Choreographer/Dancer Gregory Maqoma and Vuyani Dance Theatre Celebrate 20 Years, Spotlighting Zakes Mda’s Cion

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A scene from Cion ©Siphosihle-Mkhwanazi

Choreographer/dancer Gregory Maqoma and the Vuyani Dance Theatre are celebrating 20 years in the contemporary dance sphere in South Africa and abroad. DIANE DE BEER speaks to him about a reworked Cion, the piece he has selected to showcase their accomplishments in the Nelson Mandela Theatre from September 5 to 15:

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Gregory Maqoma in Cion

 

“I’ve just kept working,” says the explosive driving force behind Vuyani Dance Theatre (VDT), founder and creative director Gregory Maqoma, when reminiscing about the achievement of their 20th anniversary celebration with the already celebrated Cion at the Joburg Theatre starting on September 5.

Five years ago, the company celebrated with Full Moon which dance critic Adrienne Sichel lauded as “flights of conceptual fancy, wrapped around a creation myth, tap into South Africa’s diverse dance lineage ranging from classical ballet to contemporary African dance.

“Maqoma’s aesthetic plumage and Afro-classicism don’t ignore the Odette/Odile legacy but neither does he forget Africa’s ornithology.”

At that time, they didn’t have any backing, and not much has changed since. “It hasn’t been easy,” says the softly spoken Maqoma but argues that it speaks to their resilience. Then they were looking at their 15-year achievement, already a major feat for a local contemporary dance company, but this time round it’s #Vuyani20 and for the future, #ShapingTheNext20.

As they have done in the past, when it seems like too much of a struggle, they simply go bigger. And that’s not only into the future but also with what seemed to many the perfect production. For these current festivities, Maqoma has decided to amplify Cion because he believes that in current circumstances, death needs amplifying.

He is doing this by adding dancers as well as voices – and no less than the Soweto Gospel Choir – to this extraordinary performance. “It’s about legacy,” he says proudly.

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He points to their future and a combined invitation from “Sadler Wells, Theatre de la Ville and a Dutch company for performances of four shows two years hence.” That’s the luxury that he knows dancers in South Africa seldom have. “It gives us two years to just think,” he says. It also brings financial muscle and support, something that is sadly missing at home.

“We need acknowledgement of the spaces we find, as well as support and marketing,” he adds almost mournfully.

Everything happens here with little rehearsal time and much ingenuity as audiences can witness in the reworked Cion. That’s the way they roll. It’s not that he doesn’t speak loudly when given the opportunity, but from government they have had few favours.

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Cion

Artists/directors like James Ngcobo and Idris Elba (whose currently running production Tree Maqoma has just choreographed) know what the man is capable of and so do international audiences. But fortunately, Maqoma keeps coming home. This is where he dances and teaches with the company whose trainees will also be participating in the pulsating production on the Nelson Mandela stage in September.

His work has always been about challenging a Eurocentric way of structuring and to give it a contemporary African edge – with conviction – while at the same time honouring black artists. “We want to take control of our own craft,” he says. “It’s about validity.” And the fact that he should still be seeking that at this time, says so much about the world we live in.

If anything, Cion is proof of so much more than that.

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Gregory Maqoma (front) in Cion

 

When it was first performed at the Market Theatre in 2017, he explained the creation thus: “I am drawn to Zakes Mda’s character Toloki the professional mourner from his beloved Ways of Dying as he further uncovers in his book Cion the story of the runaway slaves.

“In my interpretation, Toloki rediscovers death in a modern context, inspired by the universal events that lead to death, not as a natural phenomenon but by decisions of others over the other. We mourn death by creating death.

“The universe of greed, power, religion has led us to be professional mourners who transform the horror of death and the pain of mourning into a narrative that questions what seems to be normalised and far more brutal in how we experience death and immigration.

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“I am creating this work as a lament, a requiem required to awaken a part of us, the connection to the departed souls.”

And about that first season: nothing prepares you for the performance by Maqoma who has gathered a group of dancers, musicians and singers who mourn death in a way that both embraces and expunges the horrors of this world.

“From the design to the dance to the magnificent music and singing, Maqoma transports you to a place of healing by tearing the horror apart – step by step, note by note.

“If you ever see Cion is being performed anywhere, don’t hesitate, just go. It’s world class and feeds the soul.”

That’s what I wrote two years ago and that’s why it’s thrilling that he has decided to stage this majestic work at this particular time. If you see anything this year, it should be this.

Maqoma’s whole life has been about pushing boundaries and acknowledging himself and the company. “No more gatekeepers,” is his rallying cry.

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In full flow, Gregory Maqoma in Cion with singers in the background

And even though he laments the lack of support in a larger sense, he feels blessed for the support he has in the company. “I’ve been able to step away from the day-to-day running,” he explains. That gives him the luxury of time to sleep, to strategise and to dream. It also means he can make all of those a reality.

Vuyai Dance Theatre has become a machine that can function without his daily attention – and that, more than anything gives him great joy.

When he talks about going bigger, their first step towards #ShapingTheNext20 is to start laying the bricks for their own building. “If we’re able to cross borders, what is stopping us to lay those first bricks in our own country? We are fighting for our own space.”

In conclusion, he declares that he has been pushed post-apartheid to recognise the many atrocities including the senseless killings at Marikana – hence Cion. “It needs a strong push,” he exclaims, “we need to raise questions and we need to be loud.”

Government-funded art centres have not embraced their own he feels, and any plea from artists is landing on deaf ears. In the coming years apart from building VDT and working towards further success, he will also be developing a curriculum as a training institution and documenting the choreographic methodology of his and fellow choreographer Vincent Mantsoe’s work which will establish their own technique internationally.

It’s all about ownership, ownership, ownership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DEURnis/Uzwelo is One-On-One Theatre that Debuts at National Arts Festival

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The Afrikaans Festivals have for a couple of years enjoyed the expansive embrace of performance the Theatrerocket way. The production company has found innovative ways of appealing to theatre audiences as well as making the more seasoned theatre followers pay attention to DEURnis. Now they have collaborated with Windybrow Art Centre for the National Arts Festival (June 27 to July 7). DIANE DE BEER explores the concept:

No one would have given much of a thumbs up to this first and probably edgy concept dubbed DEURnis. It just sounds silly – one-on-one theatre!

But Rudi Sadler and Johan van der Merwe who a few years back formed a production company Theatrerocket had an idea and they were determined. DEURnis is a one-on-one site-specific theatrical production with a very intimate yet cutting-edge and experimental approach. It involves a single audience member who views three separate dramatic pieces per package (there are four different ones to choose from at the National Arts Festival for the first time this year), with each of these having one performer and one audience member.

Each piece is approximately 20 minutes long and written for a particular room/space in a house/building, so as a viewer, you move from one room or even caravan to the next to see your three chosen plays.

It is the social issues that permeate the different works that affect individuals in different ways depending who you are. And for those who aren’t interested in gimmicky theatre, that’s exactly the trap they have avoided by aiming for excellence and substance in the texts. Some will suit specific individuals better than others.

Personally I’m not too excited by the more confrontational ones (there’s usually one that’s slightly more out there in a package), but then other audience members might feel differently. “We have been inundated by people interested in writing for this venture,” says Van der Merwe.

The duo are theatre fanatics of a kind, they know and understand the pitfalls and what audiences want.

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Part of why DEURnis works so well is because it is such a well-executed concept. They understood from the beginning that the control had to be constant to see that everything works superbly. And as they have had many plays to choose from, they have managed to execute their strict code of excellence.

It’s a fascinating experience, being the only one in the room in situations with a stranger telling a story that is often inclusive rather than intrusive but affects you as the viewer in very specific ways. For many it might also be uncomfortable to be this intimate with someone you’re not familiar with. But that’s part of the experience.

This is not a financial venture for the company. With only single actors and audience members, the numbers simply don’t add up. But because of the way it has been done, the performance-experience the mostly young actors accumulate, can’t be calculated.

And chatting to a few of them in-between performances, they are thrilled by how much they are learning in the process. “Each performance is different because of the reaction of the individual viewing,” says one performer. Many of them are already in their second or third play and the growth is obvious in their performances as well as a play’s toughness, a second time round.

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Prospective directors are also excited about the challenge and safety of testing their skills on such a small and intimate stage. “It’s a safe environment in which to experiment and push your own boundaries,” says Van der Merwe.

Having sat through two nights of 12 plays (even a dance with Ignatius van Heerden, Droom, with multi-media included), it doesn’t matter which package you choose. They’re all extremely well crafted and in sometimes scary ways, fun to experience. Following the earliest season, I was excited because of the great potential – and they keep delivering.

They keep on adding to the concept with interesting twists. The latest will be seen at the National Arts Festival later this week. It all began when the head of the Windybrow Arts Centre, Keituletse Gwanga, came to see the production in Tshwane a while back. Six Market Lab graduates, Kwasha! Theatre Company, who work with Windybrow as an introduction to the professional world, have joined Theatrerocket for DEURnis/Uzwelo (a Zulu translation of deurnis which means empathy/compassion) on this year’s main programme.

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It’s been an amazing learning curve explains Van der Merwe because they started with expanded workshops with Windybrow where they explained, explored and taught the concept, with end results that deliver a diverse and rich programme.

“The stories they came with are fascinating,” says Sadler which meant that both groups benefitted from this collaborative effort. Each programme has been put together to showcase the diversity with the first, for example, presenting Koud (Afrikaans: a schoolboy with a secret, forbidden love, that should be kept secret at all costs); Khogo/Chicken (Sesotho: a man sells chickens in the basement of his building and is at pains to prove his compassion to the SPCA) and Kwas (Afrikaans: Esther loves posing for artists but has problems staying still).

Other languages included are English, Sepedi, Greek, IsiXhosa and even Tsotsi taal. Because many of the pieces feature the actor’s first language, it has been constructed to be played for audiences who might not understand but should follow the story which is another interesting addition to this already exploratory work.

A work titled Womb, for example, places the audience member in the womb, the language (in this instance English) shouldn’t matter, while Gone by Renos Spanoudes deals with death which expands on the Becket quote: “We are born astride a grave”. Even though he includes some Greek, the meaning is never lost.

DEURnis has won many different theatre prizes, most of them national and there have been a few acting awards as well. Two years into this project, the growth has been impressive. And while this latest innovation can be seen at Makhanda from June 27 to July 1 (at 11am, 3pm and 4.30pm daily at PJ Olivier), they already have exciting new plans which they will pull from their theatrical hat at the right moment.

 

 

Joburg Ballet Dance with Their Soul in a Season of Redha and Raymonda Act 3

Pictures: Lauge Sorensen

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Whispers Of My Soul by Redha

A dynamic double bill, Fire and Ice showcases Joburg Ballet’s latest season in two contrasting ballets, the classical Raymonda Act 3 staged by Brazilian producer Guivalde de Almeida and and Whispers Of My Soul, a world première by internationally acclaimed French-Algerian choreographer Redha. DIANE DE BEER speaks to these two visiting artists as well as CEO Esther Nasser about dance:

 

It was immediately obvious when I walked into one of the two rehearsal spaces of Joburg Ballet at the Joburg Theatre that this was a different company to the one I had seen approximatelty three or four years back.

Not only has classical ballet always battled elitism, but it took this country – because of its past beliefs that classical ballet was suitable for only specific bodies (white) – longer than most to transform. However, in the past few years things have been moving at a rapid pace and for someone not aware of the changes, the room is suddenly charged and the upcoming season an exciting lucky packet with lots of surprises hopefully spilling over onto the stage.

It would be easy for them to only stage the much-loved classical ballets, tickets would sell, and many would be smiling but the future of the company would be uncertain. “This is a youthful and vital company,” says CEO Esther Nasser (since 2016), “and it is important to challenge them with new work.” They also need to grow young and new audiences with ballets that will appeal and tempt them to the theatre.

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A scene from Raymonda act 3

With the company itself in transformation, that should also be reflected in these showcase performances. The two chosen works are vastly different technically with the beautiful classical Raymonda Act 3 which has never been danced locally before moving into the explosive, contemporary Whispers Of My Soul created by a choreographer who knows this country and its dancers. The classical work is exuberant and precise and was first seen by Nasser and artistic director Iain MacDonald on a visit to Brazil. They extended an invitation to the producer Giuivalde de Almeida to stage this ballet with the Joburg Ballet dancers.

“He teaches and stages work around Brazil and the world and his work is extremely precise,” she says.

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Guivalde de Almeida in Raymonda rehearsals

Bringing in a teacher from the outside is invaluable for the dancers because they pick up on individual points that can make huge differences to a dancer’s work and performance. De Almeida, explains Nasser, is a gentle man and he immediately expresses his affinity with the South African dancers. For him Raymonda Act 3 is a challenging work but his local pupils are like sponges and he is delighted with the progress. Because it is a new work, the bar is set high and the technical demands specific.

The excitement of a classical work never seen on our stages before that carries such depth, is good for the company and for audiences.

Redha comes from a completely different world artistically. He wears his heart on his sleeve, tells his dancers what they are doing right and wrong and demands everything. This French-Algerian choreographer has been here a few times before doing work for companies that Nasser was running at the time.

“He doesn’t hold back,” she says but if you have seen his work like CrashDance or his reimagination of Giselle, he is always worth watching. “If he asks for international quality, you had better give him that,” says Nasser, who is thrilled by both these dance masters in their different fields working with this young company.

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Redha in rehearsals.

Redha loves working with a company that deals in reality and has a vision. “It’s good to be in a space where you can talk to people,” he says. For him the work talks about life, and obviously part of it is his own life. He always remembers when creating that people come to the theatre to be entertained.
“It’s a sacrifice, they pay money and they want a journey,” he believes. “They have to be touched. You can’t leave the theatre unchanged.”

He doesn’t want to speak about the content, rather the people. But he does explain that Whispers Of My Soul is all about the imperfections of being human. It’s about losing time, losing people and then missing everything you lose. Communication is also an element. The way we speak to one another today or don’t, drives Redha to examine how humans communicate with one another. “If you don’t speak to me, we’re all machines,” he says in disgust as he disses texting. This is an artist who has little patience with things that don’t work for him in this modern world.

“Art is a social and political reflection of the world we live in,” he stresses. “We have to entertain.” And then follows the but, “we had better have something to say. All the best writers do.” He feels strongly that as his company of dancers have to show the weaknesses and the strengths, the fragility and the extreme hardships of loss for the dance to have impact.

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Joburg Ballet_(top to bottom) Ruan Galdino, Shannon Glover & Revil Yon in Whispers Of My Soul

Wherever he works he likes to incorporate the spirit of the country in his work. “That’s how you touch people,” he insists, something he regards as an obligation. He talks about countries like Colombia and Argentina where he worked recently and how important art becomes. Their lives are so tough that art is vital, he says. But in Africa, a special place, music is part of life and the secret with this work is to bring stories we don’t always want to hear.

For the dancers it is all about the soul. That’s what he’s working with when he drums it into the young dancers to pay attention and to do things exactly the way he wants them to. “With each step, you have to bring your history.”

For both Redha and De Almeida, that’s simply what artists do.

Joburg Ballet_Ana Paulina rehearsing Raymonda Act 3_Photo Lauge Sorensen
Ana Paulina rehearsing Raymonda Act 3

BOOKING INFORMATION

Dates, Times, Prices:

Fri 29 June at 19:30 – Half Price: R100, R138, R188, R205, R238

Sat 30 June, Sat 7 July at 7.30pm& Sat 30 June, Sun 1 July, Sat 7 July, Sun 8 July at  3pm –R200, R275, R375, R410, R475

Wed 4 July at 11:00 – All tickets R100

Where: Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein (GPS -26.191316, 28.038519)

Book now: At Joburg Theatre Box Office, tel. 0861 670 670 or online at www.joburgtheatre.com or www.webtickets.co.za

Patrons can also book and pay via the Nedbank app and at selected Pick n Pay stores (full list at www.webtickets.co.za/pnpoutlets.aspx)