29 August 2013

A call to battle

By: Samantha Daly

Abuzz with excitement, anticipation and creative energy, Durban's Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre last night welcomed dancers, choreographers and contemporary dance junkies from all corners of the globe as this year's JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience kicked off. 2013 marks the festival's 15th year running which, in the face of serious budget cuts and a struggle to secure funding in the international (and especially) local dance scene, is a feat and certainly something to be celebrated.

JOMBA! remains one of the only festivals in South Africa dedicated to nurturing and celebrating the art of contemporary dance. Over the years, JOMBA! has solidified its reputation as one of the country's most prestigious dance festivals, offering local audiences world class dance theatre, having hosted artists such as Sylvia Glasser, Gregory Maqoma, PJ Sebaggha, Adedayo Liadi, Faustin Linyekula, Ntombi Gasa, Musa Hlatshwayo, Dada Masilo, to name a few.

As an art form, contemporary dance is one which tackles social, cultural and personal issues through a style which is constantly evolving, changing, adapting. It is a form which is very much determined and defined by those who practice in it. The fluidity of the genre, and the miraculous allowances it makes for choreographers and artists to grapple with some of life's most challenging and pressing issues, underlies the very success and popularity of the form. It is intended to shock audiences out of their comfort zone, to hold up a mirror to society, revealing life's intricacies, idiocies, hypocrisies, and advocate a change or a shift in consciousness amongst audiences and society at large.

There is much to be said and admired about dancers and choreographers negotiating some of the most intimate of issues and baring all on stage in the name of ‘art’; deliberately and fiercely making themselves vulnerable (sometimes painfully so), stripping away the layers to reveal the excruciatingly real, raw, untamed human spirit. It is this willingness to voluntarily put oneself in the spotlight, and, as JOMBA! artistic director, Lliane Loots so eloquently said, “actively fight the amnesia of a national and global zeitgeist all too eager to render critical thinking and artistic praxis redundant”, which demands the utmost respect, humble thanks and appreciation.

Indeed, both performances at last night’s opening were examples of this overwhelming and sometimes sobering ‘reality check’.  B.L.E.N.D. marks the first collaboration between well-known South African choreographer, Desiré Davids and France's Hélène Cathala, which was followed by a revised performance of Portuguese choreographer, Fancisco Camacho's 1991 creation, The King in Exile. Both pieces resonated with the organic theme of identity, of finding and exploring one’s roots, and tackled the delicate process of a negotiation of the self and one’s identity in relation to dominant (and sometimes oppressive) sociopolitical and cultural constructs, and history.

In B.L.E.N.D., identity was very much linked to the colour of the skin (a highly contentious issue which has a very sensitive, politically-charged and long-standing history of struggle in South Africa). Early on in the performance, Davids and Cathala's voice overs differentiate between themselves. They are “the self” and “the other”. One is white, and one is off-white. One is French, and one is South African. One is on the left side of the stage, while the other occupies the right side. It is a display then, of "two experienced women, one 'coloured' and one white, sharing the same stage, confronting their physical habits/capacities/limitations, their individual styles and musicalities...the consciousness of their histories remains always present, driving them to share but sometimes also entering into a void of incomprehension."

One can't help but feel like one is both within and without this performance. The recordings of the choreographers' voices as they describe their thoughts during the process of fabricating the work create a window, allowing for insight into the performance, the intricacies which lie behind its construction and the tenuous mediation of the two artists' identities and the continuous journey to self-realisation and acceptance. At the same time one can't ignore the fact that one is watching from without, as a member of an audience, an outsider, a sort of voyeur; witnessing the fragile, delicate and deeply personal journey unfold on stage.

In this regard, a striking image of Cathala, bare-chested, kneeling in front of a screen onto which there are projections of typical Durban sights - graffitti, the beach, in general, the "other" - on her white, French body haunts me. She holds up a piece of white paper, which also reflects these images, and proceeds to bite off pieces of the paper and eat it. It is a profound image which symbolises her consuming the "other", that which she is not. Consuming it and digesting it so that it becomes part of her; part of the self. It begs the question however; does she now become the other, too? Can one so easily absorb that which one is not? If not, at the very least she can no longer be the same self again, for she is a hybrid, a fusion, a collaboration of thought and idea, of politics and history.

In Camacho's performance, an interesting vocabulary meant I was enthralled from the get-go. Camacho's ability to capture the attention of an audience is phenomenal. He is not scared to indulge in the silences and lulls of a performance, taking his time to move through the piece, giving of his self, his whole self, in every flick of his hand, every word spoken and every drag of a cigarette. It speaks of an artist completely at ease and at peace with himself; confident and charismatic enough to command the attention, respect and awe of an audience. The piece is a merge of history and autobiography, as Camacho explores his own identity and the tension between the struggle for self-illumination and discovery, and that of cultural representation all within the bounds of history and place.

Perhaps what struck home the most last night for this self-confessed theatre junkie and contemporary dance fanatic, was the strong words of Lliane Loots, who, in her opening night address called on all artists, intellectuals and critical thinkers to honour their responsibility as soldiers in the constant battle for the freedom of expression and our integrity and identity as Africans. In a world where theatre, in all its forms, fights to critically evaluate the very world which resists and threatens censorship of freedom of intellectual art and thought, it is the role of the artist, the critic, the creator, to use theatre as a weapon against such stifling action. To constantly push the boundaries, ask questions, pick at the scabs of society to reveal the infections which ooze from its centre, and to purge these, so that healing may begin.

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Jomba! Contemporary Dance Experience