/ 16 April 2023

Gregory Maqoma and William Kentridge: Exploring the violence done to African bodies

To be 50 and still be dancing and feel that at 50 I’m at my peak, it humbles me’

The internationally acclaimed production The Head & The Load by South African artist William Kentridge is finally debuting in Africa, with choreography by the acclaimed Gregory Maqoma

The production explores the roles of black African bodies through porters in World War I, whose contribution has almost been erased from history. Through The Head & the Load, Maqoma and Kentridge work to reclaim that part of essential history for Maqoma, working with Kentridge and his studio helped him to understand trauma through the lens of dance. Maqoma even describes his work in The Head & The Load, as a “sobering cocktail that takes you on a roller coaster of emotions”.

“World War I included black Africans who went into a war which was not ours. We weren’t fighting, but were made to somehow become the carriers of weapons and what was deemed necessary for the war to continue,” says Maqoma.  

In World War I, African carriers, and sometimes soldiers, under British, French and German commanders, were not identified by name but a number.

These black African men, who were highly visible, but not named, are portrayed visually through actors carrying loads and through projections on stage where names are reassigned numbers. 

Actor Hamilton Dhlamini, who portrays a European officer, says: “They are not men because they have no name. They are not soldiers because they have no number. You don’t call them, you count them.”

The Head & the Load originally debuted in 2018 at London’s Tate Modern as part of a World War I exhibition. The production’s name plays on the Ghanaian proverb “the head and the load are the troubles of the neck”. 

The title theme is sobering even a century after World War I as so many African bodies suffered the chaotic violence of combat through the physical and psychological loads carried on their shoulders.

But, although the production shines a spotlight on colonial legacies through themes of grief, it is not as depressing as one might think. Through Kentridge’s projections and drawings and Maqoma’s choreography, The Head & the Load presents the carnage of war as a sort of cabaret.

The weight of grief

The marriage of Maqoma’s sharp choreography style and Kentridge’s signature jazzy projections in The Head & the Load is brought to life through music composed by Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi.

“In William Kentridge’s studios, there are lots of toys. You can come up with an image, and half an hour later, it’s made in the workshop,” explains Maqoma. “There’s a workshop alongside these ideas. It was like being a kid in a candy shop where you pick what you want and what you want to do with it.”

But deciding what makes it into a production like The Head & the Load can be ruthless. Despite the playfulness and Kentridge-esque workshopping, only 25% of the ideas generated make it into the final show. But, what pushes these ideas forward from ideation, to workshopping, to performance is the discipline to sit with discomfort and ideas that refuse to leave your mind.

Bodies, videos, elemental props and costumes are used to process ideas. These became the tools to create this fantastic piece of work. 

“I make choices based on what sits extremely uncomfortable with me. If I’m comfortable with something I question it a lot, to a point where I’ve questioned too much, and I then cut the idea because I’ve stripped it down,” says Maqoma.

He believes in pursuing ideas that haunt. For The Head & the Load, he says he kept waking up from scenes in a graveyard, which he questioned continuously as the idea kept presenting itself in a dream-like state.

Maqoma asks, “How many graveyards can one visit? And how can I then convey this message of grief? How do I allow people to be on a journey about grief?” 

It was these ideas that Maqoma presented to the set designers who had the freedom to bring them to life in their own way.

“A particular idea is fighting to be in this piece because that’s where the honesty lies,” explains Maqoma. “There may be beautiful things, but if it doesn’t add to the story or move it forward, we judge it based on that.”

In The Head & the Load, ideas such as “the loads” carried by Africans were heavily questioned in order to reimagine the physical and psychological burdens.

“We want to imagine the carriers and ask, ‘How heavy was the load?’ We cannot in reality carry them but we have an amazing artist who makes cutaways and projects the loads,” he says.

Bringing history’s stories of marginalised bodies to the forefront in theatrical productions is nothing new for Maqoma. In fact, this is part of what he has been consistently refining for the past three decades. For example, his production with Thuthuka Sibisi, Broken Chord, tells the story of an African choir that travels to Europe in 1881 to perform.

But, as with the African carriers in World War I, little documentation exists from this pre-recording era and the only source of information for Maqoma and Sibisi was a programme from a performance, which listed the songs sung by the choir.

Although Broken Chord was inspired by events in the 1800s, the choir members’ experiences of migration, push-back, the black body, tolerance and racism are still relevant today, but people want to put them away in a cupboard, explains Maqoma.

These issues are often concealed but Maqoma says we cannot run away from them. He explains that we can either forget or reinvent these stories. Through choreography, he does not simply retell that history, but he is inspired by it to find a new narrative.

“It’s critical for us to tell history because history is easy to erase. We cannot erase history but we can reinvent it. Tapping into historical narrative is by virtue reinvented history. I want to learn something new by learning about the past and taking it into the future because the past is still relevant today.”

Life from dance

Maqoma grew up in Soweto during apartheid, living next door to the hostels that housed migrant mineworkers, which made him question why South Africa was in such turmoil. At weekends, he would watch the workers dance.

“I was interested in their tradition [dance], that was something that nobody else could own but themselves. Even though they were stripped of everything that was descent, it was their dance and leaning into culture and tradition that somehow gave them a sense of pride and life. There was a sense of life injected into their dance,” he recalls.

Maqoma’s consistent narrative in works such as Broken Chord and The Head & The Load is to amplify voices of those who have been marginalised, those from whom everything had been taken, except for their voices, culture and traditions.

“Remaining consistent with that has also helped me shape that narrative in a way that is more critical, political, with an understanding of the human value, rather than just focusing on the euphoria of the moment, which was what I was exposed to by the miners,” he explains.

Maqoma recalls the “exoticness” of the migrant workers, which he wanted to know more about.

“Why are they here? Why are they called miners? What are they digging underground? Who controls the economy? The issues became part of things I wanted to talk about.”

He and his peers bring their own traditions into dance in a contemporary way. They embed traditions into dance in a manner that might not be obvious. It is this “cocktail” that Maqoma says allows the audience to tap into emotions, by embracing everything that has made him the dancer and choreographer he is today.

Joys of theatre

While Maqoma has refined his narrative around silenced voices, he credits collaboration as just as significant, giving his collaborators the same space as he claims for himself.  

“If I work with the composer, I tell him to go dream,” he says. “I show him the idea and ask, ‘How would you approach this?’ That’s when we come back to the table.”

With The Head & the Load, one must ponder how the team grappled with the idea of grief during colonial times, without a contemporary lens.

“The joy of making theatre is it’s an imaginative reality that takes us on a roller coaster of emotions,” says Maqoma. “That’s always a top narrative when I am making work. We aren’t going to have dead bodies on stage but we are going to reimagine the reality of death and drive it through movement and song.”

This is this gift of theatre — to show audiences what others think happened. Choreographers, actors, set designers, directors and composers are inspired by what they think the events were.

But, at the same time, these theatrical curators also know when to leave their ideas on the stage. Disengaging with the subject matter and setting boundaries between the artist and their work is as important as consistently engaging with the subject.

“I tell myself, first and foremost I am an artist. My duty is to play characters. My life with a character ends when I take a bow. Otherwise, I’d need to go and find a therapist every show,” says Maqoma. 

“There’s no way I’d be able to be consistent. I want to have a moment of projecting emotion out of yourself onto the audience. We can really process what we’ve seen with all the senses.”

Maqoma can also be found with his students at the Vuyani Dance Academy in Newtown, Johannesburg, which he founded in 1999 with the intention of representing black bodies on stage.

“We’ve got to do it with intention and clarity of thought, do it with utmost commitment to an idea,” says Maqoma. “I want my legacy to be creating a centre of excellence where dancers can walk in on a Saturday in a state of the art space.”

He aims to take the dreams of dancers and turn them into reality.

“We can tell our stories without having to conform to a certain setting that somehow sets itself into a language that is not fully encompassing of our own.”

Maqoma says he is at the peak of his career as a dancer, which is why he plans to retire at the end of next year. He explains he does not want to compromise his level of performance but would rather spend time with others and to mentor people, to elevate their work.

“I’m hugely privileged to still be dancing. To be 50 and still be dancing and feel that, at 50, I’m at my peak, it humbles me,” says Maqoma.

The Head & the Load will show at Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein. Evening performances from 21 April to 6 May and matinee performances on 23, 27 and 30 April.

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Loaded with meaning: ‘The Head & the Load’ by artist William Kentridge, with choreography by Gregory Maqoma, and music by Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi, is about the plight of black African porters in World War I. Photos: Stella Olivier