Laugh and cry at the dance of life

Occasionally, a theatre production that touches the hearts of people in a fundamentally human way lands on our stages. And even more occasionally, it features a creative team so keenly honed and empathetic to the medium, the work and the message that the outcome is completely flawless. This is what happens in Richard Alfieri’s stage production Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, directed by Greg Homann.

It’s a worn stereotype – a lonely old woman opts to take ballroom dancing lessons with a suave young male teacher – not so much because she cannot dance, but because she is alone and the dancing rekindles a whole world for her of ­memories and values that have irretrievably passed.

She has the money and the time, he has the skill. It’s a match: yet, under the pen of Alfieri and the skill of seasoned professionals Judy Ditchfield and José Domingos, the work is given a frisky, acerbic twist, which makes you laugh and cry with empathy. This is no mawkish fairy tale and it’s certainly not only about dance.

Both Lily Harrison (Ditchfield), the wife of a Southern Baptist minister, living in a high-rise block of flats for elderly residents overlooking the ocean in South Carolina, and the teacher in question, Michael Minetti (Domingos) have pasts that are pock-marked with emotional wounds and loss. They hold their secrets with a fierce sense of privacy, but the personality of each is so similar that there’s a resonance, an empathetic echo that make their encounters rough yet generous, with the riff of a scripted word and the frisson of a sarcastic nuance.

The story has some hairpin bends that might catch audiences unawares, but it is the dancing that holds the heart of the work full and in place. From swing to tango, waltz, foxtrot, cha-cha and contemporary moves, fuelled by titbits of social and dance history that informed, motivated and criticised each style, the dancing is articulate without being too slick, leaving one with a delicate yet wise portrait of an old woman who considers her frailty and self-protective bravado with earnest yet loving empathy.

Ditchfield and Domingos performed opposite one another several years ago in TV soapie Isidingo – and their ease with one another onstage translates palpably. He represents another kind of stereotype with society-induced frailties and levels of self-hatred and, amid hilarious emotional manipulation and one-upmanship, she gloriously becomes a foil to his claims.

Supported by dance music that segues chords from the Andrews Sisters, Johann Strauss, Astor Piazzolla, the Beach Boys and more, the chronological flow of the story is kept boldly legible.

And further, this play’s set is intelligently sparse. It presents an understanding of space, of the basic comforts offered by a retirement village and the ever-presence of the kind of audaciously magnificent access to sunsets you get when you live near the top of a high-rise building. With a tweak of perspective and a clever use of light, the stage is enabled to stretch into infinity.

Staged early last year by the same team, it’s a crisply fresh work that easily bears more than one visit. It has to do with the rhythm and flow of the language and, with the able astuteness of the performers, who never allow the American accents to become irritating or the tale’s momentum to dip.

And ultimately, it will reach audiences, whether or not they have had their hearts broken and whether or not they are blown away by the swing aesthetic. Sprinkled with the notion of tight-arsed old biddies, celebrating a fuck-me dress and casting the potential for pity parties aside, it’s about real people and the naked simplicity of friendship.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, written by Richard Alfieri, is produced by Daphne Kuhn and directed by Greg Homann. It features choreography by Brandon Eilers le Riche, lighting by Oliver Hauser, costumes by Margo Snoyman and set by Lien van der Linde and Nadya Cohen. It’s on at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square, Sandton, until April 4. Call 011?883?8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

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