“Trite Law” is a principle of law so notorious and entrenched that it is commonly known and rarely disputed. On Fire deals with the theme that the traditions of black people have been disrupted by urbanisation and exposure to the culture of white people. There is a very real sense that this is the cultural equivalence of trite law, so when I sat on opening night of the 2015 Dance Umbrella waiting for the piece choreographed by an Argentinian now living in Berlin and working with German and South African dancers I was hoping for something meaty – a departure point which would take me to places I hadn’t thought of yet.
The truth is that South Africans by and large look to Europe (and to a lesser extent other parts of the world) because we perceive them to be simultaneously trendier and more daring as well as more traditional and established than we ourselves are. This work certainly achieves that lovely balance between what is innovative, exciting and even daring as it questions what is traditional and established. It has a Bohemian feel to it.
The work features a wonderful cast from both Berlin and South Africa in a series of vignettes … some ending in a quirky group photograph pose. I loved a lot of the scenes and their meaning, intended or imputed by me. It opened with a dancer moving over a white floor. The white floor creaked a little. It was newsprint. Another dancer approached on crutches. He tore holes in the paper with the crutches. Rich imagery and it delighted the audience. The cast played with the paper and the did some confrontational things across racial lines mainly. The cast was predominantly male, with only two women appearing. The piece used sports equipment, golf clubs and tennis rackets and the parody of Zulu dancing and Shaka Zulu was a delight. There is a mix of dance, theatre, video and still photographs. It is beautifully choreographed, wonderfully performed, amusing, challenging and charming. It is clever even. At times it is exhilarating. There is lots of material. If you sense a “BUT” coming, you are correct.
The work is long. Very long by South African standards. The various elements of the work don’t always flow naturally into one another. There are lots of false endings. This may be because they worked more than one personal story into the narrative. The sketches sometimes jarred with the others, and sometimes they linked wonderfully. Towards the end my heart sank when each new one started. When my niece was about twelve I took her to see Joburg Ballet in a production of Romeo and Juliet. In Act 3 I heard her mutter to herself “Oh die already!” I had a great deal of empathy with that last night as the clock ticked by the last twenty to thirty minutes of the work. I hasten to point out that there was nothing inherently wrong with the last twenty to thirty minutes of the work. They simply repeated what had already been said at length. They were debating trite law. They were patronising to an audience that has explored this material before in other pieces at other Dance Umbrella productions (and elsewhere and in different genres) over the years.
To insinuate that black people have had their traditions modified by their contact with white people and their religion is not news. No one in their right mind disputes that. To fail to indicate that white people have had their traditions modified by their contact with black people is simply short sighted and it ignores a huge part of South African post modern reality. To fail to show that the traditions in the country are evolving by way of personal choices and peer pressure and pressure from local and international trend setting exposures is simply facile. And to give us yet another repeated version of a simple black noble savage/white insensitive cultural thug is very patronising to both black and white people in contemporary South Africa where we are all in the process of forging new identities and new places in society while being influenced by the old, the new and the other “contaminants” (think foreign TV which is supposedly good and the foreigners from around Africa which are supposedly bad) around us. Some of this is good, some of this is bad but very little of it was explored. So the work headed nowhere.
I blame the whole “choreographer and director” combination. The two positions should be held by separate people. It prevents self indulgence from one of the parties, or at least it minimises it. This was a wonderfully intelligent work, spoiled by endless repetition and a failure to break out of the mould and move on to where South Africans live their lives today. I would love to see it reworked, tightened and exploring issues contemporary South Africans really face.
The creative team were wonderful. Constanza Macras (choreographer and director) together with Louis Becker, Emil Bordas, Lucky Kele, Jelina Kuljic, Dille Lebeko, Mandla Mathonsi, Thulani Mgidi, Melusi Mkhwajana, Felix Saalmann, Fana Tshabalala and John Sithole. Ayana V Jackson was the photographer. The video was by Dean Hutton. Music and sound was by Jelina Kuljic and Abigail Thatcher. All photographs used in this review are by John Hogg.
On Fire was the opening work of the Dance Umbrella 2015. It was performed at the Dance Factory on 26 February 2015.