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Recollections of Dance Umbrella "African Crossroads".

by Thea Nerissa Barnes 2009

October 2009 -- London

Eckhard Thiemann, curator for “African Crossroads”, stated in an interview by Donald Hutera that the series was “going to be a rich, exciting array of talents and perspectives”. Indeed the selection of dancemakers was diverse in artistic vision. Thiemann went on to say “Just don't go to it expecting to see undulating bodies in grass skirts… there's no room here for clichés or outdated, one-size-fits-all generalities”. That in 2009, the perspective is that African dance needs assistance in clarifying to London and perhaps the world the efficacy of their endeavours in contemporary dance speaks volumes of how far we have not come even in an era when America has an African American president. The delusion and racism that those generalities still precipitate though have changed tactics. The opportunity to see this range of expression was exceptional. The question arises, however, why such clarity of aesthetic vision and choreographic skill still was spotlighted for the cache its Africanness can represent albeit in some instances only in flesh.

Vincent Mantsoe performed “EBHOFOLO” Friday 9 October2009 at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House. Mantsoe is well known in London having first appeared here in 1999. In the Meet the Artist discussion, Mantsoe encouraged audience members to be open to the feelings he would explore in his performance. Mantsoe’s vision of dance performance is transcendence through deep trance states. He encourages audience members to not only witness his transcendence but to enter Mantsoe’s world of luminal investigations.

In “EBHOFOLO”, the stage is set with square pillows forming a circle with a drape hung from the ceiling in the upstage section of the circle. The set design is by Ester Mahlangu, and each pillow has a covering of black with a different hue of yellow, red, and green depicting a Ndebele symbol. The Ndebele symbol of each pillow faces into the circle while the drape is a blend of greens. In the upstage left corner of the circle is what appears to be a small mound of pink sand. First is heard the sound of shells, then Mantsoe enters wearing pants with a patterned jacket covering his head as he walks in a circle. The manner seems one of deep frustration. Rarely does he comfort the audience and the mood of the work is extremely introspective.

The movement is complex with some repetition; frenzied with a specific intensity. There is a recognisable Africanist design in the curved-flexible shape of torso, angularity in arms and legs, and percussive inflection. For Mantose, dance has to portray a character without rarefying movement. Technique or the glorification of prowess is not Mantose’s performative quest.

There are high jumps mixed with smooth travelling steps/shimmies that indicate enjoyment or satisfaction. The jacket becomes shorts and pants are taken off. If one assumes that each gesture has significance and each act portrays an insight, the pants are a male formulation and the wrapping around legs the creation of a skirt or feminising of gestures. Indeed there is a moment downstage right where Mantsoe incurs a femaleness in his movement of shoulders and contortion of face.  At the end, Mantsoe uses a wooden scoop to scatter the pink sand across the stage and with twig brush creates a design on the floor. Mantsoe moves the pillows then walks through the sand with one of the pillows on his head. Curiously Mantsoe’s steps do not leave a print on the design.

“EBHOFOLO”, (“this madness”) seeks to illustrate through cathartic dance Mantsoe’s interpretation of a grappling of ideals. Working with set designer, Ester Mahlangu, Mantsoe draws from his experience which combines Ndebele, Xhosa (Nguni Speaking) Sotho and Pedi ancestry to explore through dance transitions between Ntlo holo – Ntlo e Nyane, Forecourt and Inner Space. These are the four parts of an Ndebele homestead. Many traditional African homesteads are built in this manner to create space and a sense of identity and nature. The homestead is also a reflection of inter and intra personal relationships-family members to each other, the world within and outside the compound, and ancestors who reside in a plane amongst the living.

The designs on the pillows illustrate an interaction of various colours which paint an identity. Mantsoe’s danced gestures are in some respects like the paintings, and reveal various identities. There are four characters within the work which portray male and female characteristics. Feminising movement is an effort to acknowledge domesticity. The transformation into femaleness in gesture is not for comic portrayal. Feminisation was done with reverence and respect for the care and responsibility witnessed by Mantsoe of Nbedele women who paint their compounds with varying significances. Mantsoe also acknowledges that ancestors are around him as he performs. The feeling of the audience and spirits, the presences of ancestors are always with Mantsoe while he dances.

The music, recordings from Kayan Kalhor & Ali Akbar Modari, Tatit, Dinda Hamma Sarre were chosen for their distinctive ambiance. These sounds create an environment suitable for Mantsoe’s trance states.  Mantsoe has used various other world music artists ranging between Chinese, Japanese, as well as African and classical. Mantsoe’s choices are a selection of music seemingly composed live and of the moment. Mantsoe believes the selections speak to him and aide his cathartic sensibility.

With the Nbedele, in which Ebhofolo finds some of its inspiration, mud-walled houses are painted with expressive symbols for communication between Ndebele people. The paintings are abstract etchings representing continuity and cultural resistance to a current circumstance as well as sense of pride for an individual household and collectively as a community. Personal prayers, self-identification, values, emotions, and marriage are among the abstract messages portrayed in the paintings that use various shades of red, yellow to gold, sky blue, green and pink design on a white background. Nbedele women are the purveyors of this painting tradition and the traditions and histories of each family and their community. The tradition of house painting is passed down in the family generation to generation by the mothers with the result being a well-painted house illustrating a good wife and mother. 

Mantsoe uses performance to traverse Ndebele space, and time to acknowledge the significance of domestic care, preservation of history and the contradictions and frustrations experienced by a culture under threat. Mantsoe invites audience members to experience similar feelings through his visual and exceptionally visceral perspectives of the tensions between current living binaries in this part of South Africa-rural vs. urban; essentialism vs. assimilation; preservation of cultural mores vs. erasure of unique cultural significances. Mantsoe achieves through cathartic expression an enlightened understanding of Ndebele artistry.

Kettly Noël and Nelisiwe Xaba’s “CORRESPONDANCES” was performed Tuesday 20 October 2009 at The Place: Robin Howard Dance Theatre. Noël was seen in London for the Moving Africa 2 performing at the Barbican 15 March 2005. Noël’s work “Ti Chèlbè,”, like this current work, examined life experiences with a particular woman’s perspective.

“CORRESPONDANCES”  is a series of episodes depicting topics of interest ranging between political and social satire, mixed with contemplations on being a woman which are  shared in correspondences, written, spoken, and danced between Noel and Xaba. Over the sound track—“I don’t want to go to work today rather stay home and play…”, Xaba speaks to the audience while moving in high heels explaining her morning ritual that describes what most women do -- checking if eyes need cucumbers and looking at several mirrors in bathroom that allow several views of face, back of head and torso. Noel enters from the back of the house carrying a suitcase. As she enters she kisses several audience members-men and women-before entering the stage space. Protagonist and antagonist meet and admire each other; they share soft caresses and dance together. This foreplay, bumping each other’s hips, buttocks and other body flank areas, escalates to aggression which causes Xaba to scream out.

The work is a series of episodes linked together by moments to change shoes and/or garments. At one point, Noel performs an intricate duet with a white ceramic doll to the Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Jonny Mercer’s standard Satin Doll sung by Jill Scott. As Noel manipulates it, the doll walks in high heels, spins a la arabesque, is carried in the arch of Noel’s high heel as Noel lies prone and rolls over her back gently as if carrying a human partner. A monologue follows this wonderful duet as Noel proclaims she is a great and powerful woman while denouncing, several negatives traits with an emphatic “no”. Noel also discusses the power of money in Africa and the world saying you can buy anything with enough money—you can buy gold, diamonds, oil and children; even the African continent. Noel’s rant ends with burps that seem to emphasize the bestiality she has witnessed in her circumstance given the politics discussed in her speech. The burps also seem to portend a change in character and the direction of the work which takes a more sensual slant with the performance becoming less parody and more introspective. 

Noel’s hand and arm gestures wrap around her neck and wipe her mouth and her torso in turn. This sequence develops into a duet with Xaba becoming a fulcrum that Noel’s whole body wraps about and falls off of. Xaba steps over her and around and the sequence begins again. They tug and bump each other and finally Xaba ends on the floor. Moving a table to downstage right the dancers perform a sequence of gestures on the table to the music of Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are made of This)”. The table gets moved several more times before they place it centre centre.  Noel then performs her interpretation of ballet moves called out by Xaba. Noel performs the moves with a sash of dolls tied around her hips. Eventually the dolls fall out, and Noel tosses them around the room. White balloons filled with a white liquid substance are flown over the performers who are now barefoot wearing leotards. They drench themselves in the white substance, drink it and squirt it out of their mouths, slide across the floor and spin in it while a video image presents text of the monologues performed in English and French. The written correspondences between the women are also shown.

The work speaks of several realities and the desire for several ideals that these varied realities instigate. Taking a performative stance the work illustrates through movement and voice several issues regarding femininity, cultural finiteness, and political and social obfuscation. Everyone competes in every way with herself and with other female acquaintances on the street to achieve some ideal womanness, some understanding of the predicament we all find ourselves in, for dance excellence, for social responsibility, or political astuteness. Noel and Xaba confront the contradictions of being a woman, an African woman, living in their respective countries, living in this globalised world at this particular time.

Opiyo Okach’s “Shift…centre – Series 10” was performed 23 October 2009 at The Place: Robin Howard Dace Theatre. “Interested in the fabric of cross-cultural space as a conceptual framework for choreographic enquiry”, Opiyo presents a promenade space for audience members to move about, as performers’ improvisations commence within the space. Hanging from the ceiling are several partitions of clear vinyl adjacent white taped squares on the floor.  Benches are placed about the room to accomodate those audience members who choose to sit. Most though stand about, turning to watch a nearby duet, a distant solo or trio. The performers are dressed as some of the audience members and periodically blend in, becoming audience members themselves. The movement vocabulary is consistent with contemporary dance genre making the movement discourse shared between Opiyo’s dancers and British collaborators straightforward. Scrolling on a wall and on the floor are quotes by several noted individuals, writers, and heads of state -- George W. Bush, Isaae Karanja, and Kefa Oiro, that bring a sense of global intrusion in our pretend global utopia. The words range between sensible platitude and social pessimism. 

Towards the middle of the work, an African singer, Anastasia Akumu, sings and moves with the dancers. Aside from glimpses of distinctive Africanist movements (stomping of foot, angularity in torso with isolated movements of chest and hip), Anastasia’s voice is the only recognisable “African” characteristic seen in the work.

In the post show discussion, Opiyo stated that he strove to create with his set designer, Jean-Christophe Lanquetin, an environment to show and share --  that exchange was a crucial concept in the dramaturgy. The space is at first a void that is then infused with the presence of both dancers and audience members who invoke a crossing of cultures. Opiyo intends to make performance more transparent so to lead those involved on both sides of the performative equation a means to appreciate this moment. The vinyl serves to satisfy this choice providing transparency for the performer and audience member to see each other.

Traditional African dance practice examines identity, reclaims history, or explores binaries that fracture cultural essence. Opiyo seeks to challenge this expectation of African choreographic endeavour by acknowledging difference in present day Africa. Africa is a convergence of difference; of different times, of different people. Authenticity is difference not any one specific, essentialist concept but a host of different realisations. There is also this idea of passing on, contributing, individual points of view with each person bringing their own reality to the work as the scrolling of words on the floor indicates. Words from various perspectives, some extremely contentious, others inspired by vigilance that characterises the varied realities that exist in the world are all presented. These interventions temper the various cultural manifestations that are the cross-cultural fabric of Africa. Opiyo’s work offers the witness an opportunity to respect this duplicity, for it is the reality Opiyo has witnessed.

The performers, African and British, are choreographers in their own right chosen by Opiyo for what they contribute to the diverse fabric of the work making Opiyo, as his work in the African dance festival attests, a catalyst for cross-cultural exchange. Opiyo’s work is good at posing questions regarding global pluralism as it affects Africa and Africans as they traverse the dance planes of every continent. What is seen in this work is the effect of cultural exchange—a mimetic of post modern choreographic constructions. There is the familiar investigation of making dance through improvisation that defies the reified body for recognisable humanness to design in space, and express through gesture and movement a particular social political positionality. There is nothing new for contemporary dance in Opiyo’s presentation although the work is wonderfully performed, distinctive in its own right and easily placed within the scheme of contemporary dance making.

Opiyo indicates that Anastasia was placed within the fabric of the work to sabotage its type of difference, its sameness and to to African-nize the space. In an equation where difference is norm, what one assumes as African, becomes subversion in a performative act that posits cultural difference as status quo. Cultural difference in this work can be read as European, American and African. Why are we invited to view anything “African” as subversion? Africa is after all a collection of several nations with global understandings of dance making affording many opportunities to reflect on some of that diversity through the prism of contemporary dance.

In the past fifteen years, contemporary dance in Africa has been growing and developing its own vibrant vision. African festivals, tours, and choreographic encounters bring African artists together to share as well as build institutions to support African dancemaking. This circulating network, inter and intra continental, of African artists brings together different aesthetics and different approaches. Dance umbrella provided an opportunity for international exchange and for Opiyo the opportunity to show his work in London’s Dance Umbrella. Opiyo believes Dance umbrella offered an opportunity to be not artistically ghettoised and labelled under a banner of some notion of African dance. Dance Umbrella presented these artists, Mantsoe, Noël/Xaba and Opiyo and others as testimony that there is a thriving contemporary dance community in Africa; a strategy of defence that seems to isolate these artists more so than include them within any mainstream collection of contemporary dance makers.


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