‘Lesedi’: A bright star alights on Lulu Mlangeni

A figure in red glides onto the scene, camera is low, she’s filling the screen.

The red dress is made to balloon overhead, behind and around as she moves through a forest of tall, thin wintertime trees. There’s force in every miniscule moment. Dust unsettled. Thrusted arms clutch and pull towards her all that she might gather. Outstretched again, this last time the one arm lingers pointing up, the camera pans skywards, following fingers floating upwards, rising to the light. Lesedi.
For many of us who closely follow the dance scene in South Africa, Lulu Mlangeni, the Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance 2020, has been on our radar. On stage hers is the powerful body always rippling with refined movement quality. Thanks to the documentary film on the vNAF programme, we learn that off stage she’s as powerful a force.

Many of us first witnessed her moving with Vuyani Dance Company, the Jo’burg-based company founded by dance extraordinaire Gregory Maqoma, himself a Standard Bank Young Artist in 2002. I’ve invited friends and family over the years to accompany witnessing works where Mlangeni has been part of the cast; and I vividly remember one of them remarking after Siva (Seven), by Luyanda Sidiya  — yet another Standard Bank Young Artist, in 2015, “What else was happening? I couldn’t stop watching the woman with the shaved head.” That was Mlangeni.

Lesedi: The Rise of Lulu Mlangeni is a thoughtfully choregraphed documentary film. Form meets content. From Mlangeni herself and interviews with family and significant women influences, we share in the biographical parts of her life relevant to her dancing career. Sequenced over street scenes of Jozi and Soweto and outdoors solo on-site dances which, in the daylight, illuminate Mlangeni’s creative versatility, the film melds her personal story firmly in the place it was forged.

Yaz, my favourite scene was sis Lulu dancing in the backyard with the twins and Mam’ Dorah. Best! I dare you to resist bumping along a bouncing shoulder — it’s a lovely loose tapping into the realness side of the artist operating in tandem with the professional persona being interviewed. I wished for more of that.

Without anyone needing to explicitly state so, we realise that the places of her history and the people in those spaces are inextricable from who she is. And all is expressed from within her when we experience her artistry on stage, now on film too. The shudders and shakes but also the punches and kicks.

We don’t have on our galoshes but into the deep we go. Mlangeni swishes and swooshes her way upstream. Kicking water. Only the inquisitive few have patience for that. The water is softly flowing, peaceful, but her moves are brisk, they’re bold, harsh, straight lines and block-shaped. An adherence to form against the seemingly unstoppable rush. But the hard stare into the glare declares the fight.
Later when she climbs the stairs of the small white Ivory Tower,she claims her stake saying “Asjik ‘spelimon — until we are heard.” Her defiant movement vibrates through the screen. With every grab at and refusal to relent from the disintegrating rusting pylon frame she’s there to #smashthepatriarchy.

A note on the gorgeous costumes: they are true enrichments to Mlangeni’s choreographic work in the film; they flow to enhance her swirls and twirls, they irradiate her form in the sunlight, they act as a colourful backdrop to the shifts and shapes her body makes. (We need these dresses in our real lives.)

Although the film traces through Mlangeni’s life linearly, from her beginnings as a youngster at Mam’ Dorah’s dance studio through to her winning of the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist award for dance this year, the content decision was made to not include archival footage. A choice seldomly made in “how they got here” documentaries.
Mlangeni now is who we encounter.

The past is not eroded though. As if walking through a trendy pop-up art gallery, Mlangeni moves in between framed photos of her career highlights. She relishes it and smiles in acknowledgement of all the tough work it takes in the arts industry to “make it”.

But forward is her direction. This moment too shall be framed and hung on the wall of achievements because it’s not the pinnacle. She blinks back the emotion when Mama Nonku (“umama wako industry, a mother to all the artists”) says, “Go beyond the award.”

And, towards Lesedi, Mlangeni will continue climbing.

Watch the documentary film here.

This article was first published in The Critter

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Sarah Roberson
Sarah Roberson is a freelance journalist based in Port Elizabeth

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