- Dancing All Over Johannesburg, South Africa—Twenty-Fourth Annual Dance Umbrella
The Dance Umbrella began in 1988 in the twilight of apartheid as a showcase for original modern work in a dance field dominated by rather uneven ballet companies that were subsidized by the provincial performing arts councils until 1994. Over twenty-four years the event has grown into a vibrant and diverse program that ranges from variations on Broadway-style revues to experimental work that tackles intractable conflicts that beset South Africa and the world. At a moment when the spoken theatre is either shamelessly commercial or cautiously committed to heritage programming—in other words, to revivals of anti-apartheid classics—the best Dance Umbrella pieces offer both innovations in form and critical engagement with thorny topics, from the troubled history of the colonial wars to current controversies in the politics of class, gender, and race. In particular, by foregrounding the body in freedom and in restraint, this year’s work highlighted the visceral impact of gender politics more effectively than current spoken theatre has done.
The first weekend featured pieces dealing with the twinned topics of political history and the powers of masculine agency. On opening night in the Market Theatre’s main house, Gregory Maqoma, a rising star who choreographed the African National Congress’s (ANC) centenary celebrations in 2012, performed Exit/Exist, a homage to his nineteenth-century ancestor, Xhosa Chief Maqoma, also known as Jongumsobomvu, or “greet the rising sun.” Despite the heroic epithet gained for leading the amaBomvu (ochre people or traditionalists, as against Christian converts), Maqoma lost the war with the British over land and cattle and died in exile on Robben Island. The piece featured a fine performance by the present-day Maqoma, who began in a modern silk suit with his back to the audience and faced them only when he had changed into a (likewise silk) facsimile of traditional skins, which he wore through his battles with an unseen enemy—first with a white cape that resembled the blankets worn to this day by Xhosa male initiates, and later with a horn symbolizing the bulls that were the tribe’s source of wealth—and ending in a tattered gray shirt that served as a prison uniform. Seated behind a screen, four performers who functioned as ancestors poured sand to signify the passing of time and also sang at various points, but while their singing was moving, the place of Christian hymns and a priest-singer in the story of an unconverted king seemed puzzling, as did the role of another actor dressed like a Victorian valet while helping Maqoma to change costume. The conflict between Maqoma and his enemies might also have been more dramatic had the English text on the screen named the British governor in question, and also more instructive had that text appeared simultaneously with the oral delivery in isiXhosa rather than being out of sync. Since director James Ngcobo works primarily in theatre, this lack of drama and of overall coordination was surprising.
Qaphela (Beware) Caesar, directed and adapted by veteran choreographer Jay Pather from Julius Caesar, historically the most common Shakespeare play in local schools, had no lack of drama, as it played out the conflict between Caesar and conspirators Brutus and Cassius and the ambiguous resolution effected by Antony and Octavius against the backdrop of present-day power, corruption, and impunity in government. Despite Pather’s interest in site-specific performance, however, he did not make full use of his chosen venue—the “old” Johannesburg Stock Exchange, built during the 1960s apartheid boom and abandoned in 2000 when the exchange left the dilapidated inner city for higher-tech and supposedly safer quarters in suburban Sandton. Apart from one scene in which (sole white dancer) James McGregor, playing Antony as boyish, bullish, and ambitious, rushed along the catwalk, scribbling [End Page 95] figures over the obsolete chalk boards in the former trading room, the performance did not engage with the topical issue of the power of capital...