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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2005

Tumbuka, African Contemporary Dance Company - 'Nhinhi'

by Lea Marshall

August 14, 2005 -- Assembly at St. George's West, Edinburgh, Scotland

A delicate and loving duet between Catherine Douglas and Brian Geza opened Tumbuka’s Nhinhi -- a beautifully accomplished fusion between African and contemporary dance techniques -- on Sunday. Hands clasped and arms interlocked to form two links in a chain, the couple moved comfortably in and out of the floor and through a series of lifts in which Douglas would often run straight up Geza’s body, to be caught and held by him at the top. Sometimes she would wrap herself completely around him, establishing a pattern of partnering that would be echoed through the rest of the piece: one partner, whether by carrying or dragging, would accept the full burden of the other’s weight -- sometimes willingly, tenderly, sometimes by necessity, with resignation. I couldn’t help but think that this pattern must reflect part of life in Tumbuka’s turbulent home country, Zimbabwe.

Choreographed by Mathias Julius and Gilbert Douglas, Nhinhi consisted of sequences of pure dance springing from narrative scenes that portrayed, for example, a corrupt priest who, after acknowledging the importance of “the five C's: cash, cell phone, car, chequebook, and…corruption,” seemed surprised that his rebellious congregation, instead of listening to him, danced defiantly before him and eventually dissolved into a mob in a shouting match. Other characters included politicians haranguing an imaginary crowd, an old man with a cane dressed in business attire to whom no one wants to listen, and a group squabbling over black market petrol.

Moments of staggering athleticism punctuate the work, particularly during a male duet in which Geza powered David Mweyne incredibly high off the stage in a series of acrobatic lifts. Towards the end of the piece, a call-and-response circle in which dancers flung themselves in ones and twos to the shouts and cheering of the others, served to highlight each dancer’s abilities.

Watching this company, with their exuberance, strength, and adaptability, I began to feel what a fine model they make for their struggling country. Learning almost any dance form implies openness to change, and a process of re-organisation for both mind and body. Mastery of different dance forms, in turn, provides the dancer with a wide-ranging movement vocabulary that promotes tremendous freedom of expression. African dance, with its grounded, percussive, and elastic movement, combined in Nhinhi with gestural arms and hands, and sharp-edged leaps and spins, enable the Tumbuka dancers to craft, out of light and air and their own bodies, an honest portrait of Zimbabwe as they know it.

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