- Beyond Borders: Twenty-Eighth Annual Dance Umbrella
Despite its transnational slogan “beyond borders,” the twenty-eighth Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg was quieter and perhaps less ambitious than the twenty-fourth edition’s “dancing all over Johannesburg,” which I reviewed for Theatre Journal in 2013 (65.1). This possibly reflected the difficulties of funding or registered Dance Forum director Georgina Thomson’s rather harsh statement in the Dance Umbrella Gazette accompanying the festival: “the dance community does not exist anymore.” The 2016 edition featured collaborations between South African companies and choreographers based in Germany, France, and elsewhere, as well as resolutely local productions, but the results were most compelling when choreographers resisted the urge to illustrate the performance with programmatic material, especially video backdrop, and trusted the dance to explore new resonances of content, including political content, as well as form.
The blurb for the headline show, Rebellion and Johannesburg, claimed that choreographer Jessica Nupen, a South African based in Hamburg, was “inspired by Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet,” and also wanted to show “what it means to be young in Johannesburg.” Despite the blurb, the piece did not offer a “story” or guiding concept, but instead a series of sketches, sometimes gesturing to these themes, at other times—perhaps the work of principal dancer and “choreographic assistant” for the company Moving into Dance Mophatong (MIDM), Sunnyboy Motau—tapping the black urban tradition of comic or satiric gags. Beginning with an overture sequence of city landmarks and sensationalist headlines behind the empty stage, followed by scenes with the dancers on Johannesburg streets, the video backdrop may have enlightened the original German audience members with sign-post images of Johannesburg or titillated them with African exotica like umcako—white clay borrowed by many local choreographers from ritual used by male Xhosa initiates. However, the dances would have been more effective without the distracting images behind them. While the allusion to Shakespeare sometimes yielded good set pieces, such as a quiet pas de deux that showed the couple Oscar Buthelezi and Teboho Letele (perhaps Romeo and Juliet in bed) intimately entwining and unwinding over the length of the stage and a street brawl to a house/kwaito beat (music by Spoek Mathambo), with Motau holding off attackers in a manner reminiscent of Mercutio, the sketch that grabbed the audience’s attention had nothing to do with Shakespeare or Johannesburg. With a video of uproar in Parliament (in Cape Town) and a soundtrack featuring the opposition Democratic Alliance leader criticizing the ruling African National Congress, the dancers wiggled their backsides while balancing and bobbing on, and falling off, metal buckets marked with bands of color hinting at rival political factions. Concluding as a single dancer toddled off with head in one bucket, feet in rival buckets, and the others balancing on both arms, this slapstick picture of political blindness and confusion clearly resonated strongly with the local audience pondering the state of the nation mere days after President Zuma’s address to Parliament.
If Rebellion and Johannesburg tried to do too much, The Last Attitude did perhaps the opposite. Co-directed and performed by Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza, known for pointedly feminist work, such as Xaba’s Uncles and Angels (on coercive virginity testing—see my 2013 review), and Nyamza’s Kutheni about so-called corrective rape of lesbians in black townships, The Last Attitude presented the attitudes (balletic and intellectual) of two mature dancers looking back on the history of “white ballet,” its strict regulation of gender roles, and its still often unacknowledged racial bias. In keeping perhaps with its meta-balletic stance, the piece came across as a rehearsal. It began with Xaba and Nyamza warming up in bright jumpsuits on a stage empty except for headless busts with classic white gauze skirts hanging in a row behind them, and continued with the pair, now in masculine T-shirts and Y-fronts, silently repeating steps and jumps associated with male dancers, including partnering a mannequin, this one with a head, arms, and a single...