Stretching The Definitions Of Dance

Combining movement with mime, music, narrative and design, the First Physical Theatre Company is forging a new theatrical language that decribes the complexities of interaction. Alex Dodd reports

A YOUNG boy sits on top of a huge metal cage washing his hands in milk. Below, muzzled dancers compound his haunting ritual with their reeling and leaping and stamping. They toss and catch one another, knock each other down … This is Catacomb III, a work by the Grahamstown-based First Physical Theatre Company.

The company whose Declarations I and II stretched the definitions of dance at this year’s Grahamstown festival will be bringing their language of acrobatics to the Dance Factory for Johannesburg’s Arts Alive festival later this year. The work draws together movement, mime, music, text, image, narrative and design — forging a new theatrical language.

The troupe of students and teachers are drawn from Rhodes University’s drama department. “The nature of our work relates a lot to the department, with people like Reza de Wet and Andrew Buckland pushing the creative angle and the need for new voices,” says choreographer and teacher Gary Gordon. “We try to emphasise new work … rather than specialising in reproduction.”

Among the many striking things about the work of the First Physical Theatre Company is the undisguised effort of the dancers in their bizarre contortions of the human form. The enormous amount of energy that is traditionally devoted to making balletic movements look effortless, is spent by these dancers on stretching the possibilities of expression. One is struck by the audibility of their breathing, the thumping and bashing of bodies on stage, their exposed flesh and the tangible reality of bruising.

“At the core of physical theatre is the desire to give a sense of the complexity of interaction,” says Gordon. “Our repertoire includes some works that are frightening, but some are gentle too. It’s strange that those works that deal with pain are the ones people notice most … We’re not always bashing and hurting each other. But perhaps this is what makes our language — our technique — different from other companies.”

Shattered Windows, choreographed by Gordon, is one work in which movement functions as an expression of the dysfunctionality rather than the harmony of human experience. The stage becomes asylum or jungle. The dancers puncture the theatre space with atavistic howls, screams and grunts, throwing themselves around like refugees from the work of Jean Genet. In the sinister relation between the dancers lurks a questioning of social organisation. “When you’re dealing with threat or pain there’s got to be a risk in the physical statement,” says Gordon. “So we do take emotional and physical risks in performance.”

Extremity and rawness have the effect of imprinting images into one’s memory cortex. Audiences are unlikely to forget their own empathic fear of pain or bruising.

Like most post-modern choreography, the First Physical Theatre Company is informed by a catholic sensibility that absorbs many influences and styles. “We’re not saying we’re doing ballet or jazz — we’re making our own statement in our own language,” says Gordon. “Narrative happens on many layers.”

“Choreography is about crafting. Not just organising steps, but questioning what feeds those steps,” he says in his gentle and unassuming manner. “You don’t just create a work. There’s a lot of research that takes place as a choreographer. It’s a matter of steeping yourself in your art. Your own history — or herstory — feeds you. Your background makes your work. Because our work is about interacting with ideas.

“To make your own language, everything must support that … from the music to what the dancers are wearing. All that is giving information to the audience. All the elements contribute to each work. That’s what makes it theatrical and exciting. We make specific choices because we’re making specific languages. I don’t think we make haphazard choices.”

Gordon speaks about a work called Can Baby John Fit into Big Daddy’s Shoes?, a camp melodrama cum mock Restoration comedy with a bizarre stylistic compilation that features everything from a ghetto blaster and a skateboard to Edward Lear-style wordplay. He speaks about how designer Lindy Roberts enriches the visual aspects. “We’re dealing with artificiality, so she’s used mirrors as a symbol of vanity … she’s used wigs, preening, powdered faces. These are all suggestions that the audience knows quite clearly how to read. They’re like little hints that pick up on stories we all grew up with.”

The company is also intent on exploding gender stereotypes to take a deeper look at pairings and sexual preferences. Masculine and feminine are not relegated to their traditional functions within the dance. Women sweat. This is not the territory of soft focus lenses, tutus and tiaras. Women are not aggrandised as fragile souls, to be lifted and carried across the stage by their muscular male partners. Instead, women lift male dancers and other female performers as often as men lift women.

“I believe we’re empowering both men and women,” says Gordon. “Watching some other companies, I noticed that women were lifting men, but that the men were taking the strain, whereas our women are actually doing the holding and supporting … In our work, we feel it’s quite important to be quite affirmative about men dancing, because it’s been a traditionally female domain.”

It’s not just big talk when Gordon says the company has a strong educational thrust and that “physical theatre opens to people rather than excluding them”. Four out of five pieces on the Declarations II programme are choreographed by “New Voices”, namely students PJ Sabbagha and Samantha Pienaar. And, although the quality of their work belies the fact, the dancers include first or second year students who had never danced before arriving at Rhodes.

Asked why there are no black people in the company and why the work is not popularist in the sense of being African, Gordon responds: “I’m wary of doing superficial fusions. Putting ballet steps to a drum beat for the sake of political correctness. I’d really rather that it happened with a lot of research and work. We need people sensitive to our working methods. When we do workshops, our working methods don’t alienate black people at all. The problem is that we’re based in an educational institution and black parents place a far greater emphasis on vocationalism than art.”

Gordon pauses a while, then adds: “But we’re not representing a group. Our work comes from each individual choreographer and the bodies of the dancers, each with an individual vocabulary.”

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