Dreyer attempts to make sense of the world around her, it feels as if one is watching a private moment. That is, until she makes eye contact with the camera acknowledging an audience. Dreyer’s slow, steady, and sustained movements resemble an infant taking in the world, bit by bit, while the obsessive repertoire of hands never being clean enough is indicative of current times.
Although soothing in music and movement, this work propels the impending questions that many of us try to avoid: should we have hugged each other tighter? Spent more time with our families? Is being alone the new normal? “What the World” unboxes the emotional impact of COVID-19 that has transformed the world as we know it.
Ntshadi Mofokeng (GAU)
A snapshot of our times and a promise to heal in “Bucitheka Bugayiwe || Thokola Themba” by Ntshadi Mofokeng
“Buchitheka Bugayiwe || Thokola Themba” by Cebolenkosi Zuma and Shane Cooper
Through movement and setting, “Bucitheka Bugayiwe || Thokola Themba” captures some of the states of mind we have passed through as individuals and collectively in these uncertain times, and perhaps reassures us that this too shall pass.
Cebolenkosi Zuma leads us through 3 scenes that I’ve dubbed “freedom, conflict and healing.” This physical journey is marked by an easy walk down urban streets, frenzied movement in the confines of an austere interior, before reaching an idyllic, scrubby, rock setting where he regains his energy. One wonders whether he is the last man standing in an apocalyptic world. The presence of thin wires, first in the periphery and then in the centre of the shot, creates a sense of physical and psychological tension, evoking our wound up and worn-down nerves.
In the final scene we encounter a mysterious monk-like character sawing his bow across the wire. His contained repetitive movement is contrasted with the gradually expanding movement of Zuma who seems to rely on the wire as a lifeline.
The reflection of how our now circumscribed and unsettled lives is palpable, but we are not left feeling stuck. Zuma’s choreography and performance alongside Shane Cooper’s musical direction offers us a musically rich and visually enticing promise that healing is both possible and inevitable.
Memories to make one’s own in Doherty’s “Look back in delight” exhibition by Ntshadi Mofokeng
“Look back in delight: Four years of My Body, My Space in photographs” by Christo Doherty
A time machine awaits on the other side of the Whatsapp prompt “Photos.” If you’ve been to Emthonjeni for the My Body, My Space festival, the exhibition might feel like a sentimental walk down memory lane. New initiates, like myself, who haven’t experienced the live edition, are welcomed into these memories through the guidance of the choreographers’ audio commentary. Those who are old enough would liken the experience to listening to an older relative’s stories while flipping through a photo album.
Tidbits of music and moments of silence would enhance the storytelling aspect of what is, essentially, a different kind of performance; a delightful one at that. I wish for more time with certain images to heighten the experience. I found myself struck with a sense of nostalgia or longing to be standing amongst the audience members, who are included in the foreground and background of the photographs. The communion and energy exchange between artists and revelers is captured against the beautiful landscape.
The short video streams allow one to quickly get a bird’s eye view of the festival across the years. Unplanned coincidences occur to the viewer, such as the couplets of shared images/themes which I picked up by randomly dipping into different prompts. The bright white shirts of 2017’s “Forel Paradys” by Athena Mazarakis with FATC and “Breaking the Cycle” by Funeka Ramorula are an easy visual pairing. Other matches are seen across time, such as Moeketsi Koena’s “Toro” (2019) and Sylvester Thami Majela’s “A Last One in Colour” (2018) sharing the use of chalky white face paint while both exploring the spiritual and divine. Koena’s a cappella vocalisation set his photoset apart from the others by invoking the sounds that were likely part of the piece.
Abuse, of children and of women, weighs heavily as the topic of “Children of the New World” (2018) by Tanzania’s Samwel Japhet Silas and “#Moi” (2019) by Madagascan Gabi Saranouffi, respectively. The latter clip starts briefly in French before switching over to English. That moment of not understanding the audio invites one to peer in closer to the images for a clue, as one might have while viewing the live night-time performance.
This experimental exhibition is an important contribution to the South African dance archive, offering future generations a look into a festival that turns all the traditional conventions of stage-bound festivals on their head to champion accessibility to and integration with the community.
More splash than flash Ntshadi Mofokeng
“Meetse/Water” by Jabu Mpho Makuwa
Listen closely to what the water tells us in Jabu Mpho Makuwa’s “Meetse/Water.” The drip and splash of water is contrasted with the shuffle and slapping of feet against dry concrete. But is there more to it?
The piece is accessible for young audiences who can connect with the literal presence and absence of water. We are teased by the water as the piece starts and then left wondering where it went as Jabu cups his ear listening for any sign of it. There are some clear motifs that can be picked up to spark conversation about symbolism with young audiences, such as “looking or listening for water.” They may even imitate Jabu as he searches for and then thrashes about in the water. Hopefully without causing as much of a splash!
Jabu’s message about the wasteful use of water by those who have it in abundance is very clear, however the contrary theme of the hardship of not having access to it does not translate as fully. The framing of the camera, occasionally, obscures the fullness of the choreography – particularly by zooming in and out when Jabu transitions from pensive to rhythmic and sharp motions. The power of “Meetse/Water” lies in its simple natural soundscape.
“The Deepest Moves of a Broken Man” are passed on to a new generation by Ntshadi Mofokeng
“The Deepest Moves of a Broken Man” by Lawrence Simelane
“The Deepest Moves of a Broken Man” is a short film capturing the bittersweet baton passing, from one generation to the next, of isipantsula, a South African street dance culture. The artistic direction cleverly pulls from the 1990s township TV drama style guide to tell a compelling, uncluttered story.
The inauspicious sound of a shaking matchbox carries us through the opening montage of chain link fences and long-abandoned items into a moody interior where we meet the titular “broken man” portrayed by choreographer, Lawrence Simelane. Menacing at first, he softens when he puts on his singular white glove. As his spotty hat twirls across his body to land adeptly on his knee, the suppressed pantsula energy throbbing in Simelane’s veins is made palpable.
On discovering the discarded hat and glove outside in the brightness of day, a youthful Dimpho Sekonyela represents the possibility of continuity. He delivers a punchy sequence that starts with the classic pantsula headshake. His now gloved hand delivers punctuated, angular gestures. Reminiscent of a camera shutter capturing each frame, he strikes each pose in quick succession.
We are left hopeful that a new generation is charged to carry on the tradition of isipantsula with great eagerness.
Creating together but apart in “From where we are” by Ntshadi Mofokeng
“From where we are” by Lucia Walker
Teasing at the quintessential challenge of our pandemic-bound lives, “From where we are” asks: how can we be together in meaningful ways while apart? The cast of four women explores and shares across technology (zoom), space (indoors and outdoors) and time (3 parts).
The cast primarily appears on screen together, although each is contained in her own quadrant of the screen as well as the bounds of her interior location. The differences in the rooms shape each dancer’s range of movement: two have access to a larger area which allows them to do more floor work and change their location relative to the camera. The other two are restricted to moving in a lateral plane. It is a literal breath of fresh air when episode two presents a series of outdoor solos which occur sequentially, rather than simultaneously, as these are easier to view on the small screen. The transitions between each solo are marked by the overlapping of a gesture. It would be striking for this choreographic device to be repeated in the quartet sections as well.
Where to lay one’s eyes is a recurring question for the viewer during this piece. With further development, the ensemble could amplify the synergy between their individual movement expressions.
Plunger O Plunger, our great work is made by Ntshadi Mofokeng
“Plunger O Plunger O Plunger” by Oupa Sibeko
A cheeky take on what the art-making process looks like awaits the viewer in “Plunger O Plunger O Plunger” by Oupa Sibeko. Stark white gallery walls are traded for the intimacy of a black box theatre as Sibeko challenges us to enjoy the process of making art as much as the final work. He offers a light-hearted, and ever timely reminder not to take ourselves too seriously as artists and appreciators.
The title, “Plunger O Plunger O Plunger,” sounds exasperated with the humble plunger while recalling the Walt Whitman poem “O Captain, My Captain.” The poem and Sibeko’s piece share the themes of victory and loss: the feat of producing a work one is proud to share, alongside the draining effect of harvesting one’s soul to make it. We watch Sibeko, in a fixed tight shot, pluck away, first, at the floor around him, then his torso, and ultimately, his head. The plunger doubles as a musical instrument with its range of pops, squeaks, and mimicry of bodily functions that we don’t usually discuss in polite company.
When presented with Sibeko’s framed piece de resistance, one can’t help but chuckle. It is clear in this moment that “Plunger O Plunger O Plunger” must have a real-life life tour across art fairs and galleries, coaxing the viewer to revisit how they think about, and consume, art.
Phuti Chokwe breaks through more than rocks by Ntshadi Mofokeng
“Breaking through” by Phuti Chokwe
What starts off with the literal act of “Breaking Through” rocks with a silver pickaxe, develops into an evocative embodiment of escaping constraints. Phuti Chokwe, choreographer and performer, conveys this tension from two different planes. First, the low and rooted stance from which she rains blows upon a rock directly in front of her. The second, a standing position where she reaches outwards and skywards. Her gaze, which mostly avoids the camera, invites one to look more intently.
Chokwe’s participation in the MBMS Digital Dance Mentorship Programme is evident in her clever marriage of setting - an expansive high vantage point - and camera position - effectively alternating close up with wide shot. The rainy weather contributes its own lighting effects which heighten the contrast in the intercut edits as they change from bright to moody. A striking lingering image is of Chokwe as an ostrich when her body quivers, ruffling her black dress like wings shaking off rain drops.
Her triumphant crescendo is ours, too, as we have journeyed with her, moving through unease and loss. I almost wish she hadn’t turned and walked away but, rather, ended the piece in the confrontational full-frontal squat, with her hard-working arms finally at rest. In that power stance, she wipes away the image of the unsure and hesitant person who first walked into the piece.
Absence is the main protagonist of “Inqalo: Boys Who Do Not Queue” by Ntshadi Mofokeng
“Inqalo: Boys Who Do Not Queue” by Thozama Busakwe
True to the artist's statement, “Inqalo: Boys Who Do Not Queue” is primarily a poetic meditation set in an anonymous enclave of nature, surrounded by greenery and nourished by a passing stream. The monologue, delivered as a voice over, does the heavy lifting in conveying the meaning and purpose of the sparsely choreographed piece.
“Inqalo’s” visual language aches with absence - with what is not seen. A crackling fire barely illuminates a consuming darkness. Crisp white shirts of varying sleeve lengths hang in the sunlit tree canopy. The murky stream alternately rushes by or washes over Busakwe when he submerges himself. Busakwe’s words thud heavily through the 3-part piece invoking and summoning the catharsis of the “Boys Who Do Not Queue.” We are made to bear witness to their struggles of rejection; firstly by family, secondly by society, and finally in the hallowed rite of passage. A rite of passage that when withheld denies young, gay, black boys the privilege of drinking from the poisoned chalice of masculinity.
Through the audio and cinematography, Busakwe delivers a one-two punch damning the predominant practice of masculinity which inflicts violence, physically and psychologically, on those who do not conform.
Tammy Ballantyne Webber (GAU)
Private conversation of “Between Us” needs a different space by Tammy Ballantyne
“Between Us” by Marlin Zoutman and Yaseen Manual
Two dancing bodies appear as one, intertwining, mirroring each other with liquid grace, dressed the same in orange billowing shirts and jeans. I want the lens to go closer, to bring them into sharp focus. I want to see more of the bodies but the static camera stays wide-angled. The dancers are far away.
“Between Us”, billed as an ode to friendship and the human spirit, has been filmed in a studio set up for a performance, which only allows for a front-on view; this flattens out the work, which detracts from the quiet simplicity and fluid synchronicity of the choreography. The theme is suited to a more intimate viewing experience and a site that would have allowed for a tangible exploration of the relationship. Especially as Manuel and Zoutman exude a quiet, gentle lyricism, evident of their familiarity and ease with each other.
It is clear that this is a snippet of a larger work and we are left wanting more, longing to see the progression and development. The sudden ending is abrupt and disappointing. I challenge the duo to work with a videographer and get outside, find an inspirational space and re-start the conversation.
Playful moments with peeping Agulhas by Tammy Ballantyne
“Blom Saam’ by Gladys Agulhas
Disembodied arms and muscular fingers flutter and fly against a white background. They beckon our eyes to follow and play as the gentle strains of a piano provide the music to this tiny work for young children.
The opening shadow play of “Blom Saam” by Gladys Agulhas is rapid-fire, hands like flowers folding and unfolding, dissolving to a close up of her arms calling and reaching for us along a white wall, her head peeping almost, but not-quite, around the corner. The repetition of the movements draws us in and then her legs with feet in slops arrive centre-screen, pushing through a frame, the lens is trained along the ground. Suddenly she is there, briefly, then disappears behind a curtain, and then again. A playful peek-a boo which ends with her back to the camera, fingers creeping up the wall.
Created as part of ASSITEJ South Africa’s In the Works Dance Solo programme, Agulhas offers a delightful explorative work that feels just too short; there is definitely more that can be pulled out, perhaps in a sequel, so little ones can really absorb and respond to the invitation to play and interact.
Aloneness not the answer to Tony’s search for identity by Tammy Ballantyne
“Figures in Identity” by Adrian Tony (Smurf)
A hip hop artist, born in Birmingham, living in SA, Adrian Tony (Smurf) is hungry for knowledge and training. A FATC trainee in 2020, he fell in love with contemporary dance and his work “Figures in Identity” portrays a young man who has journeyed far to discover himself and his potential.
Although the music chosen for the piece is emotive and the lyrics echo the theme, Tony’s performance is calm, intentional and measured. He is comfortable in his body, his loose, open movements claim the wide open space and hug the walls and pillars of a building deep within the forest.
The juxtaposition of a hip, street-wise form such as hip hop with the rural forest setting, feet scuffing bark in well-worn trainers, works well in this format. In fact, this collision of style with space aptly sums up his predicament of existing as a “tumbleweed” with “no home to run to”. Yet the home and community that FATC has given him is evident through his commitment to his work and his acknowledgement of his mentors in the credits.
The theme of identity is a strong one running through MBMS2021 with many choreographers and dancemakers highlighting this search for self and the urgent need to be within, to be connected, to be held by others in a time of great isolation.
Lament of “Four” captures agony of loneliness and fear by Tammy Ballantyne
“Four by Nomfundo Hlongwa, Lusanda Dayimani, Zanele Siko and Nkemiseng Khena
The plaintive cry of “Mama, uphi?” echoes across the black and white frames, in which four women are isolated, each in their own location: a broken-down yard; a corner near a wall and gate, a bathroom draped with underwear, and a tiny passage between corrugated iron roofs. The fear is palpable.
The opening refrain highlights the cry of women all over SA who suffer abuse and shame; who are trapped in lives they cannot always change. The quartet have successfully managed to meld haunting music and song - “Yini Mama?” striking a painful chord – with powerful images of women’s bodies under siege. One of the strongest moments happens when Nomfundo Hlongwa is in the shower, seen from above and then behind, her powerful back in view, shuddering and heaving as she seeks cleansing.
They have clearly benefited from the MBMS Digital Dance Mentorship Programme as the editing is neat and segues from one frame into four, all bodies moving at the same time. They have chosen camera angles and close-ups that really draw us into those hiding places. We are left with little hope as one of the four frantically locks the gates and checks whether she is “safe” inside her yard, muttering under her breath as the scene fades out.
Philosophical “Keitumetse” offers happiness as a revolution by Tammy Ballantyne
“Keitumetse” by Joel Leonard, Sketch Productions; performed by Hanna N van Tonder and Kutloana Headbush
A perfect powder-blue sky with cotton-wool clouds opens “Keitumetse” by Joel Leonard and performed by Hanna N van Tonder and Kutloana Headbush. A bright yellow balloon is suspended, gently floating in the air as calm, measured voices expound ideas around happiness and debatable views on what happiness means to different people.
A fairy-like character with flowers in her hair and a lacy, gold tutu dress appears on the lush green lawn, attached to the balloon, while the second performer, dressed all in black, unfolds herself into the space . A mellow, playful duet unfolds between them, using everyday movements and contact improvisation. The voiceover seems to be the main protagonist here as we are urged to think about states of contentment and bliss as being something to strive for.
The balloon is liberated and released, echoing the spoken words: that a realisation of inner joy will free us; if we are in touch with our truth and embodied physicality, then we will find radical joy. The work is charming and wholesome, an acute contrast to the many dealing with social issues and the fall-out of isolation. There is a sense of peace as the soothing voices become a meditation, drifting away…
Elemental “Kitso” explores cleansing as a path to rejuvenation by Tammy Ballantyne
“Kitso” by Letlhogonolo Nche, performed by Otsile Israel Masemola
“Kitso”, choreographed by Letlhogonolo Nche and performed by Otsile Masemola, uses the outdoors and the symbol of water (a prominent theme at #MBMS2021) to take us on a journey of a young man’s struggle with identity and his desire to wash himself clean, to shake off the expectations of society.
Masemola is in a busy street, carrying a big bucket of water (on his head), surrounded by cars, taxis and all the sounds of urban life. He stands alone on a traffic island, in an overcoat and a hat, masked and seemingly marooned. Cut to him now balancing on the bucket, unmasked, emitting a slow and silent scream.
Fast forward to the sound of a stream burbling, birds singing and Masemola sauntering down a dusty path (bucket on his head – a nod to ideas around gender stereotyping and the task of fetching and carrying water which is traditionally a woman’s role), towards a sunlit patch surrounded by trees where he carefully places the bucket down. The ritual unfolds: the pouring of water, then walking in the bucket which becomes stamping, harder and harder, his breath audible, building now to a full-throated scream of frustration and release.
He washes and washes himself and although his movements are frantic, the choreography is deliberate. The camera is angled low to the ground much of the time, perhaps a few more close-ups would have made the piece more intimate. But the message is clear: a yearning for feeling refreshed, as he (clothed again) and the bucket (securely on his head), disappears into the distance.
Home is where the (he)art is in Darion Adams’ “Reclamation: Home” by Tammy Ballantyne
“Reclamation: Home” by Darion Adams
Assorted clothes on washing-lines flutter in the sunshine and breeze. Darion Adams appears amongst them, as if part of them, mimicking the to and fro of the clothes as they lift and drop, lift and drop, gently and quietly. His voice tells us about home, “a starting place of love, hope and dreams…of memories”.
“Reclamation: Home” is a reflection on the idea of home as a safe space, a comfortable space but also (as outlined in his programme notes) a place which he has struggled to love: “living on the Cape Flats, I always wanted a different house”. This work offers his truthful retrieval of his home space. Reminding me of an old, much-handled photograph, it is shot in washed out colours, a grainy texture and hue, pixelated and indistinct, as his body winds, curls and hangs on the line, amongst intimate garments or engages with concrete and metal.
The stark setting of dusty ground and steel stairways contrasts with his soothing voice and malleable, supple body. Every move is intentional and focussed. Tazz Simons’ placid guitar-strumming and tuneful humming provide atmosphere, giving the viewer a Polaroid snapshot of Adams’ acceptance of (his)tory nestled in his family albums.
Undercover operator breaks free in “The Clandestine” by Tammy Ballantyne
“The Clandestine” by Thabo Ramaine
Thabo Ramaine obviously enjoyed creating this short dance film – it is vivid, carefully structured and employs the use of various virtual backgrounds and special effects to convey his message of “finding the power within himself”. Using the theme of self-realisation, he manages to take us on a swift 2:28 minute journey into diverse realms both physical and psychological.
Phase one finds Ramaine in a cave-like environment, complete with smoke (dry ice?) and fire. A well-delivered voiceover speaks of being “a prisoner in my own mind” while Ramaine can be seen filmed front-on, clothed in a black plastic skirt and head-covering. The metaphor of concealment is developed through his expressive use of his torso and shoulder movements, much of the time with his back to the viewer.
Phase two is the break-out: we are transported to open spaces with trees, green fields and cascading waterfalls, delivering the message of opening up and overcoming obstacles in life. His movement vocabulary becomes extended and fluid.
While the work is a tad melodramatic, Ramaine shows promise with his clarity of thought and ability to communicate a theme. He has clearly taken on board some of the lessons learnt through the MBMS21 Digital Dance Mentorship programme.
Gritty location resonates with grim subject matter in The Knot by Tammy Ballantyne
“The Knot” by Roseline Wilkens for Vuyani Dance Theatre
The decaying backdrop of Newtown, Johannesburg is a central figure in Roseline Wilkens’
“The Knot” for Vuyani Dance Theatre. Experimental in tone and atmosphere, she draws on tacky, broken, weed-infested spaces to set the scene for a work revolving around the theme of GBV.
The use of spoken word – “tie me in a knot” – interplays with shots in colour as well as black and white, of graffiti-splashed pillars that are overlaid with images of the performers, woven in and out of the scene. A jarring but thankfully, brief, duet is perhaps too graphic, heightened by the sound of crying. It is a difficult and emotionally-wrought theme and must be highlighted by artists in an activist space but it is never easy to watch and process.
A particularly effective moment captures the four performers dancing as an ensemble in a sunny street; a glimpse of freedom and escape from the bonds that trap us.
Wilkens has attempted some interesting filmic effects but they need to be drawn together, to weave the rope that ties the knot. There are perhaps too many images offered to us in 5 minutes and the background traffic noise is at times very intrusive. With more developmental processes, this work will grow.
Thobile Maphanga (KZN)
A silent saunter through "Childhood Mementos" by Thobile Maphanga
"Childhood Mementos" by Amanda Guma
A hand trails through a meadow, a close up of a takkied-foot on a lightly worn path, a body moves through a field of tall grass. Our first front on encounter with Amanda Guma is as she pounces into shot and playfully beckons us to follow her down memory lane. The camera obliges and we are transported into an inner sanctum.
Almost unbelieving of where she's landed, she surveys the space and her body before being pulled into her dance of childhood wonder. She moves with keen energy as she explores the mementos of her past, bringing them close and sometimes pushing and shaking them away. The static camera and slight curving of the screen gives a peephole effect, as if we're stealing moments of her daydream. She is aware of us as her never-quite-clear face turns to the camera, smiling.
She barrel jumps and we're back in the field lying horizontal; she leaps as if startled. Grabbing at her clothes, she adjusts to the outside again. Her movements are pointed, long limbs extend towards the camera that recedes before it returns to rest on her foetal self.
A silent solo in three parts, "Childhood Mementos" is youthful and lovely.
Monuments of womxn in Doherty’s “Look back in delight” by Thobile Maphanga
“Look back in delight: Four years of My Body My Space in photographs” by Christo Doherty
Christo Doherty’s 4 year documentation of “My Body My Space” takes on an innovative and interactive platform allowing viewers to contemplate visual memoria on demand. In this experimental exhibition, incorporating sound bites from the artists that reveal contextual textures to the works, still images glide past and zoom into place. This layering breathes renewed life into the performances in this “compressed ‘arts’ television mode”.
I am particularly drawn to how Doherty has memorialised women in performance, capturing the many roles we have to straddle and hats we wear (or those that wear us). From the wildly fierce trio in Shawn Mothupi’s “(Un)titled” celebrating the deific, dynamic and different qualities of women; to Musa Hlatshwayo’s “Dudlu...Dadlaza”, a duet of young ladies adorned in white, interrogating their socially constructed lives; to the gravitas of the oppressive weight and darkness women bear in Lulu Mlangeni’s “Confined”, all images capture the courage and unstoppable essence of the feminine.
Qiniso Zamandla ‘Q’ Zungu’s “Beaded - Ukuphicana” is definitely a highlight for me, with body parts that bow, burst and break through the earth. Arms reaching, a solo foot flexed towards the heavens, the vivid pictures and voiceover captivated my attention by gently holding the essence of both artist and performance whilst enticing me to want to see more, but also embody that space.
Themba Mbuli leaves us a reminder to “Breathe” by Thobile Maphanga
“Dark Cell: Breathe” by Themba “Dreads” Mbuli in collaboration with Louise Westerhout
Mbuli’s offering for #MBMS21 is a continuation of his first-ever independent solo, "Dark Cell", (2012) which examined the scarring effects of imprisonment as a metaphor for mental instability. The sequel spotlights the psyche, letting the audience into private therapy sessions. A single spotlight, a metal bucket, and doctor-patient recordings distil into 4 notes.
Note 1: Run, not. STAY
An often impossible instruction to heed when challenged. Rather the body flees, darting in and out of darkness, scampering and rolling in sometimes dimmed opacity. When the conked bucket flies off the head, realisations welcomed somehow free one to stay.
Note 2: I am here
Crawling around the floor, observing inner thoughts like "How dare someone care about you?" zoom into body parts - feet, dragging hand, head in a bucket. Presence overturns upside-down cycles of head-in-the-sand-ness.
Note 3: It’s nobody’s fault
The silver helmet stuck as blame jostles the body. The slapping of the buckethead creates a cacophonous storm distorted by overlapped speech that breaks to reveal an empty pool of light.
Note 4: Breathe
An eerie ocean soundscape is interlaced with baby cries that turn to seagulls. Perched on the bucket trying to hold his footing; one foot, two. Arms, sometimes a leg, stretch out reaching for balanced stability, flail. The bucket audibly crumples into a shiny mass.
“Dark Cell: Breathe” is an intimate gift from a beloved departed dance artist unafraid to share his personal struggles for our collective healing. Lala ngoxolo Themba “Dreads” Mbuli.
Letters that plead “Don’t Label Me” by Thobile Maphanga
"Don't Label Me" choreographed by Nadine McKenzie (Unmute Dance Company) and performed by Siphenathi Mayekiso
Interrogating how we see, perceive, and ultimately box people, Nadine McKenzie’s “Don’t Label Me” unfolds as letters to the womb, the world and self. It deals with the all too annoying human obsession of defining and categorising, probing to what end?
Siphenathi Mayekiso’s solo body writhes from a crouched foetal position at the ocean's edge as a voice poetically poses questions to the womb that birthed it. The ocean’s ebb and flow rolls, cajoles, and eventually pushes him out of shot and into a bustling cityscape. With erratically spliced sounds of human and vehicle traffic juxtaposed with sudden stark silences the same body, now covered in post-it labels, walks, sometimes teetering, through unexpecting crowds that turn to stare.
Someone hurls "Corona monkey", as the camera captures some of the unforgiving labels. Mayekiso's movement stutters in staccato, like a stuck record only to be soothed by the shift to a vacated space where the body reappears, accompanied only by the wind and blowing bits of labels. Gentle circular movements extending into all limbs start to shed the labels in swirls reminiscent of peeling off layers of clothing. The camera wittily sees through the labels and captures the only one that remains.
Conflicting Torture in Phumlani Nyanga’s “Intlonzi” by Thobile Maphanga
“Intlonzi” by Phumlani Nyanga
A look into the internal struggles of masculinity, asking, “what is the role of man?”, this well executed dance film, choreographed and performed by Phumlani Nyanga under the mentorship of David Thatanelo April, left me conflicted.
The film opens with a close up of a well-dressed man’s face,shoulders bowed, hands clasped, lost in thought. A door creaks and slams shut, setting off a persistent pacey beat, accompanied by anxious foot tapping, pacing, shifting and the sounds of bottles breaking. We are stuck in a bare room with an ottoman and a man in a crisp shirt, shiny pants and slick tie brawling with himself. Although empty, the room feels tight as the camera is shoved in corners and doorways to capture the building frustration that bursts into physical and mental battles.
The contrast of costume and set is indicative of the appearances he tries to uphold that only strangle him further. The movement, cyclic and repetitive in the winding of expressive hands, tapping and wringing of the head and beating on walls, shifts from being protective of self and aggressive in infliction.
I am sometimes sympathetic to this tortured soul but also annoyed at my sympathy of male guilt.
"LEAP" induces cravings of tangible togetherness by Thobile Maphanga
LEAP by the FATC's Local Education in Arts Programme
LEAP, bursting with youthful energy and fusing contemporary dance technique with street styles, is performed in various locations to pacey soundtracks.
The Community-Based arts education programme by FATC offers 4 works by 7 choreographers, showcasing the emerging talent of eMakhazeni.
An explosive drum captured in slow motion opens "Abangoni". The dramatic opening is carried through in the big-production styled effects overused in the editing. This piece reminds me of a massive musical number with percussive drums and a large ensemble. The performers are spirited and deserving of a big stage and audience.
"Togetherness" takes us outside where mask-clad dancers show us their moves in groups of unison or solos to an electronic beat.
"Restricted" features six socially distanced girls performing to a discordant soundtrack. The grain of the black and white video set against a backdrop of hard concrete and train lines, with the use of repetition performed in unison and canons, creates an effect of something somewhat sinister spreading.
"Rethabile/Happiness" closes the programme with another big number energetically performed outdoors, cluttered with VFX.
This programme made me miss live performance as I craved to see and feel the energy between these young dancing souls and how a live audience would receive them.
For better or worse O lesika la ka by Thobi Maphanga
“The Process/Lesika” by Teresa Phuti Mojela and Katlego Chale
A duet in 6 bite-size parts, "Lesika" meaning family/relative, depicts the interrelatedness of life through the ever-connected experiences of twins. From the adorable gentle snuggling of kin in the womb to finding their feet and searching for independence in the world, we are drawn into the somewhat unsettled intimacy of support, dependence, and search for autonomy.
Shot on a darkened stage, with only a lighting rig and wire to make up the set, this contemporary dancework uses uncomplicated film and editing technique to aptly capture the comedy and tension of sibling bonds and human relations. The vocal text and percussive body sounds add a soundscape that intensifies to a haunting crescendo reminding us that familial ties are often tough to break.
Teresa Phuti Mojela and Katlego Chale, mostly in frame together, embody relations at various stages of life with ease, and even in their intercut solos capture a sense of unrelenting connection to the other.
“Lesika” evoked a myriad of feelings and memories of being in lockdown with a family member. The roles we took on, for ourselves and for each other. The simple joys of having each other, and the sheer frustrations of only having each other.
A kind of blues in “The Colour Blue” by Thobile Maphanga
“The Colour Blue” by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
“The Colour Blue” is a fitting title for this series of micro films categorised into four subheadings that make up a sombre response to the times we find ourselves in. The clashing of the pandemics wreaked on the world last year conspire to reveal questionable traits about humanity.
An evocative soundscape that demands your attention as faceless bodies, sometimes veiled, sometimes silhouetted and sometimes beheaded, move to a recurring poem. A vexed voice is juxtaposed with la-dee-da looking movements and trenchant gestures. Breath, language, traffic and the hooting of a train create an atmosphere that traverses various geographies and recalls many migrations.
This series amalgamates various movement styles with simple choreographic devices to depict a world of multiplicities and contradictions. The overuse of split screen is at times distracting but has its moments of genius, namely in “Tick”, that left even my 6 year old niece awestruck. I am pleasantly surprised to hear the Cape-Coloured accent and weirdly comforted by the Afrikaans testimonials in “The Time of Covid”.
Although this is some kind of blue, it is always reassuring to know that young minds and bodies are engaging in the politics of the world.
"The Spaces In-Between" meditates on space and how we inhabit it by Thobile Maphanga
"The Spaces In-Between" by Sithembiso "Sthe Khali" Khalishwayo
A soothing meander through natural environments intermittently disrupted by the unflattering markings of civilisation, Sithembiso Khalishwayo's "The Spaces In-Between" is all space and minimal body. Shot by a roving hand-held camera, the sometimes jerky journey is smoothed by the soothing jazz instrumental of Makwenkwe "Mackay" Davashe's "Lakutshon'ilanga".
Hands deliberately washed in a soapy plastic basin, the opening shot is one of two moments of purposeful physical movement in the film. The cleansing gesture is juxtaposed with recyclable waste discarded amongst weeds. We're transported through a robust vegetable garden boasting large heads of cabbage, to barbed wire sitting on a sprawling butternut vine, then cactus, and back to the garden's toddler-sized mielies. At 2:18 a captivating cameo of flexed, swivelling feet in the grass. The tight, locked shot makes you almost feel the tickling grass between his toes.
The camera speeds up with the music. We run over a rocky plane to find a field bordered by dwellings. A tree dancing a solo in the wind is replaced by burning rubbish.
Rich with symbolism layered in the histories of the tune and the spaces traversed, I would love to see this film in HD as it relies on imagery and scenery.
Dance Quarterly is a collection of writing from various industry journalists and academics across the country. This online publication is edited and curated by Tammy Ballantyne and Jessica Denyschen. To submit your writing for consideration please email: firstname.lastname@example.org