Themba Mbuli, Isaac Rakotsoane and Thierry Moucazambo in !AÏA From cave to sky
Photos: Val Adamson
Memory and discovery collide on a voyage of light and love
By: Caitlin Perkins
Three men stand in a pool of light – a shamanistic figure in a white suit; an animal-like performer wearing an antelope skull; and a third man, who cleanses himself by pouring water from a calabash over his head. As the lights fade, this powerful image is evocative of the powerful link that exists between man, nature and the spirit world.
Seen in this closing image of their work are just some of the ideas that Reunion Island’s Théâtre Taliipot explores in !AÏA From cave to sky. !AÏA, which means ‘a special state of being,’ takes the audience on a spiritual journey in search of our origins, and through storytelling and imagery makes a pertinent comment on the loss of the connection between ourselves and nature. In doing so, it pays tribute to, and mourns the disappearing San culture and the !Xam language in Southern Africa.
Here, choreographer Philippe Pelen Baldini (Reunion Island), together with performers Thierry Moucazambo (Reunion Island) and South Africans Themba Mbuli and Isaac Rakotsoane spent time researching San history and culture, consulting scientists, archeologists and traditional healers in their process.
They created the work within natural spaces, such as caves, forests and by rivers and waterfalls, where they played with the elements, and interrogated their own relationship with nature. In this way, the work actually began as a site-specific piece, with early showings of the work taking place at the Nirox Foundation, sharing with an audience their experiences of the natural environment.
In many ways, !AÏA is more a ritual in which the audience participates, than a traditional performance. The artists make use of traditional African instruments such as the mbira, calabash and kudu horns to create a live soundscape on stage. This, combined with their ritualistic chanting and singing creates a sacred space, their gestural and stylised dance language often evocative of the traditional San rock paintings. At one point in the performance, Mbuli appears to enter fully into a trance-like state.
!AÏA deals with themes of memory, history and identity, and respectfully reflects upon and laments the loss of the San culture. It resonates with the authenticity of the performers’ personal journeys and is for the audience themselves, a rite of passage towards understanding their own roots and birthplace.
A journey to my roots
By: Prosperity Shange
!AΪA From cave to sky, according to choreographer Philippe Pelen Baldini of Reunion Island’s Theatre Taliipot, is a piece that explores the memory of the body, and notions of identity and freedom. It is a tribute to Mother Earth and does not require vigorous analysis: “There’s nothing to understand, it is just a spiritual journey, which requires that you open yourself to the performance”.
!AΪA is a remarkable journey of self-discovery; it is a healing process; it is a search for the lost human spirit; a journey in which the performers connect with their own movement, looking very deep within themselves and reconnecting with nature. The performance pays tribute to the San people and the loss of their language and rituals.
The performance revisits tradition, working intimately with the body connecting to the spirit. The performers seek to invoke the realisation of our true being, our true identity. Isaac Rakotsoane, embodies the spirit element and it is through his music-making that we feel the ancestral spirits.
Towards the end, Isaac as Keke appears in a dress and high heels. He is excitable and pulls a white platform onto stage to the sounds of classical music. He repeatedly calls Themba Mbuli, whose spiritual journey we have been following. He enters draped in a blanket which Keke strips him of and proceeds to mock him and deride him as an object, conjuring Saartjie Baartman’s torment in our minds. Mbuli is exhibited as a freak.
Thierry Moucazambo then gives him back his dignity and Mbuli transcends reality into the trance world, able to fully connect to his identity – Igama lakho ngu Themba. His sweating body energises the space and blesses us with an experience that is inspirational.
The performance engages the audience on all levels with a story that seeks to bring us back to nature and connect to our origins.
Themba Mbuli and Isaac Rakotsoane
A journey from the mind into the heart
By: Thobe Molefe
It’s not the norm for a choreographer to introduce his/her work moments before it is performed but this was the case when !AÏA From cave to Sky took to the stage. !AÏA, meaning ‘a special state of being’, takes the audience on an experience of a lifetime as choreographer, Philippe Pelen Baldini from Reunion Island’s Theatre Taliipot said: “There is nothing to understand and one should switch off one’s brain and go from the mind to the heart”.
Thierry Moucazambo entered the space, flashing an exploratory torch. As the beam hit the audience the houselights went on, causing great discomfort. It is a trick to lure Themba Mbuli, planted in the audience, onto stage.
Much of the music is created by the performers themselves and is an integral part of the process. Traditional African instruments are played and conjure up the stories of the San people. We were treated to an old recording of the !Xam language which caressed our ears with melodic clicking.
The performers became the rock paintings by applying ibomvu, red clay, to their bodies. The remembering of the San traditions through dance and music was an authentic experience; the performers are steeped in knowledge after a very intense rehearsal period involving research that brought science and art together.
Near the end, Rakotsoane becomes Keke, a woman, who displays her African man (Mbuli) on a raised platform like he is an object. He becomes an artefact for amusement and calls to mind the story of Saartjie Baartman.
Breaking free from his imprisonment, Mbuli frantically spins into a trance after receiving the ‘calling’. Watching the contortions of his body, I tried to imagine being connected to my ancestors so strongly and whether I could ever achieve that ‘special state of being.’
It is a powerful work that not only seeks to preserve a lost language and the idea of man being connected to nature, but speaks of its birth in the caves of the Cradle of Humankind.
Isaac Rakotsoane, Thierry Moucazambo and Themba Mbuli
The memory of the body
By: Bronwyn Botha
As the audience waited for the lights to dim, we were unexpectedly addressed by Philippe Pelen Baldini, choreographer of !AΪA From Cave to Sky. He spoke from the heart about the inspiration for this work created by Theatre Taliipot from Reunion Island, in collaboration with South African artists.
Baldini spoke of working with the memory of the body and undertaking a spiritual journey which they hoped the audience would share. Dealing with identity, freedom and the connection between man and nature, the cast worked with traditional healers, scientists and artists throughout a long process of creation. It is a tribute to the San people and an attempt to hold onto a lost language.
South Africans Themba Mbuli and Isaac Rakotsoane make up the cast with Taliipot’s Thierry Moucazambo. He steps onto the stage holding a torch, almost a God-like figure, in a white suit. As he flashes the light into the audience, he teases and jokes until pausing on a young man.
Mbuli, wearing a black tracksuit runs onto stage, dancing and circling the stage while the music builds to a climax and stops. A bell rings awakening something within the dancer and Mbuli strips off his clothes and begins to smear himself in red clay, preparing to be connected to the spirits.
The spiritual journey is focussed around Mbuli’s personal story and Moucazambo becomes his guide. The sweet sounds of the mbira and other African instruments, played skilfully by Rakotsoane, draws the audience in.
The performers make use of their voices, animal horns and instruments to create an authentic soundtrack. There are echoes of rock art as Mbuli searches for his “string of light’ which will keep him connected to the ancestors. The recording of the lost language of the San, !Xam, is particularly moving, overlaid with the mournful singing of the performers.
The image of Rakotsoane in a dress and high heels making a mockery of Mbuli and putting him on display is hard-hitting. The loss of his dignity, the objectification of the African body is demeaning.
This is a work that left me speechless and wondering about my own connection to nature; it is moving and poetic.