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Sunday, May 24, 2009


Illustrious Durban dance company offered two new works at the recent Jomba! Festival. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre, one of South Africa’s most illustrious dance companies, offered Durban audiences an opportunity to see the new stable of young Siwela Sonke dancers create the edgy work that this company has become famous for. Nellie Rushualang’s work, The Human Ladder is a heartfelt step into the idea of ubuntu and what it means to support one another, while Gasa’s work, Faces is a bold political work that looks at a flailing human race.

Marred by an irritating disturbance from the Elizabeth Sneddon bar area during its silent and evocative opening sequence, Nellie Rushualang’s The Human Ladder makes a parallel with a ladder requiring firm support so that the user may climb without fear of falling. Her programme notes indicate that the work is dedicated to someone who has been part of her life and who has stood by her through thick and thin. Commendably, she indicates that she wishes to entrench her thanks while this person is still alive.

There were some exquisite sequences in this piece and after a while I gave up trying to get a feeling as to what the choreographer was trying to convey in mood or intent and just enjoyed the dancing. Seated stage left a performer provided comment, laughter and the occasional call to prayer. There a figure dressed in a blanket with a bag of rice on her head which was poured out as a rectangle creating the imagery of a grave. Special mention should be made of Mxolisi Nkomonde and Nkanyiso Kunene who performed a beautifully controlled languorous sequence around a chair.

Faces by Ntombi Gasa is actually made up of five pieces and deals with her passionate response to the fact that the Dalai Lama, the ultimate symbol of peace, was denied entry to South Africa.

The first piece focused on a Kumari Princess commenting on the Indonesian tradition where a girl at the age of four or five is chosen to be a living deity. The work featured a beautiful little girl (Amara Gasa) with a candle – playful and joyful. She is offered blessings from her devotees. The flip side of this process is that despite the great honour, the girl’s personal life is difficult as she is cut off from friends and relationships and once she reaches puberty, she is considered unclean and booted out.

Continuing Ntombi Gasa’s focus on the gap between modern and traditional, the next piece saw dancer and performance poet Noxolo Rushualang (Nellie’s daughter) in hip gear promoting women empowerment. In the background, a working class man paints lips, a nose, breasts and a bottom – portraying imagery that is easily accessible to him but offensive to many women.

The third piece which featured independent performance artist /poet Phumzile Masina touched on xenophobia. Unsteady on rollerblades and supported by two women, she represented an old soul desperately asking why we can’t we relate to one other.

The fourth piece offered some lovely ensemble work before moving onto the imagery of the African Queen becoming the table on which capitalists feasted, although many in the audience (myself included) mistakenly felt that this was a comment on Zapiro’s controversial cartoon dealing with the rape of Lady Justice.

Performers were Amara Gasa, Nomusa Ngubane, Sandile Mkhize, Nkanyiso Kunene, Sbusiso Gantsa, Mxolisi Nkomonde, Siyabonga Mhlongo, Nhlakanipho Cele, Noxolo Rushualang and Zanele Chiliza with guest artists Mayuri Naidu and Phumzile Masina.

While both pieces were impeccably performed with disciplined focus and strong emotion – accompanied by some excellent lighting effects – more work needs to be done to make them more understandable to the audience. With minimum programme notes, it was difficult to judge the piece in terms of whether the choreographers had achieved what they set out to present. While contemporary dance is more about the movement itself than a storyline, the creators have been moved by issues or emotions and a bit more insight is needed into their thinking for reviewers to do justice to their works.

I am confident that, given the expertise of Nellie Rushualang and Ntombi Gasa, these two pieces will grow and achieve their considerable potential. Watch out for them if they come your way. – Caroline Smart