Journalist Tanya Farber Explores the Lives of SA’s Notorious Female Killers

Pictures: JEREMY DANIEL

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The statistics speak for themselves: 95 per cent of people who commit murder are male writes journalist/author Tanya Farber about her choice of subject for her book – Blood on her Hands – South Africa’s Most Notorious Female Killers (Jonathan Ball Publishers). DIANE DE BEER gets the lowdown on the book, why she wrote it and why it is so compelling:

It is precisely the percentage of female killers that  makes the stories of the murderers in Blood on her Hands – South Africa’s Most Notorious Female Killers unusual: they come from the small 5 per cent of killers who are female. And this is what intrigued author Tanya Farber – that and covering one of the court cases, which drew her in.

While that already makes them more interesting, especially when coupled with the fact that they are seldom impulsive acts of violence, it also intrigued her to delve into the plotting and planning that went into each murder.

“Dina Rodrigues is a case in point – she had several opportunities to rethink her decision to murder a baby, and yet she stuck to it like glue. Daisy de Melker’s serial killing took place over several years, so what was going on in that mind of hers? I find it fascinating that the wiring could be so wrong inside the human brain.”

As a journalist, her interest was sparked when she was tasked to write court stories. “I am actually a science reporter, but as newsrooms have shrunk, one often writes stories outside of one’s own beat. That said, I have been utterly spellbound by the trials that I have covered, and I am particularly interested in forensics. This, of course, includes forensic psychology: I am particularly interested in the mind of a deviant person, and how that plays out in the courtroom.

“I begin the Najwa Petersen chapter in the actual court room because her public facade in the courtroom, and her interior world, were so very different.”

With the writing, her goal was to imagine a ‘day in the life of this particular woman’. “In some cases, I began with the day of the murder, so we see, for example, Celiwe Mbokazi on the phone om the day of her husband’s murder and we get a sense that she is speaking to her accomplices, knowing full well that this murder might take place in front of the children.

“In other cases, I described a day that would give the reader insight into the murderer’s background. Like in the Phoenix Racing Cloud Theron chapter, it starts off with her as a toddler living in a caravan with her often-absent mother, so I tried to imagine the world through her little-girl eyes,” she explained.

And when it came to choosing the women she would write about, she firstly excluded any woman who one could feel was justified in committing murder.

“Ellen Pakkies, for example, killed her son who was a tik addict and was literally tormenting the family, so she has no place in this book.”

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She wanted to study women who in her opinion could not be absolved of their crime due to circumstances. “Even Charmaine Phillips – one can recognize the wretched and violent childhood she had but does that give her the right to take part in the cold-blooded murder of four men by shooting them at point blank range?” So, she made the cut.

And while she doesn’t think society is softer on women killers, they certainly illicit more interest than do their male counterparts. “As I discuss in the analytical chapter at the end, female killers in the past were often seen as being mad (as in seriously deranged and out of touch with reality) or else what would explain their deviance from being a nurturer?

“The point I make in the book, however, is that female killers can also just kill because they are murderous and bloody-minded just like any male killer who goes about plotting and planning someone else’s demise.”

Marlene Lehnberg, she argues, was just a teenager when she began plotting the murder of her boss’s wife because she was having a red-hot affair with him. “Her ultra conservative upbringing might explain how her brain was shaped, but then consider that there are thousands of others in our country who grew up in conservative households but didn’t go about killing people!”

The chapter dealing with Joey Haarhoof gave her nightmares – literally.

“Even more so than the Chane van Heerden chapter, even though she mutilated and decapitated her victim, and skinned his face.” Haarhoff had this impact for two reasons: Farber was not much older than the victims and remembers clearly the sheer terror of what was going on and the warning issued by her parents. She is also now a mother with two daughters who both fall within the age range of Joey’s victims and so, imagining the pain of the parents, is much more real for her now.

“In short: back then, I could relate to the victims. Now I can relate to the parents.”

It’s fascinating stuff and reading it, because of the way the topic has been approached has you turning the pages – even when in some instances you believe you know the stories. It is the psychological angle, the way this hard-nosed journalist tackles her subjects and then the softer approach, an almost a gentle voice, telling the story, which makes it so insightful.

It’s also telling which of the stories got greater play in the newspapers and media while some, perhaps just in my case, slipped completely under the radar. Even though each one is a story of horror, Van Heerden, Mbokazi and Theron were unknown to me. Why?

That’s probably also part of the greater story. And as a newspaper journalist at the Sunday Times, Farber has special insight into a world of stories that catch the attention and play out in specific ways. And she makes a strong case in a world of fake news and populism.

“Despite all the ‘noise’ of social media, and the power of citizen journalism, it is still crucial to have reliable reporters who can deliver the facts. My approach always with court reporting is to blend the facts of the case with observations in the court room – the silent power of body language, the fascinating way in which the English language is used and abused to paint a picture depending on which side you’re coming from … all of that.

“The media, be it newspapers or reliable digital sites, still have a crucial role to play in conveying this to a readership.”

In conclusion, for those considering telling their own stories or perhaps venturing into the world of  writing, she issues a warning and sound advice: “Writing a book is HARD work and if anyone is considering doing it, make sure it is a topic that absolutely draws you in as a writer or else you will find yourself hating the process.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filmmaker Adam Heyns tells a Personal Story in Short Film; Exorcist of Apartheid

adam's posterWhat does a young man do when he loses his grandfather at the age of five and more than two decades later, still doesn’t know who this man, who has one of the main arteries in the capital city named after him, was. DIANE DE BEER speaks to filmmaker Adam Heyns about the short film tribute to his grandfather, moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church, Dr Johan Heyns:

 

Adam Heyns was five years old and living in Germany with his parents when they heard about his grandfather’s assassination. “I can’t remember much,” he says, but he does recall a sombre atmosphere in the car (they were on a road trip for the weekend) because his father Prof Christof Heyns, had heard about his father’s death on German radio.

The young filmmaker remembers a friendly black man at his aunt’s home when they returned home for the funeral, called Nelson Mandela. He also remembers realising, as he stood at the grave, the permanence of death. “I understood that I would never see him again.”

Adam Heyns at his grandfather's grave
Adam Heyns at his grandfather’s grave.

When he started with filmmaking it was a desire to tackle something more authentic than fiction and adverts, which started him enquiring about his family history. “I knew my grandfather was a well-known man, but I didn’t know much else about him,” he explains.

When his grandmother (one of the producers on the doccie) gave him a box of VHS cassettes, it was like meeting him for the first time. Here was someone who could take a moral point of view during very troubled times in our country’s history, he learnt. “Today I battle to establish a moral compass for myself and I often think he could have advised me. Fortunately, I got to know him better with the making of the film.”

Once you watch the doccie, you’re struck by the approach, the brevity as well as the story that emerges – a homage from a young man to his grandfather as he, together with us, gets to know what must have been a remarkable man in a difficult time and place.

“At one stage I almost stopped with production because there were so many directions and options. It just felt overwhelming,” says Heyns Jr. A speech his grandfather made on December 16 1988 at the Voortrekker Monument on what was then known as Geloftedag (Day of the Covenance – a holy day for Afrikaners) became the backbone of the film.

Adam's grandfather Dr Johan Heyns
Adam’s grandfather Dr Johan Heyns

On the day, his sermon from the Book of Amos deals with God’s harsh words to the Israelites about their immoral lifestyle. He compares this with that of the Afrikaners in the late ‘80s. “I was struck by his use of the Bible to encourage Afrikaners to rethink their mythology,” says his grandson.

But he was still worried about the edit until a filmmaker friend, Willem van den Heever, had a look and brought a new perspective.

Adam's opening and concluding clip

It starts with Adam walking into a room and putting a VHS cassette into a TV – and then watching with his audience his personal take on his grandfather’s life – yet another of those remarkable South African stories.

This was a man, the leader/moderator at that time of the main Afrikaans church, the Dutch Reformed Church, who had a complete change of heart about the political system in his country established by his people. He understood as he grappled with what he was experiencing that what would have to be reconciled were white fear and black aspiration. A wise man then , he would have had the same impact today, which is why this is such an important moment in time.

Titled Dr. John Heyns: Exorcist of Apartheid, the poster tagline reads: A young white filmmaker in South Africa asks what his grandfather did during apartheid. His grandmother gives him a box of family videos.

It is beautifully crafted weaving between family reels with the grandfather and his grandchildren at play, the momentous sermon at the Voortrekker Monument, television interviews with Dr Heyns about his beliefs and his change of heart and that fatal day and his assassination in front of some of his grandchildren and his wife as well as the shockwaves experienced in the country in the face of the brutality of this dastardly deed.

Adam Heyns on setSharing his grandfather’s names, and honouring the man he has discovered in the making of this very personal film, Heyns Jr used his full names in the final credit as homage: Johan Adam Heyns (JR) (left).

It will be screened on October 6 at The Bioscope Independent Cinema in Maboneng starting at 12.30pm.

It is part of the Jozi Film Festival which began in 2012 and was initially created to provide a platform for local filmmakers and reach audiences under serviced by traditional cinemas. The festival began accepting entries from around the world in 2014 and is now firmly established as one of the sub-continent’s leading film festivals. They are proudly independent, and a supporter of independent films. They also support and showcase both upcoming talent and veteran filmmakers.

For more info check https://www.jozifilmfestival.com/schedule.html for the festival which runs from October 3 to 6 in Jozi.

Nataniël, Master Storyteller of his Life, in Look At  Me: Recollections of a Childhood

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
― Cicero

 

DIANE DE BEER

When starting to write what was going to become a memoir, Nataniël first googled the meaning of the word and liked what appeared.

A memoir, he gleaned, is a book based on what you remember and what you feel. He doesn’t have ANY memories from before he was five – and that had me thinking too.

So memoir it would be, rather than an autobiography. For him it is all about making sense of his young world. “I didn’t write this book because of a need to share my life or about being famous,” he notes. “It’s about how I tried to figure out my life.”

That’s how it started…

“It’s a story of a young boy’s absolute fear of the ordinary,” he elaborates. “I needed to discover how it worked – families, friends, schools, towns, countries … everything.”

To him it felt as if everything was already in place when he arrived on this planet and only now, after a lifetime of research, does he feel more equipped … to live.

“The ‘70s was one of the worst times to land on the planet,” he concedes. To him it seemed as if the world was trending with bad fashion and zealotry.

“For those who know me, it will read like a memoir and for those who don’t, I hope it will be an incredible story.”

That’s also the reason the book will be published simultaneously in both Afrikaans and English. “It’s aimed at those readers who understand how big the inner life of a child is. It’s much bigger than the universe,” he notes. And that was really what fast-tracked him to tell this story.

It was the first time he was putting pen to paper not to be funny. Most of his other books were first written as sketches for the stage, which inevitably had to be funny. “It’s freeing,” he says of his memoir-writing experience. And nice to be old enough not to be intimidated by the whole gig, the process.

Nataniël has been writing all his life. From his stage scripts to magazine columns, which arguably should have made this another caper. But that’s not how this works, most authors will tell you. Even Nataniël, a man for whom creativity seems to come easily, found it hard going. Next time, he says, he will escape somewhere just to write, not try to do it in-between the rest of his life.

But he doesn’t feel he is asking for any literary feedback or judgement. The only thing he didn’t stick to are the real names in all instances. “I changed some,” he says and according to his explanation, he changed the names of people he didn’t want to glorify. “I have always been very specific with selecting names when writing anyway,” he says.

That’s true. Think of his shows. There’s Sabella, Romany Dippenaar, Mr Fazakas, Hildatjie … go to any  of his stage stories, open any page.

Once you start reading this one, you will realise that in his young life, he gave titles to everything – from streets to houses to trees and more. “The show has always been in my head,” he notes. People who knew him as a child will get that. “The book is about me functioning in the world.”

And if one goes by his shows, which have been thinly disguised life stories, his was never an easy fit. Ordinary is how he would describe it, while others might point to his non-conformity which has always been a problem, even in today’s world.

Please just don’t stick out was his solitary desire. “Ordinary,” underlines Nataniël, is what he was looking for. Creativity has always been second nature to him which immediately obliterated his longing to disappear in the crowd – at that young age.

This is not about him and his neighbours though, he says. It’s not about his life, it’s about how he navigated that life.

nataniel-.jpgTalking about the Afrikaans and English version, he wrote the Afrikaans and his translator, Iolandi Pool, did the English version. But, says Nataniël, it is not strictly speaking a translation. “She understood how I would have written it in English,” is how he best explains it.

“English is much more poetic and musical,” he explains. “Afrikaans is staccato and rhythmic.” If he had written the English version, it would have resulted in a very distant cousin of Jane Austen, is how he tells it. But he needed someone who got his distinct voice. They needed to capture that – and Pool certainly did that.

Reading it first in Nataniël’s own words and then the translation, the differences are fascinating. It’s exactly the same story but to get the voice strong enough in both versions took some vision – and the two worked very closely together with much toing and froing between them. The English almost has an old-fashioned feel, comes from this country but without moving into strictly speaking South Africanisms, which would have been the easier option. There’s a certain elegance in the telling.

“I live in Afrikaans and I read in English,” he says. “My Afrikaans is vocal and my English is written.” The challenge for him and Pool was not to become Herman Charles Bosman. For example, rather than use stoep they used porch. But writing in both languages was important.

“I wanted this to be a universal story and I wanted something of my own to give to foreign friends.”

“Those who want insight will get that, for others it will be entertaining and intriguing,” he believes. “It’s about someone who refuses to follow any rules.”

It’s memories of a childhood more than anything else, which he describes as “50% horror and 50 % complete fantasy amongst his paper dolls and rugby balls. It is the best shape on which to practise make-up,” he vows. “It’s the same shape as my face!”

“My childhood was the perfect storm of fear and fearlessness,” with the horror beginning as soon as  he stepped into the world. Back home he could create his own fantasy world. “I couldn’t understand what was wrong with the rest of the world. How could or should we obey, if it wasn’t deserved?

What I really loved about the book was that, like anything Nataniël does, he isn’t following a recipe. He tells his story as only he would. Through the years I have watched many talented artists trying to copy his successful “recipe”. You can’t. It’s about his identity, who he is, how he operates in the world and how he likes to show and tell. All of that is quite unique and what gives him his cachet in whatever he wants to do.

And it could almost be anything, because he has such a determined and decisive attitude about who he is, what he wants and what he won’t do.

That’s the right time to write your memoir and to share your life with the world. And thank goodness it could be done in English too so that his magical stories could spread wider than an Afrikaans only audience.

His wisdom is witty and wacky and takes you into a world that is weird and wonderful. I have watched him on stage for almost his whole career and was still surprised by how he chose to tell us about his young life.

I should know by now that Nataniël always does it his unique way – and his success relies on that individuality.

As with his stage stories, it is his voice and language that captures your heart, that makes you listen and laugh and perhaps in what was the saddest moment in the book, have you screaming in laughter and pain.

If you understand the language, read it in Afrikaans. Yet, for English readers, the experience will be as rich and intense as they follow one young boy’s determination to find his way. I loved having the choice of reading both.

Look At  Me – recollections of a childhood/Kyk Na My – herhinneringe aan ‘n kindertyd (Human&Rousseau) should be read widely as we pay attention to the world as seen through the eyes of a child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Japan’s Visionary And Versatile Food

 

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Bento boxes at train stations for long journeys

Pictures: Diane de Beer and Kanae Omote

On two recent trips to Japan, the first a holiday, followed by work, DIANE DE BEER experienced the visionary and versatile food of Japan and hopes any South Africans visiting during the 2019 Rugby World this month, next year’s Olympics or simply holiday, will be intrigued and inspired:

When the Japanese take you out to lunch, it is stepping up your cuisine kudos and when it’s dinner, it moves up yet another notch.

A furniture representative from the Philippines, Nicolaas de Lange from Designs Ligna who was visiting on a training exercise to acquire furniture from Asahikawa’s Conde House, questioned the uniqueness of Japanese craftmanship in comparison with the rest of the world and determined that it was their search for perfection that was so impressive. “They don’t do anything without reason, a sense of purpose,” he said.

In his latest gardening series on Japan, garden guru Monty Don has similar sentiments: “The Japanese have a unique culture. I’m struck by how deliberate everything is. Nothing is done by accident and everything has relevant points that you have to know about to fully appreciate. The meticulous attention to detail is as evident in their gardens as their sushi.”

“True,” said Japanese-born South African television presenter and entrepreneur Lalla Hirayama, when talking about food. “Nothing is done without purpose,” she explains as she points to the finely shredded daikon served with the sashimi. “It works against any bacteria that might be present in raw fish.”

That of course is also true in the presentation often linked to colour and precision. Everything is delicate and detailed never detracting from the textures or the flavours. Visually the presentation is as detailed as the preparation.

And like with so many Asian cuisines, the diversity is extraordinary. Whether you are going for everyday meals or something smarter, the approach is similar.

On my most recent press trip to explore Hokkaido, three meals specifically impressed and were very different to what we had enjoyed and savoured while on an earlier holiday.

The first two were restaurants in Asahikawa. Tenkin was our lunch option and the meal was dominated by raw fish and a hotpot with a steaming broth and rice on the side. Shabu-shabu (as hotpot dining is known) is a traditional Japanese way of eating and most often they have thin slices of raw beef which is dipped in a sesame-paste or soy-sauce with citrus. Tenkin’s hotpot however is uni-shabu, which is the more unique sea urchin shabu which is rare and thus more expensive.

We were also told, once we were finished with the raw fish, dipping it into the hotpot, we should take the leftover rice and add it to the broth. This was apparently a specialty of the restaurant. It’s comfort food deluxe because it tastes like the best chowder ever. With Japanese rice always of such superb quality, one could just wallow in the deliciousness when combined with the sea-urchin broth.

But so was the rest of the meal. Because the sashimi was simply dipped – once, twice and a third time – to give it a hot edge and because of the freshness and quality, it was melt-in-the-mouth.

Thu dinner
A fine dining extravaganza

The dinner at Koizushi’s was described as a traditional tasting menu. Some dishes, it was explained, were western in style, to make it easier for guests but naturally, it was the Japanese cuisine that we all found most intriguing.

The appetizer included a cigar kelp roll, a pretty yet peculiar persimmon and butter square and some edible salted sea cabbage; followed by a crab and tofu combo; sashimi comprising the best sweet shrimp, salmon, scallop and tuna; tasty grilled red rockfish; roast duck with orange sauce which I suspect is what they thought would please the visitors, but beautifully prepared; tempura (shrimp, Japonica and shishito green pepper) which is in a different class with the batter light as air; soba (buckwheat) noodles with  herring; and finally sushi with medium fatty tuna, yellowtail and salmon roe.

Japanese food at this level is incredible because of the freshness and quality of the fish and the overall superiority of the produce. Hokkaido produces much of its own food, market themselves as a food island and it shows. The meal was overwhelming in quantity and quality and a fabulous treat.

Seafood delicious
Seafood delicious

The following day we were off on another food adventure in the coastal town Otaru at the Canal Restaurant. They view this as quite a Western-type meal and when a group of Japanese girlfriends go out for a celebratory meal, they will often pick one of these companionable BBQ restaurants.

The picture perhaps tells the story best. When we arrived at the communal-type tables, there were trays packed with fresh fish next to what looked something like a hotplate on which the seafood could be cooked. Plenty of cooked sweet snow crab legs were also invitingly displayed with scissors handy for you to get going immediately.

As if that wasn’t enough, many food stations were included in the large dining space and here you could help yourself to anything from noodles in all shapes and sizes, salad ingredients, vegetables like the moreish edamame beans and meat including lamb which is very popular in a Hokkaido barbeque. It is referred to as Genghis Kahn and as the story goes, it is because of a belief that Mongolian people often eat lamb/mutton.

thu lunch
A fish, crustacean and meat bonanza Picture: Kanae Omote

How anyone could turn away from the spectacular seafood available and done to order as you are in charge, is a mystery, the rest could simply be ignored. Usually though you will have to choose between either the seafood or the Mongolian BBQ. We had a choice of both.

All these meals mentioned above fall in a price range from R400 to a R1000 and most of these were special menus designed for the group. Setting out on your own cuisine adventure, can be a much cheaper and no less delicious affair as we did on our earlier visit.

We wanted to eat with the Japanese people and that’s not a tough ask because of their many different meal options; from ramen, the popular broth and noodle dish which has many different variations including a rich, burnt version, to okonomiyaki, the savoury pancakes cooked on a flat grill and described as a meal of left-overs as vegetables make up the bulk of the batter. All together it is then cooked to your taste at the table.

Dumplings very similar to what we get here, known as gyoza, are most often filled with ground meat and veg. It is wrapped in a thin dough and ingredients most commonly consist of ground pork, chives, green onion, cabbage, ginger and garlic with soya and sesame oil. But again, there are many different variations as chefs and diners experiment.

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Yakitori, a selection of mini skewers

Feel like some meat? Yakitori is a good choice as these mini skewers which in earlier days would have been made exclusively from chicken, now include pork, beef and fish and then dipped in a teriyaki sauce. It is viewed as fast food and most often served with beer or sake and in a bar-type setup.

Similarly, tempura, something the rest of the world is familiar with, is a fast-fried snack, but in Japan, the batter is something else. The popular ingredients are seafood or vegetables served with soy and ginger sauce.

Yummy!

You can’t visit Japan without eating sushi and sashimi often, as they are the undisputed masters. It’s the quality of the fish, the availability of tuna and yellowtail for example, but also the precision and the presentation of their sushi. All masterfully made by specialists in front of your eyes. Nothing like Japanese theatre!

And if sushi ain’t your thing, try Japan’s most popular snack, onigiri, more familiar to us as rice balls. “Sushi isn’t my favourite, but I can easily live on rice balls,” was a familiar refrain from one of our party.

The perfect Japanese snack, onigiri or rice balls
The perfect Japanese snack, onigiri or rice balls

Sushi aside, the thing with rice balls is that it is cheap, easily available at every convenience store or at every station, and painless to eat. It can be seen as the poor man’s sushi as it uses similar ingredients: the filling is chicken, vegetables, fish or pork, and then wrapped in seaweed with a few other flavours tossed in. It’s easy to get hold of, freshly made each day, and like everything in Japan, the quality is excellent, while you hardly notice the price.

Most of these meals would cost you little more than R100 a shot and the rice ball less than R20 each.

You will always bump into the latest trend when traveling. The first time it was matcha (green tea) and we discovered these in Kit Kats, ice cream, both commercial and artisanal, as well as the best of all, one of those old-fashioned ice lollies.

As all new things in Japan, hotter than hot, were commercial packet chips combined with chocolate and while that might not sound appealing, think of the combo of salted caramel for example. Another sweet deluxe item is mochi, made of a short grain japonica glutinous rice.

With all this cuisine swirling around, we have hardly scratched the surface, and that’s the real adventure.

If you want to do some browsing:

Tenkin: https://www.tenkin.info/

Otaru Canal Restaurant: http://www.comsen.jp/otaru/otaru_menu.html

*Following an earlier holiday in that country last October, Diane de Beer was the guest of  JETRO, (the Japan External Trade Organization, a non-profit parastatal under the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry of Japan), for a brief spell at the beginning of February to their northernmost main island Hokkaido.

A shorter version of this story was first published in the Sunday Times Lifestyle (food section) on September 15.

https://bit.ly/2mdKGoc

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artists Lara Foot and Sandra Prinsloo Create the Perfect Storm for Kamphoer

Sandra Prinsloo
Sandra Prinsloo as Susan Nell in Kamphoer Pictures: Eye Poetry Photography

 

Sandra Prinsloo has established herself as the queen of solo shows. She knows how to pick them and with whom to collaborate. She tells DIANE DE BEER about her latest venture, Kamphoer – die verhaal van Susan Nell, with Lara Foot, CEO/artistic director of The Baxter, as director:

 

It’s the coming together of two talented artists who haven’t worked together before that can create fireworks on stage.

That’s exactly what has happened with leading actress Sandra Prinsloo and dynamic director Lara Foot. When they bumped into one another and Prinsloo said that Kamphoer was her next project, Foot acknowledged interest – and they made it happen.

That was probably the only simple element in their coming together. They were handed the initial script by their producers and with scriptwriter Cecilia du Toit in tow, they knew they still had a long way to go.

Kamphoer – die verhaal van Susan Nell (based on the best-selling and debut novel Kamphoer by Francois Smit and the non-fiction publication The Boer Whore by Nico Moolman and produced by Theatrerocket Productions) is the amazing true story set against the backdrop of the Anglo Boer War. A prisoner in the Winburg Concentration Camp, Nell is brutally raped by two British soldiers and a joiner and left for dead. She is confronted by one of her rapists many decades later when she tends war victims in a British hospital – where she starts reliving the old trauma.

“It was a process,” says Prinsloo, but as Foot is also a writer, it was also a huge but fascinating learning curve for Prinsloo. Because of the way the books are written, the main character, the one Prinsloo portrays, doesn’t emerge strongly.

What she does is more prominent than who she is. But the breadth of her experiences also presented them with many obstacles. “She manages to go through so much in a relatively short period of time,” explains the actress.

But being the experienced theatre makers they are, they found the solutions and from all accounts and early reviews, there’s a brilliant buzz about this one. There’s already talk of an English translation and travel to the Edinburgh Festival which both director and actress have experienced before.

Once they got talking, the women knew they had to discover who this woman was and how to present her. Who was she talking to? And what part of her journey do they cover and which parts do they leave out?

Foot made a construction graph, signposting the different features important in a text – to begin with. “It was very technical but taught me a great deal,” notes Prinsloo.

The presentation they decided should almost play in a kind of Truth and Reconciliation format. It also starts with the words, “Ek is Susan Nell…”(I am Susan Nell…)

But there were many dilemmas, such as the eventual confrontation between Nell and one of her rapists and the solution, a brainwave by Foot, is the perfect one.

Sandra Prinsloo1

This is a dramatic and traumatic story of one woman’s life and in present times, particularly relevant as the more things change, the more they stay the same. The dignity she fought for in her own life is exactly what so many women are still fighting for. Few will not identify with some of her life and that is the truly sad thing.

When she finds herself in the same room as her rapist, as a therapist she has sworn a medical oath to save lives – even if the only thing she wants to do is to kill this man who had so damaged her life.

What Prinsloo loves about the piece is how they are telling the story. “I play the character at different ages, but there are no huge shifts, even when I switch into different characters,” she says. It flows seamlessly.

She also embraces the staging, adores the set and has lost her heart to the music and the fact that composer Simon Kohler attended rehearsals and did quite a measured yet magical soundtrack to what was being said on stage. That can only benefit the final result.

Prinsloo has become a master of the solo show and while she enjoys huge ensemble casts and does many of those too, this journey has been a joyous if tough one. She loved the encouragement from her director, the choices Foot made, the consultation – in fact the full process.

Kamphoer is an epic tale but Foot managed the timelines and flew across continents and back to honour the Susan Nell story. “It was amazing to rehearse in a theatre space and to have everything we needed on hand,” says an actress who has gone through many phases of the South African theatre landscape. The last few decades have often been rough on individual players with very little support from outside.

Prinsloo is one of the lucky ones. From her early days she has been a force in the profession which she has served magnificently – and still does. She is one of the few names who still draw full auditoriums and once word is out, there’s no stopping her.

She works hard as she flies between provinces to play in different solo productions. A few weekends back she played what she believes might be the last performances of Moedertaal (her last solo outing) and she feels blessed (if slightly perplexed) that she only has Kamphoer at Aardklop. As an aside she mentions that she has also directed Hannes van Wyk in Sê Groete Vir Ma.

She will soon be seen in a new movie Racheltjie de Beer and there’s more on the horizon. She feels rejuvenated by the young guns like Christiaan Olwagen and Nico Scheepers who have opened new vistas on stage and screen but with advance notice about this latest solo season being so favourable, it will probably keep her touring for quite a few years and if an English season is added – longer.

For Prinsloo the positives are accumulating. She is excited not only about the performance but also about the timing.  It’s the right time for women to tell stories about strong women who overcome extreme adversity. “Healing can only start if you touch the scar,” she says referring to the play – but also valid in a much wider context.

So much time has passed, so many battles fought and still the issues for women remain the same. It’s time those with the voices start raising them – loudly. And if you can do it with Prinsloo’s power, it really counts.

 

Kamphoer – die verhaal van Susan Nell is at Aardklop in Potchefstroom from September 24 tot 27; and at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre from October 9 to 26.

 

Maqoma’s Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero Mourns Death Magnificently

 

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The memorable Cion conceived and choreographed by Gregory Maqoma

 CION: REQUIEM OF RAVEL’S BOLERO

Conceived and choreographed by: Gregory Maqoma

Creative input and rehearsal director: Gladys Aghulas

Music composed and directed by: Nhlanhla Mahlangu

Dancers: Vuyani Dance Theatre

Singers: Soweto Gospel Choir

Musical assistance: Xolisile Bongwana and Sbusiso Shozi

Costumes: Jacques van der Watt and Black Coffee

Set and technical direction: Oliver Hauser

Lighting: Mannie Manim

Sound: Ntuthuko Mbuyazi

Choir under direction of Bongani Ncube

Venue and Dates: Nelson Mandela Theatre until September 15

 

 

DIANE DE BEER

It is such a strange time in the world, with the arts perilously balanced with all the usual stumbling blocks. Add to that the decimation of arts writing on all the traditional platforms with nothing in its place – or where there is, no way for possible readers to find it.

With the result that everyone is battling to get their stories out there. I was at a National Theatre Live screening of The Lehman Trilogy with Sam Mendes directing Simon Russel Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles last week.

There were five people watching this majestic piece. No one I asked knew about the screening and I spoke and wrote about it because I love sharing the arts because of the impact it has on individual lives.

Hopefully similar things will not happen to Gregory Maqoma’s sublime Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero, currently on at the Joburg Theatre until Sunday in celebration of the vibrant Vuyani Dance Theatre’s 20th anniversary.

In an amplified version (“death needs amplifying in the present circumstances,” says the choreographer) which starts with bone-chilling sobs drenched by shafts of sharp light from which the dancers emerge, the tone is set as the heartache of those sounds find solace in the rhythms of Ravel’s Boléro. As the dancers start moving as one, they sweep your emotions along.

CION

It is a mighty piece on multiple levels and even though it is inspired and based on two Zakes Mda books, Ways of Dying and Cion, the strength lies in  the complexity of the whole with the evocative lighting, the heightened sounds of the Soweto Gospel Choir as the dancers bring their own singing to create specific rhythms and textures, all contributing to the enormity of what Maqoma is dealing with.

Enveloped in this grief, the production is mesmerising and astonishing in its excellence. From Black Coffee’s costumes, the diversity of the music and the singing, the Ravel rhythms often suggested by the dancers’ clicking or tapping or a drumbeat, the melancholy and sometimes even merriment of the production are completely overwhelming in its brilliance.

We are living in a world that takes dying lightly. Just the last few days in our country underlines that in different ways. Gender-based abuse has again galvanised women to step out and shout while simultaneously a young man is being sentenced for raping a 7-year old girl in a toilet at a restaurant.

A young mother kills four of her children with rat poison and goes out partying.

Shops in both Joburg and Tshwane are set alight and burnt to the ground while politicians argue whether this is xenophobia or not. People are dying because they are hungry and the root causes are never addressed.

Schoolchildren fear for their safety at schools while others are kidnapped on their way or back home.

In the rest of the world, refugees are growing in numbers as they flee from their countries because of war or dictatorships and some are simply banished because they’re not wanted. “We are forced into mourning,” says Maqoma who tells the story in the way he best knows how.

And yet failed leaders are mourned in their death and feted while their people suffer and eventually flee their land.

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Scenery and lighting extraordinaire

It is against this backdrop that Maqoma creates a visual spectacle that grabs you tightly around the throat and never lets go. The dancers move, en masse it feels, yet are given individual moments, from Afro fusion to a nod to the classics but in contemporary and fast- changing style, everyone on stage is celebrated and contributes to hold their audience in complete awe.

The beauty, the execution, the quality and excellence unfolding underline the talent of our artists who are out there fighting and creating on their own. If this is what they achieve while struggling, the heights they could reach are staggering.

But that is the world of the artist. He can’t help himself. As Maqoma suggests, with individuals who are daily running the Vuyani Dance Theatre, he has been encouraged and allowed to dream, which he fortunately does on grand scale. He doesn’t hold back and does it the only way he knows how

There are only five performances left. It’s one of those landmark theatrical experiences which is on its way to London to be staged during the Dance Umbrella festival at the Barbican. Those performances will be packed and so should they be back home.

It’s accessible, the music is mindblowing and Gregory Maqoma’s talent and collaboration genius should be witnessed again and again. His artistry is recognised internationally but he insists on staying and performing at home.

I am eternally grateful. Seeing Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero, not once but twice, has been a theatrical miracle.

 

 

Little Nataniël Waltzes With Giants

If you know Nataniël, you won’t be able to resist his latest season. If you don’t, DIANE DE BEER coaxed him to share the story of his upcoming show:

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The title alone will stop you in your tracks: When Giants Waltz – 12 Monumental Concerts by Little Nataniël.

But that has always been his power – getting you to gasp – at his costumes, his words, his gestures – or simply the spectacular staging of his shows.

Not this time says the performer – but we won’t quite take his word for it.

The title dictates that the costumes will be monumental – and that is where he starts – always with the way he looks when on stage.

 Singer, songwriter and storyteller Nataniël returns to the Theatre of Marcellus for his 17th production at Emperors Palace after a year’s sabbatical. This latest creation will first be staged at Artscape, one of his favourite theatres, from September 10, with a smaller band but the same set, props and costumes as well as script to be presented as 12 concerts from October 4 to 27,  Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; and Sundays at 3pm.

nataniel poster

A typical Nataniël year consists of three original stage productions, one at Artscape, one at Emperors Palace and one at the Atterbury Theatre. The rest of the year is filled with numerous concert tours.

These concerts (“the friendly shows”) are as structured and detailed as all his work, but allow him more freedom for improvisation and informal banter. For the first time he will present this format at Artscape and Emperors Palace.

And as a bonus, there will be as many costume changes as he can manage! With the show title as an example, he is going grand and gigantic. “Expect them to be epic,” he says. “I can hardly move them. Every time I do, I find myself with a sleeve in my hand.”

Last year’s sabbatical (only from the grandly staged shows) obviously gave him the chance to reassess. He believes audiences prefer his solo stories rather than a single story told from the beginning to end of the show.

This also gives him more time to play around, allows for a mini-sermon slipped in at some stage which also gives you a measure of where his head is at for the moment – always a bonus.

But then the title should do that too, he explains. “When giants waltz, the earth moves. Apparently,” he says, “size does matter!”

“As far back as your childhood, everything is a battle between big and small. This is my chance to lead a well-dressed rebellion against institutions. I despise any structure that involves a boardroom. Some people, however, will be victims of this stupidity.”

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If all of this simply sounds too serious, don’t fear, the shows are focused on entertainment yet “from a pedestal of profound values and issues,” he says with what may to some sound like a heavy heart.

“It’s fun from beginning to end. If we can’t have fun in this mess …” And if anyone can turn the prediction of the end of the world into something hilarious, Nataniël is your man.

The way he thought about this season was to start with a costume that he imagined as the outfit he would wear at the last ball held on the Titanic!

Staged with his trademark stylish lighting, he has visualised this concert as a series of portraits. It reminds him of those tableaux from a time, long, long ago when photography was in its infancy. “It will hopefully remind people of paging through an album,” he suggests. “When the lights go on, everything stops on stage! In the dark, out of sight, is when everything happens,” he notes. “During the blackouts we move.”

With his stories, he isn’t only comparing big versus small, but also the constant struggle between the indestructible and the threatened, the always present war between the individual and the establishment, and the exhausting debate between the political and the intelligent.

Nataniël performs music from an endless catalogue of blues and jazz evergreens, pop classics and original songs.

This time even the music has been simplified and made as accessible as he knows how.

And no more choreography. While some will miss those quirky hops, skips and jumps so beautifully executed with often military precision, he feels as if someone has handed him his freedom. “I would panic through every show that I would forget my steps,” he explained. “Why did I do that all these years? What was I thinking?”

He shares the stage with his brilliant band led by Charl du Plessis (keyboards), Juan Oosthuizen (guitar), Brendan Ross (keyboards, saxophone and vocals), Werner Spies (bass), Peter Auret (drums), and on vocals, Dihan Slabbert and Nicolaas Swart.

The minimalist set (notwithstanding the multitude of props) will be complemented by another collection of extraordinary costumes created by Floris Louw, Nataniël’s award-winning designer of the past 18 years.

Describing this as a concert for the connoisseur, he never fails to entertain. His stories and songs, the staging and the costumes, when they all come together – that’s showbiz, and perfect for these tough times.

Cds, dvds, books (including his brand new book – a memoir in Afrikaans and English), ceramics and products from Nataniël’s lifestyle range will be available at all performances.

*Artscape, Cape Town; September 10 to 15.

*Theatre of Marcellus, Emperors Palace; October 4 to 27, 2019

Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

12 concerts only; 90 minutes long; no interval; no cellphones, sandals or shorts; no children under 15.

 

Bookings at Computicket.

 

 

The Gene: An Intimate History Takes You Into a Brave New World – Or Perhaps Not

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.― Oscar Wilde

 

 

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DIANE DE BEER

 

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of all Maladies) published by Scribner

 

This isn’t my normal go-to literature as I would much rather focus on people and their intriguing  lives but as I was pointed in this direction not only because of the content but also as a result of brilliant writing, I decided – wisely – to give it a go.

The author had scored a Pulitzer prize for his previous book investigating cancer and as with this one, he was initially pushed in this direction because of family and their influence or lack thereof on one another. “Madness,” he writes, “has been among the Mukherjees for at least two generations, and at least part of my father’s reluctance to accept Moni’s diagnosis lies in my father’s grim recognition that some kernel of the illness may be buried like toxic waste, in himself.”

He explains that the story of the birth, growth and future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the “gene”, the fundamental unit of heredity, and the basic unit of all biological information.

In this prologue, he also notes that there are stories within all the stories he tells as he goes along, “But this book is also a very personal story – an intimate history. The weight of heredity is not an abstraction for me.”

So apart from the personal touch which turns the reading into something easily accessible, Mukherjee is an extraordinary writer. It’s not just the language he uses to tell his story (and I have to assume English is not his mother tongue) but also the way he tells it, how he questions the world and also that he comes from a unique perspective.

The book is 495 pages long followed by extensive notes, a bibliography and index and some parts of the reading might be more gripping than others, but if like me, this is foreign territory, you will be gripped from start to finish. After all, we are talking about every human being, how they are formed and how they function.

It’s all a complicated business and it is this that keeps you fascinated. A sentence like this for example: “The results were startling for three reasons. First when Wilson measured the overall diversity of the human mitochondrial genome, he found it surprisingly small – less diverse than corresponding genomes for chimpanzees. Modern humans, in other words, are substantially younger and substantially more homogeneous than chimpanzees (every chimp might look like every other chimp to human eyes, but to a discerning chimpanzee, it is humans that are vastly more alike).” Makes you think.

As do his musings on the beginnings of the human race in southern Africa. “The population was likely quite small, even minuscule by contemporary standards. The most provocative estimate is a bare 700.

“Mitochondrial Eve may have lived among them, bearing at least one daughter and at least one granddaughter.” That’s why it is a difficult book to put down.

Some sentences will stop you in your tracks: “You can sequence DNA from an African-American man and conclude that his ancestors came from Sierra Leone and Nigeria. But if you encounter a man whose great grandparents came from Nigeria or Sierra Leone, you can say little about the features of this particular man. The geneticist goes home happy; the racist returns empty-handed.”

This is an endless trove of gene information that might influence health and happiness – or not. Though, as it frequently does when talking genes, the story comes with a twist writes Mukherjee: “The very genes that enable a cell to peel away mortality and age can also tip its fate toward malignant immortality, perhaps growth, and agelessness – the hallmarks of cancer.”

You very quickly understand that there are no easy answers. Someone might think they have found a cure for something and around the corner, there’s information that turns the whole theory around. It puts a whole other spin on this field and an understanding as a novice when you hear certain public pronouncements, it can just as quickly fade away not to be heard of again. Only to appear much later in a different guise.

Just reading about the different findings and how patience, often the best attribute when dealing in this kind of painfully slow research, was often missing, resulting in mistakes – and sometimes hampering ongoing research and findings because of blunders – some of them fatal.

But with patience comes perseverance and these scientists know how to keep pushing and putting their heads down until they find positive outcomes to the benefit of mankind.

One of the scary things according to the author for many is what is known as “gene management”. And he quotes: As the political theorist Desmond King puts it, “…We are all going to be dragged into the regime of ‘gene management’ that will, in essence, be eugenic. It will be in the name of individual health rather than for overall fitness of the population, and the managers will be you and me, and our doctors and the state.

“Genetic change will be managed by the invisible hand of individual choice, but the overall result will be the same: a co-ordinate attempt to ‘improve’ the genes of the next generation on the way.”

He points out that all the parameters whichever way we look at it are inherently susceptible to the logic of self-reinforcement. “We determine the definition of ‘extraordinary suffering’. We demarcate the boundaries of ‘normalcy’ vs ‘abnormalcy’. We make the medical choices to intervene. We determine the nature of ‘justifiable interventions’.”

He underlines that in the final analysis, humans with a specific set of genomes are responsible for defining the criteria to define, intervene on, or even eliminate other humans endowed with other genomes.

“Choice seems like an illusion devised by genes to propagate the selection of similar genes.” And that’s the scary thought. You can see the red lights flashing all over the place especially in the kind of environment we find ourselves in today.

If people successfully start meddling with the gene pool and someone in power says to a certain group of people, “if you’re not happy here, go back to where you came from”, just imagine what could all go wrong in our world when people really start fiddling with genes.

In the end, normal is defined by whom?  “The book,” says Mukherjee, began as an intimate history – but it is the intimate future that concerns me.”

The last century, he reminds us, taught us the dangers of empowering governments to determine genetic ‘fitness’., then the question that confronts us now in this current era, is what happens when this power devolves to the individual.

“It is a question that requires us to balance the desires of the individual with the desires of a society.” That will remain the dilemma.

It is one thing to manipulate genes, he notes, it is quite another to manipulate genomes. And it is that difference that a reading of this book will explain in much fuller detail and understanding, something we should all understand in a field that could improve our world in unimaginable ways but also steer humankind into a world we would rather not imagine.

That is why he is pleading for a manifesto for this post-genomic world. He was already predicting that by the time this book was published (2017) new frontiers would have been reached and I’m sure they have been.

It’s a glorious and gripping read about something that is applicable to everyone on this planet. Many will know exactly what the author is talking about and might find his specific take on this world the thing they focus on, for others, who have perhaps only a vague understanding, this is a book that navigates the world in a way that will make sense to even the novice.

Two Young Artists Grab Top Prizes in 2019 Sasol New Signatures Competition Using Traditional Media in Classic Style

Pictures: Petrus Saayman

Sasol New Signatures winner Patric Rulore
Sasol New Signatures 2019 winner Patric Rulore

DIANE DE BEER

 

Hoping to shine a magnificent light on load shedding – both literally and figuratively – was the inspiration for Pretoria student Patrick Rulore’s winning canvas titled Stage 4 moments.

Rising to the occasion, the young artist was announced the winner of the 2019 Sasol New Signatures Art Competition at the Pretoria Art Museum last night, (Wednesday) winning a cash prize of R100 000 and the opportunity to hold a solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum with the 2020 winners.

 “It was part of my family’s experience which gave me more insight into how to execute it the way I did,” explained the 24-year-old student currently completing a National Diploma in Fine Arts at the Tshwane University of Technology.

“In the beginning of this year, South Africa had to endure extreme shortages in electricity supply with electricity scheduled in stages. The most important part of the work was to teach people to turn unfavourable circumstances into a positive experience,” he said.

In his painting, Rulore depicts the typical behaviour of his family during load shedding, celebrating the absence of all activities involving electrical device during these blackouts which encouraged them to interact with each other – to talk, to laugh and to play games.

His primary medium is paint, using both oils and acrylics. “I am fascinated by the complexity of the human body (male and female) and attempt to discover its magic on the canvas. I endeavour to capture the emotions and spirit of everyone I paint. To achieve this, I manipulate and play with colours, textures, paint and brush marks,” he earnestly explains his process.

Paying tribute to his mom who has been a strong influence and supporter of his art, he believes it was her work as a fashion designer that encouraged him to pursue art.

Sasol New Signatures runner up Luyanda Zindela
Sasol New Signatures runner up Luyanda Zindela

The runner-up in the 2019 competition is Durban University of Technology M student Luyanda Zindela, also using traditional media –  pen, ink and graphite – on pine-board, titled Phowthah sis’ Mgabadeli.

 The title which means Pout Miss Mgabadeli is a reference to his friend’s irreverence, says the artist. “When I was taking the pictures, she asked me whether she could pout.” With the title, he also points to the way women are assigned specific roles in society.

 The drawing is a breakaway for him in terms of scale as well as overall. “I wanted to gauge how it would be received by an art audience and to produce a body of work based on the submitted drawing.” He certainly got a generous response.

 With his chosen tools, apart from the work, he also explores the limitless possibilities of a medium so readily available that it is often taken for granted. “I have tried to capture the boundless intricacies of black skin using traditional pen and ink drawing techniques like cross-hatching and stippling.”
He tried to push his boundaries and believes if you really look, the improving technique is visible. As runner-up, he was awarded R25 000 and the knowledge that his future project has been given the go-ahead.

For most of these rewarded artists, the competition means validation and a launch into the professional world.

These Five Merit Award Winners were also announced with most of them working with the personal:

S Nico Athene (Johannesburg) After After Party (Resurrection) DiaMount

Nico Athene  (Johannesburg) After After Party (Resurrection) DiaMount

S Kgodisho Moloto (Polokwane) Disguise mask Pot scrubs and wire

Kgodisho Moloto (Polokwane) Disguise mask Pot scrubs and wire

S Angelique Patricia Mary Bougaard (University of Johannesburg) Crucified Mixed media drawing on handmade paper

 

Angelique Patricia Mary Bougaard (University of Johannesburg) Crucified Mixed media drawing on handmade paper

S Cecilia Maartens-Van Vuuren (Bloemfontein) A presentiment Dried roots.jpgCecilia Maartens-Van Vuuren (Bloemfontein) A presentiment Dried roots

S Mlamuli Eric Zulu (Durban) Enlightened Art gathering Mixed mediaMlamuli Eric Zulu (Durban) Enlightened Art gathering Mixed media

Each of them received a R10 000 cash prize.

Acclaimed artist, judge and Sasol New Signatures Chairperson Professor Pieter Binsbergen noted that in this 30th year of Sasol sponsoring the longest-running art competition started by the Association of Arts Pretoria to encourage emerging artists, the winner and runner-up have both been recognised for works created in traditional media – ink and paint. He praised both works that have been painstakingly laboured and felt that the artists through their work showed immense drive and passion.

“Identity is still the driver, but the lens has narrowed,” he says about the work generally. “The journey has become more personal which they hope will echo widely.”

He also acknowledges that there’s a return to classicism, dealing with a more laboured surface with traditional media where technique rather than Instagram moments is at stake.

“On behalf of Sasol, we congratulate all the 2019 Sasol New Signatures winners,” said Nozipho Mbatha, Sasol Senior Manager: Group Brand Management. She also tipped her hat to all the emerging artists who have participated in the competition over the past 30 years.

“The majority of winners and merit award winners have carved out illustrious careers in the visual arts and have made significant contributions to our country’s artistic heritage. Here’s to the next 30 years of developing our cultural economy,” she concluded.

Jessica Storm Kapp, the 2018 winner, will present her solo exhibition entitled Artefacts of Belonging at the Pretoria Art Museum, alongside the 2019 finalists as part of her prize. The exhibition will feature the 2019 winner, runner-up and five merit award winners as well the 80 finalists, all of whom are included in the highly respected competition catalogue. The exhibition runs until September 29, 2019.

The final judging panel consisted of: Professor Pieter Binsbergen  (Convener), Cate Terblanche (Sasol Curator), Mary Sibande (artist), Wilhelm van Rensburg (Senior Art Specialist, Strauss & Co), Lebohang Kganye (Sasol New Signatures Winner 2017) and Pfunzo Sidogi (Lecturer, Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Tshwane University of Technology).

* Pretoria Art Museum:

Tuesday to Sunday:  10am to 5pm (Closed on Mondays and Public Holidays)

Corner Francis Baard and Wessels St, Arcadia Park.

https://select.timeslive.co.za/news/2019-08-22-power-of-art-load-shedding-inspires-artists-big-win/

 

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.