Legacies are made of this

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By Adrienne Sichel

Shadowy rock art figures leapt into life on the Dance Factory walls. But the longest, most enduring, shadow was cast by the small, white, Jewish, quintessentially South African, woman seated in the front row alongside Arts and Culture Director-General Sibusiso Xaba.

Veteran cultural activist, choreographer, anthropologist and teacher Sylvia Glasser, was not only seeing her Tranceformations (1991) performed by another generation of dancers, but was also saying farewell to her 35-year-old Moving into Dance company and the training institution she founded 21 years ago.

Glasser’s retirement this month as artistic director of Moving into Dance Mophatong (MIDM), was announced last Thursday during the double-bill featuring Gregory Maqoma’s Flesh.

The Joburg dance maker’s profound contribution to contemporary African dance is also strongly pedagogic and hugely historic.

Coincidentally, in July next year the seventh edition of the Confluences conference, hosted by the UCT School Of Dance, is to focus on how theatre dance, religion and spirituality are connected.

The call for papers, for this initiative to “unearth and articulate the varied and complex interactions of the dancing body-spirit”, dovetailed with Glasser’s swansong of how this can be achieved in the performing arts and specifically contemporary dance.

Tranceformations, which is inspired by San rock art and trance dancing, and Maqoma’s Flesh, should be pivotal in the Confluences question about how critical discourse “makes room for works that can be defined as crass, vulgar or insensitive for some audiences yet be sacred, thought-provoking or artistically innovative for others who grant them approving intellectual nods”.

Glasser’s master work also relates not only to MIDM teacher training through a holistic, Afrocentric, anthropologically-based methodology, but how thinking, moving bodies can be transfused with essences of their South African heritage.

Restaged as part of MIDM’s 21… season (celebrating 21 years of vocational training), Tranceformations is engraved in our dance history for many reasons.

Chief among them is the transmission of this deeply theatricalised form of conceptualised ritual and trance to a young Soweto dancer named Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe who subsequently developed a shamanistic repertoire which is unique in the annals of international international contemporary dance. Not forgetting Maqoma’s creativity with his own Vuyani Dance Theatre.

The lessons learnt from Tranceformations 2012 were profound.

It struck me that this work, which started out at the Wits Theatre and had a memorable one-off performance at the Wits Great Hall in 1994 with enthralled Bushmen from Botswana in attendance, is, with Frank Staff’s Raka, (Pact Ballet, 1967) a South African original.

Both choreographers, responding to indigenous cultural material (in Staff’s case NP van Wyk Louw’s epic Afrikaans poem) in tandem with richly experimental local composers (Shaun Naidoo and Graham Newcater, respectively), created fresh conceptual, syncretic movement languages and vocabularies with a distinct African ethos to complex scores..

But how do these masterpieces survive?

In Raka’s case it remains in the music and the memories of the dancers and the audiences who saw it. Tranceformations, which mighty never be staged again with the same impeccable authenticity, will at least be preserved on video, in John Hogg’s photography and as a teaching and research tool.

A dance work’s fragility is multifaceted. A different stage can be catastrophic. Surprisingly, the Dance Factory proved to be ideal for Tranceformations; Sarah Roberts’s sets glowed against the brick wall.

The moving human figures transmitted elongated shadows, creating a new form of (transitory) rock art. Maqoma’s reworked Japanese-inspired Flesh (2006), with its sensuously rhythmic carnal calligraphy suffused with emotional and spiritual energies, was the ideal companion work…

The real revelation of 21…, starting with Robyn Orlin’s beauty remained…, was the depth and breadth of the dancers’ technical and stylistic versatility.

Muzi Shili, Oscar Buthelezi Julia Burnham Sunnyboy Motau, Tebogo Letele, Otto Nhlapo and Thandi Tshabalala pulled off an amazing hat-trick in highly diverse choreography.

What a dance company. What a legacy.

• For more information about Confluences 7 (which will have performances from July 11 to 13), visit www.dance.uct.ac.za

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