28 August 2014

JOMBA! Opening Takes the Power Back

By Tammy Ballantyne

The message at last night’s opening of the 16th JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience was loud and clear: if artists in SA are to continue telling stories and to do so without censure, they have to take back the power and liberate themselves.

Lliane Loots, Artistic Director of the festival, cut a lonely but statuesque figure on the Elizabeth Sneddon stage as her war-cry rang out for artists to refuse to be silenced; for companies to work together to realise powerful dance works that carry messages of hope; to keep on finding the dialogue with society in the face of interminable funding cuts, hopeless civil servants and a general disrespect for artists.

It was fitting then, that the two works that opened the festival addressed these issues head-on and left a hugely appreciative audience rising to its feet, shouting for more. Gregory Maqoma’s Vuyani Dance Company (VDC), previously Vuyani Dance Theatre, mesmerised with Beautiful Us, a work created in 2005 as part of Maqoma’s Beauty trilogy.

The work takes a poetic journey into a place of reflection on how we inhabit the earth and the need for us to breathe and suspend ourselves for a moment; to consider the implications of our existence and tap into our humanity again.

I have seen this work many times and I am moved each time by the skill of the dancers; the lyricism juxtaposed by the athleticism; the strength those bodies are imbued with and the power of the choreography itself.

Maqoma weaves a spell over us as the dancers emerge spirit-like from the shadows, searching for the light; they are sinuous and sculptural as they merge with the earth beneath them; they are birds, water, elemental. There is no need for scenic devices other than clever lighting and the ever-changing musical score that underpins the rhythmic structure of the work.

The potency is in the bodies themselves, able to deliciously suspend air-borne limbs just as easily as using the floor as a dancing partner. There is nothing predictable or contrived in the choreography; he has the element of surprise at his finger-tips – from up-ended bodies standing on their heads to intense muscular isolation to robust percussive stamping – each sinew is engaged, each muscle fuelled towards the ultimate soaring climax.

The second half features Dominion, a work created in 2013 by Luyanda Sidiya, artistic director of VDC. Struck by the distortion of power by those who seek to lead and control, Sidiya aims to show through a very theatrical piece, what happens when power is used to suppress and dominate. 

Military figures in uniform inhabit a raised dais at the back while “the people” roam aimlessly in the pace below, mere puppets, moving when told and turning on each other in desperation.

Sidiya’s choreography cleverly uses gestures and signs we are all too familiar with (the raised fist, the Nazi salute) and turns them into gestural tableaux and patterns of movement.

The soundscape by Wesley Mabizela is a clever montage of the great dictator speech by Charlie Chaplin; Joe Simple; Huun – Huur – tu; praise names by Inyosi uMdletshe and Kodo. While “the masses” toyi-toyi, then cower to commands, the leaders feast and then throw bread to the poor. Fear and foreboding hang in the air, while Xolisile Bongwana’s haunting voice cries out in isiXhosa: “Is it good that we spill each other’s blood?”

We are reminded so vividly of Marikana (an event that shaped the rhythm of the work) and the current service delivery protests; of the anger that fuels a mob and seeks justice by alternative means. It is a dangerous and scary place that he takes us to, as bodies slash the air, dive for the floor and turn the stage into a battleground.

Sidiya seems to suggest a never-ending cycle of violence a scenario we are all too familiar with in Africa - as one dictator is deposed, another steps in to take his/her place.

I have said it before – it is always a deeply moving privilege to bear witness to work of this calibre and to enjoy it at a festival such as JOMBA!, which, I am convinced will endure despite financial constraints and because of the brave and activist artist-warriors who will never be silenced and who speak truth to our humanity.

No comments:

Jomba! Contemporary Dance Experience