Time to reflect in a time of isolation

If you want a neatly packaged storyline in the latest contemporary dance work, Reflection and Reflex then you should look elsewhere. Straight out of the Cowan Theatre at the University of Johannesburg, choreographers Fana Tshabalala and Thulani Chauke interrogate the theme of isolation and connection during the Covid-19 lockdowns. The piece disrupts the notion of linear beginnings and endings. 

Photo 2: Hey you! Thulani Chauke doing bodily reflexes for the audience. Photo by: Suzy Bernstein.

It has been two years since movement and behavioural regulations were imposed around the world. The arts sector suffered dearly because of the restrictions. In practical terms this meant a reduced income. With new pandemic waves presenting themselves regularly, it is now a cliché to talk about “a return to normal”. It is in this context that the performing arts will do good to innovate.

Photo 3: Check it out: Thulani Chauke in a conversation with a sculpture. Photo by: Suzy Bernstein.

Directed by Gerard Bester, the head of the Windybrow Arts Centre, Reflection and Reflex is the kind of disruptive piece required to punctuate this moment in time.

As you enter the Market Theatre’s John Kani Theatre there’s a cage on stage. The press release refers to it as “a sculpture of steel”. The sculpture is sometimes a house, a prison, a cage, locomotion or an apartment. With the dance duo, the sculpture makes Reflection and Reflex a trio. The dancers wear black short pants, All-Star takkies and white vests. Economical theatre in a time of crisis.

Photo 4: House no home: Dancing duo Thulani Chauke and Fana Tshabalala taking their paces in the “house.” Photo by: Suzy Bernstein.

When the lights go on, Tshabalala and Chauke enter the stage at the same time, albeit from opposite directions. You feel like the character portrayed by Tshabalala, the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner, is looking for something he can’t find inside the house. He explores all the rooms until Chauke, a Moving into Dance Mophatong graduate, gazes at him. 

The sonic sounds transport you to another world. You are lost in time, at times the past and at times the future. Each dancer watches the other as they go through their paces. They are both accomplices to each other’s destruction and aggrandisement.

This is when I feel the most vulnerable. The dancers are now moving into deeper territory. This emotional roller-coaster makes me feel exposed and the only people I can rely on for support are my fellow-theatre goers.

Photo 5: Jumping Castle: Thulani Chauke enters the sculpture amidst the meditating Fana Tshabalala. Photo by: Suzy Bernstein.

This is what theatre is all about for me. There’s no mediation, only an unsigned contract entered into between the performers and the audience, and that is to experience a magical journey of discovery together. Still, there’s no one overarching story that the director wants us to enter the space from. There are multiple storylines that intertwine; images and metaphors that one should decipher. The performers use the John Kani Theatre to its limits.

When he does his moving solo piece Chauke speaks in tongues. His co-dancer approaches cautiously from centre-stage as if possessed by demons. Is this a dream or reality? The lines are blurred between the silences and the silent screams. The sounds that play throughout the performance remind us of the non-stop movement that is today’s crisis-ridden world, but always with a glimpse of hope.

Although the end of the dance is open-ended, it’s still a resolution in its own right. The world moves even as it stands during difficult times. 

The dancers eagerly await the applause of the audience before cautiously acknowledging their physical presence in the theatre. What a way to welcome art back onto stage after what seemed like a perennial dearth.

Reflection and Reflex runs at the Market Theatre until Sunday, 22 May.

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