A leap into the unknown with Dance Umbrella

The much-anticipated Dance Umbrella, which kicked off on February 23 in Johannesburg, was shrouded in speculation by those in the know that this year’s festival would be a nod to young choreography and the energy, adventure and bravado that is so often akin to youthful artistic expression.

The range of voices, themes and artistic mediums punted in this year’s showcase was alluded to long before crowds braved the rainy weather to see the first piece at the Workers’ Museum.

The prospect of staging work by young choreographers and dancers was exciting as one never quite knows what to expect. That feeling, fused with uncertainty, is something that made itself known in the first few days of the festival.

The opening days saw subjects such as race, modernity, femininity, religion and power addressed in ways that, I imagine, few South African dance-appreciating audiences are accustomed to. It appeared as if the creators of the works viewed everything as possible subjects for questioning. Social norms, global and local politics, and stereotypical gender roles were all subjected to scrutiny, but chief of these was the art of dance itself and what constitutes a dance piece.

I found myself participating in several post-performance conversations, which even in these early stages of this year’s Dance Umbrella revolved around the question “but was that really a dance piece?”

This is closely linked to the rebellious nature of youthful expression and not mentioning it would be a disservice to all that this festival promises to deliver.

Only creatives looking at their craft with fresh eyes truly have the insight to critique or re-evaluate its parameters. This is what many of the choreo-graphers and dancers are doing when they incorporate or present other elements of art at a similar or more intensified level than that of dance itself.

This usually occurs when dance pieces have a heavy theatrical aspect to them. Although this has been common so far, pieces with elements such as projection, lighting effects, fine art and even some with a focus on music have all contributed to the current challenging trend in art forms such as dance.

To challenge the status quo and defy boundaries is indicative of the energy I imagine the organisers seek to fuel. Some may think it a somewhat dangerous flirtation to veer so close to uncharted territory. Others may say that the choice to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving era of mass media and mass consumption head on is not only a brave move but also a wise one. I would have to agree with the latter stance.

Who better to usher dance practitioners and audiences into the new era than those who engage with novelty daily: the ever-increasing number of people who are happy to receive and create content on YouTube, Instagram and the internet, which means never having to leave their homes to be entertained.

The pressure to compete for the attention of new audiences is a concern most traditional art forms such as dance, theatre and even film have to face on a global scale. So Dance Umbrella’s bold new challenge with new methods this year will perhaps mark it as the most groundbreaking yet, which is all the more remarkable given that the festival has long been synonymous with experimentation and innovation.

The unexpected was revealed moments before the festival opener, Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Workers CHANT, began at the Workers’ Museum in Braamfontein.

“Get the fuck inside, people! Can’t you see that the show is about to start?” bellowed an ushering female voice, hinting at the atmosphere for this year’s festival. If anyone was hoping to have a “nice” quiet night out at the Dance Umbrella, that bubble was instantaneously burst. This would be a Dance Umbrella that challenged audiences and ripped them out from any preconceived comfort zones of what to expect at a contemporary dance festival.

What followed was a piece that sought to drag audiences into the uncomfortable reality of the life of a migrant worker who lived in the same compound that housed the

Corps, the collaborative creation of Moeketsi Koena, Gaby Saranouffi and Denis Rion, is a musically driven piece, which makes use of projected photography. The dancers seem to react to the soundtrack, which can only be described as ethno-futuristic, while interacting with projected imagery. Conceptually, this piece draws on the connecting threads of the past relating to South Africa, Madagascar and France.

Sifiso Kweyama’s Space was the first of three pieces in this year’s festival that could fall under the “pure dance” category. It was clear while watching this piece that dance, other than movement, is the focal element of the work, which draws on the spiritual connection one has with a particular location, environment or space.

There was little to distract from the element of dance, a beautiful reminder that dance, even when unaccompanied by other elements, can hold one’s attention.

At the complete opposite end of that scale is Mamela Nyamza’s De-Apart-Hate, a conceptually driven piece that uses little actual dance in its depiction of the correlation between religion and the oppressive apartheid regime.

It was my least favourite of the festival so far, largely because of the exclusionary church motifs juxtaposed with overly sexual references. But despite my lack of understanding and general dislike of this piece, I was clearly in the minority, as people sang along and clapped to the many church anthems.

The last piece worthy of note is Trophée by Rudi van der Merwe and Béatrice Graf, held on the National School of the Arts sports field. It is layered with a cross-section of metaphorical symbolism relating to marriage, trophy wives, stereotypical female roles and religion.

Although it doesn’t encompass much actual dance, my interest was piqued by the use of live music, prop interaction, costume design and overall conceptual layering.

If this is what this year’s festival has had to offer at its halfway point, I anxiously await the new and exciting places it will lead me before ending its run on March 5. 

Seeking to unravel the instinctive pulse of human desire 

Corps is the French word for body, but looking at the Dance Umbrella’s 2017 programme, I ascribed militaristic connotations to Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena’s work of the same name.

Corps is a collaborative work that features the photography of Denis Rion and the stark score of Mandele Maguni. Saranouffi and Koena explore the multidimensionality of the body’s processes through a deft fusion of movement, sound and visual imagery.

The initial image of Saranouffi’s shadow being projected in truncated and gigantic proportions diagonally across the stage as she moves jaggedly behind a veiled screen sets the tone. It lets you know that your attention will be split beyond one central point of focus, an act mimicking the body’s synapses.

Koena describes the work as a celebration of the body’s complexity, what it perceives as “real and unreal,” its processing of trauma and its navigation of a world whose spatial configurations are in a constant state of flux.

It is a cerebral work tinged with darkness, with the imagery of the show doing little to dissuade a reading of the work as concerned with war and conquest. The photographs predominantly depict limbs interlocked in multiple variations of touch, smeared with dark mud and, in some cases, a blood-like substance. There is a recurring image of a back, smudged with earth, its muscles pulled taut as if in the beginning stages of a strenuous pushing movement.

The one-paragraph blurb about Corps in the programme describes it as exploring “today’s world and the past through the ancestral history of South Africa, Madagascar and France”. Yes, Corps is concerned with all of these topics, but does so in a manner that seeks to unravel the instinctive pulse of human desire. It redirects the polemic thrust of lives and bodies shaped by colonial histories inward, by exploring the mechanics of internalised pain.

That Koena (a South African) and Saranouffi (a Madagascan) are a couple gives the work an added personal resonance. The contrasting dance styles they employ seem to be in a conversation about compatibility or the art of compromise necessary for turning a love of each other into something that is universally felt.

Koena’s movements are light and fluid, almost incidental, whereas Saranouffi’s are more intense and laboured. Maguni’s electronic soundtrack has a grim, futuristic edge but it maintains a sense of the internal, like the mind shutting out industrial noise.

Visually, Rion’s photographs manage to convey a sense of the ephemeral and indelible, sealing the performers’ mission to help us understand the world by focusing on the vast treasure bank that is the human body. — Kwanele Sosibo

Corps will be performed again on April 16 and 17 during this year’s forthcoming Infecting the City festival in Cape Town

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