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Moving Africa 3

Impro-Visé 2 Andreya Ouamba-Compagnie 1er Temps & Umthombi / The Young Man Musa Hlatshwayo-Mhayise Productions

Plasticization - Nelisiwe Xaba
C'est á dire... Seydou Boro / Compagnie Salia nï Seydou

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

June 4 - 16, 2007 -- Barbican, London, UK

Four choreographers presented dance works in Moving Africa 3 from June 4 through 16 at The Pit located in London’s Barbican Centre. This year’s Moving Africa 3 was as much a platform of cultural politics as it was a presentation of examples of contemporary dance devised by choreographers who have had training in Africa, Europe and America. Each of the choreographers began journeys as dance artists from various locales within the African Continent (Congo Brazzaville-Andréya Ouamba; Durban, South Africa-Musa Hlatshaway; Johannesburg, South Africa-Nelisiwe Xaba; Burkina Faso-Seydou Boro), then continued to study and work abroad and win awards for their work.

Similar to modern dance pioneers in America and Germany and current New Dance and contemporary dance innovators in Britain, these dance works illustrate their place in the genealogy of contemporary dance by incorporating recognisable compositional structures and devices. Their use of these strategies challenges expectations of what dance from the African continent supposedly represents. These choreographers surpass simplistic recognition of these dancing bodies that attempt to essentialise responses around difference of race, gender and expected movement language and sensibilities. In this post-colonial, globalised world, dance from Africa still solicits clichéd and antiquated references but these dance works contradict those colonial, imperialistic, racist connotations by skilfully utilising contemporary dance strategies to reveal the effects of present day predicaments. For these dance makers, contemporary dance is a vehicle to describe current social, political and cultural crisis in their individual locales in recognisable contemporary dance modes.   

 Each dance maker has crafted an emotional landscape for audience members to traverse issues, concerns and trepidations that are universal. Their varied means of negotiation through these varied landscapes are culturally and ethnically individual and uniquely different for each one. The choreographic voice can suggest a way forward only if the audience members and critics are able to “read” these works from alternative perspectives.

Impro-Visé 2   Andreya Ouamba-Compagnie 1er Temps

Andréya Ouamba’s work Impro-Visé 2, as the title implies, utilised improvisation to comment on a social cultural crisis; not to solicit pity as much as a vehicle for the dancers’ emotional exploration. Impro-Visé 2 presents the choreographer, Andreya Ouamba and Fatou Cissé. Program notes quote Ouamba stating, “We can’t always tell stories or explain what our dancing means or what we are dancing. We are simply expressing ourselves.” Improvisation can be a slippery compositional structure, but these performers’ intensity and chosen subject matter made for an honest and insightful work. With the sound of children playing, the dance begins with both Cisse and Ouamba amongst rubble and boxes placed upstage left.

Cissé is the first to leave the boxes. Her movements begin with soft, lyrical gestures in arms and legs to step out of the box into a soft blue light. Cissé has on a black flower print dress with her hair done up in two extended plates sticking from each side of her head, an exaggerated effect representing the character of a young girl. Cissé’s movements indicate an inner, liminal space, from where she rarely looks out at the audience. Her jumps and polycentric moves have a rhythm in the spine where one might believe she is playing a game of sorts. At one point in the dance, Cissé’s movements are more etched and tense as if she is exploring a troubling inner terrain. Her travelling steps are more rhythmical while arms and legs move forcefully, reaching out, and taut. Strong lyrical though convulsive full body gestures turn to manic giggles which seem to indicate imbalance or a battle against antagonistic forces. Change of lighting seem like moments of revelation for the dancers; like reflections on the self, each other, or their situation.

Ouamba’s performative act is riveting in its subtlety but it is very insular. His eyes are barely open and he rarely looks at the audience. His spirit, as well as any consolation or restitution, is searched for within. Cissé lying in the rubble then begins mumbling, illustrating that she is frustrated with something or someone. Eventually she tells the lighting technician to turn off the lights bringing an end to the performance.

There is no narrative; only brief glimpses of significance, brief indication of several meanings. Ouamba’s final movement phrase had resonance; anguished evidence of trepidation; terror or anger sharpened and used in an articulate manner. Both dancers were frustrated with the boxes but also cherished the space the boxes occupied; turning them about and rearranging them but remaining within their boundaries as the dance progressed. Ouamba is the only one to escape physically from the area. Cissé’s strong speech takes her away but she returns before the lights descend. Her return to the rubble is an acceptance and Ouamba’s movement away from it is a displacement. Throughout the dance they moved methodically, displacing each other. They didn’t confront each other as much as share cherished spaces while contending with self. Cissé breaks the fourth wall but only to retreat to the boxes as the light fades. Ouamba never confronts the audience or antagonists; his presence seemingly resolved to contend with inner tensions.

Other than the boxes and rubble there were few Jungian archetypes or familiar metaphorical indicators to cling too. Program notes indicate the intent of the work was to embody emotions characterizing the situation of children in the streets of Dakar and the rest of the world. To situate the dance and its meaning, audiences are invited to reference the performers’ performative investigation which incorporated several unsettling, visceral images.

Umthombi / The Young Man  Musa Hlatshwayo-Mhayise Productions

Umthombi / The Young Man, presented by Musa Hlatshwayo, reclaims the past to enrich the present. Hlatshwayo balances within a contemporary frame an African traditional worldview and belief system to portray a rite of passage. For this work the cyc was white with a red wash. Carpet panels on each side of the stage are lain the full depth of the performance space. Each carpet panel has a light placed on the downstage end which formed squares on the cyc. Our protagonists enter from upstage right. Musa Hlatshwayo is dressed in a long decorative layered tunic and Ntokozo Mthethwa in a short, plain tunic. Both carry what appears to be a herder’s whip and sandals. This journey begins with carefully placed steps of which Hlatshwayo has command and Mthethwa is somewhat shaky. Hlatshwayo relates in the program that his work renegotiates African traditional identity by sourcing its tradition, religion, culture and customs. Umthombi is illustrative of a rite of passage though there is no claim to specific ethnic affinity. Though the program notes indicate an adolescent in search of his manhood, Umthombi is a journey exploring through dance a timeless relationship that could exist between a master teacher and an apprentice, mentor and student, or father and son.

The opening sounds are perhaps of children tending a flock of goats or sheep near a stream. Arriving mid-stage, our protagonists arrange ceremonially herding whips and sandals. From here we are presented with several metaphorical vignettes that characterise relationship and dimension of character. Lights and sound characterize the landscape in which our protagonists move. Sounds of a horse galloping put our protagonists on edge as their facial expressions and movements indicate a heightened level of apprehension. Then come low chanting, the sound of a stream, and perhaps a campsite.

Hlatshwayo’s moves are broad, wide and majestic; arms and legs sweep and suspend. His focus is beyond the confines of the theatre space indicating perhaps an open rural expanse. The movement vocabulary is conventional but despite its linearity there is a weightedness. Mthethwa is smaller in stature and even when his moves are full bodied, his volume is not as weighty as Hlatshwayo. They are an ideal coupling to emphasise a mentor-student relationship.

Mthethwa creeps about seemingly investigating the staged terrain though always keeping Hlatshwayo within sight. The stage left carpet has a white powered residue that both dancers eventually treat with reverence. Covered in dust from head to foot, they blow into it then prostrate themselves with ritualised movement phrases which develop into elaborate, dynamic moves. This sequence is rhythmically fast and travels on the ground with rolls and lifts to the knees. The movement vocabulary is generic contemporary dance movement configured to express the spiritualness of African ritual.

Mthethwa’s solo movements contextualise his character as a neophyte testing the boundaries of his environment as well as self: slow balances and tentative postures test his virility and tenacity to walk alone. The sound is a slow melodic whistle indicative of this moment of concentration and contemplation. Positioned on the stage right carpet Hlatshwayo takes off his tunic and Mthethwa follows suit; the mimicry amusing for some audience members. A short duet communicated through gesture of hands, feet and torso focus mentor and student listening to the sounds of their imagined surroundings. Looking into the distance, the sounds propose our protagonists are camped for a night in the plains. Sequences of etched movement gestures performed by Hlatshwayo are mimed by Mthethwa. They eventually end opposite each other; their position casting a shadow against the cyc reminiscent of their relationship.

Arriving centre stage Hlatshwayo travels with Mthethwa following close behind. Stepping aside Hlatshwayo guides then allows Mthethwa to continue tentatively onward. Hlatshwayo watches intently. Their bond is one based on obligation and promise to reveal mysteries and inherit knowledge. Hlatshwayo utilises traditional ethos and sensibilities as foundation to craft a contemporary movement vocabulary that characterise honestly and succinctly a timeless relationship.

Plasticization – Nelisiwe Xaba; performed 12 June 2007

Nelisiwe Xaba’s Plasticization comments on a social crisis that is global, but her clever use of ordinary objects as metaphorical references are an individual voice emphasising the effects of that crisis. The theatre space is staged with light towers exposed with black curtains as the background. With house lights up, Xaba begins by moving through the audience dressed in a plastic bag tied about her small torso with a plastic sash at the waist. Her head is covered by a plastic mask with ears. Xaba’s left leg has a red stocking and high heel shoe while a pointe shoe adorns the right leg. Passing through the audience, Xaba takes a moment to unfold a plastic sheet the size of a tissue, hold it securely on her lips and kiss a male then a female audience member on the lips. With one spectator Xaba unfolds a toilet seat cover, lays it on the lap of the female audience member, sits and also kisses her on the lips with the plastic sheet shielding skin from possible contact.

Once on stage and to several classical standards, including Mozart’s Lacrimosa and Alexander Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances, Xaba’s plastic dress becomes a plastic suitcase that she descends into. Legs and arms appear and descend in various shapes and suggestive arrangements as Xaba rolls inside. Variations to this visual expression are the addition of a gum boot and tatty athletic shoe on hands appearing from the plastic suitcase doing a witty phrase with legs. At one point a white stocking is slowly pulled onto the leg with the point shoe while Xaba kisses and fondles it. These resolve with a vibratory explosion when all the shoes drop to the floor. Xaba ends with a huge sigh and silence. She leaves the performance space having taken off the point shoe and high heel and dropped a condom and other plastic covering items on the floor.

On the surface, Xaba’s dance seems simplistic, perhaps even cliché. Xaba’s dance can be associated with other dance practices but has more resonance when situated in its context and alternative worldview. Xaba’s work needs a layer of sophistication to draw on awareness of trepidations in alternative societies where choice of shoes and music raise alternative significances. The work was developed in South Africa as a choreographic project. This is also where the costume bag and mask were made. South Africa is currently in the mist of an AIDS epidemic. Xaba’s dance is a reaction to the consequences of this epidemic.

In the post show talk held 12 June it is revealed that Xaba’s journey through the audience and attempts at intimacy obstructed by a layer of plastic is a statement about “prevention”. In Xaba’s lived experience, despite social initiatives to educate locally and increase global awareness, intimacy in South Africa and the world is a life threatening venture. One effect is the prevention of any cutaneous touch. The music is a backdrop to Xaba’s interpretation commenting on a country that is replete with churches that do not encourage the use of plastic condoms and so encourage religious ideologies foregrounding disease perpetuated by ignorance. Xaba’s musical choices are an indication of the heightened level of despair in a context clinging to ill advised and ill informed mores. Each shoe though intriguing, even comic, presents a character who resides in the bag with Xaba. The shoes are not so much a comment on protection as much as ethnicity. Styles of shoes are indicative of class, gender, style of dance, the privileged and the destitute. The effect of the AIDS crisis knows no national border, class status, gender or artistic practice. With these readings in mind, Xaba’s dance is an activist’s interpretation of the status quo. It is her reaction to the dreadfulness of this predicament. Audience members are encouraged to be open- minded and view this dance and thus the pandemic of AIDS from an alternative perspective.

C’est à dire… Seydou Boro / Compagnie Salia nï Seydou: performed 12 June 2007

C’est à dire gives evidence of its redemptive intentions. Seydou Boro’s postures and minimalist movement vocabulary enliven his pontificating rendered through verbal text and gestures that vivify Boro’s cultural and political positionalities.

C’est à dire begins in the interval as audience members choose to remain seated or move about. Seydou Boro enters the performance space placing three stones downstage centre, a towel upstage right and a shirt and bottle of water about mid stage right. There is also a black box downstage left with a rope on the floor next to it and a microphone attached to the light tower. In amber light and with the audience fully lit he begins moving. A few circular arm gestures and lunges are followed by stillness. Boro then sits on the black box with his back to the audience playing a guitar. Wearing only a pair of cotton khakis one can see every detail of his torso’s musculature with his voice a visceral sound of rhythmical resonance revealed in soft tissue about his lumbar spine.

The music is stopped by a twitch in Boro’s left shoulder, like an itch he can’t quite get to. Boro shudders, places the guitar on the floor and returns centre stage to explore the previous movement phrase. He continues this movement and musical exploration throughout the interval. Both disciplines build in intensity: cascading recurring melodious song in voice; circular, angular bending in torso and legs. Boro begins his narrations, a mixture of anecdotes and parody, from a posture of exhaustion. Several monologues present his politics regarding family relations, ethnic heritage, Africa, African dance and life by describing past events, present conditions and propositions for future life. As Boro only speaks French, English supertitles are projected onto a  panel hanging on the cyc, so audience members can read words as well as movement.  

Boro’s perspectives are articulated verbally while his movements though mundane and pedestrian are emotive. The recorded score is also guitar music and other assorted sounds and silence to support dramatic inferences. Only in a few phrases did Boro perform moves that could be described as having traditional movement lineage with culturally specific embodiments. In one phrase Boro performs a well known African movement inflection with knees pulled to his chest with graceful undulation of arms. In another phrase, shudders throughout the body allude to spiritual incantations. Inconsolable rage is tempered with a stone carried during a verbal diatribe. This monologue ends when Boro smashes the rock on the floor; his posture defiant as well as redemptive. Boro is a trained actor as well as dancer and musician, and it is through gesture that his perspectives are rendered. It would seem that phrases of conventional movement vocabularies, no matter how designed, would have no place in a work where posture, spatial arrangement and use of lighting, modulation of locomotion to emphasise dramatic inference, and relation and use of objects are the frame in which dialectical encounters are rendered.

Boro exclaims that traditional African dance is a prostitute; a comment on its ability to be mixed with other forms and used in multiple ways. An anecdote characterises Africa as Hell and a rope tied around his neck represents the unfortunate colonial and post-colonial state of Africans who seem inevitably led from one political catastrophe to the next. Many of Boro’s remarks are directed to those on the African continent to end the reiteration and reinvention of political and economical ineptitude. From his daughter’s not understanding what he does for a living to twisting a towel to demonstrate death, Boro illustrates his own and others ambivalence towards being a choreographer who is African. Dance making is insignificant, perhaps trivial, given the circumstances he finds himself in. But from his position of privilege Boro can use dance making as a conduit to revelation. Boro explains that the stage is not reality and there is only one truth in death and dance, and you must find it for yourself. This is a point Boro emphasises by leaving the towel in a wash of blue light as a metaphorical death of a child. Movement and words are a continuum through which the portrayal of emotional intent fuels his journey. Boro chooses to cause an effect, stir an emotion and encourage audience members to interrogate the work to examine their positions as well as his.

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