I have been home for about a month now. Although it was sad to leave France and mildly traumatizing to look at the upcoming events, festivals and shows that happen in Europe in summer, regretfully sighing through the list of choreographers and companies whose work I would miss, it is nontheless incredible to be back in South Africa again. In addition, I was lucky enough to go to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa’s largest arts and culture festival. It was the sweetest welcome home present and reminder of everything I had been missing out on during my time in that alluring but deeply cold and expensive place we call Europe.
Unfortunately, due to being on the road for some time, I have only managed to settle down (with wifi) recently. So with the festival (quite far) behind me, I will try gather scraps and memories of some of my favourite dance performances of the festival. I don’t intend for these to be reviews or critiques. These are mostly musings and reflections on a memory of a performance, details might be fuzzy but impressions, I hope, have managed to stay clear.
The first piece I’ll be writing about is entitled Cargo: Precious. It was a collaboration between four artists who have at some point won the Standard Bank Young Artist award; directed by Sylvaine Striker, choreographed by PJ Sabbagha (of the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative) with the musician Concord Nkabinde and dancer Fana Tshabalala. This power team created an incredibly tight and rather grand theatre production that really surprised me turning out to be one of my favourites of the festival.
Initially, I was nervous about the piece. To be perfectly honest when I read that it was about Saartjie Baartman I cringed somewhat. The story of Saartjie Baartman (or Sarah Baartman) is a painfully well-known one here in Southern Africa that tells of a Khoisan woman who was taken to Europe in 1810 and ‘exhibited’ in various European cities, displayed as a freak-show novelty due to her body that was differently shaped to the standard European body. (Because apparently the fact that humans don’t come in one size or colour was a somewhat unbelievable thought). She was not the only woman shipped off to Europe to be displayed in those early days of colonialism, and her remains stayed in the Paris Museum of Man until 1974. French officials finally agreed to send her remains back to South Africa to be properly buried in only 2002. Basically, this is the type of story that is painful to engage with, loaded with colonial baggage that is still relevant today and very very easy to tell badly, dramatically or insensitively. Especially if you are telling the story through dance. Bodies tell stories naturally, but to me they’ve always appeared to be small stories, briefly existing in a glance or twitch. Generally, I am suspicious of dance that takes on grand narratives, particularly historical narratives.
It turns out I had no need to worry. Cargo: Precious explored a re-imagining of Saartjie Baartman’s voyage from Southern Africa to Europe, with a sort of silence and cleverness that allowed the story to tell itself (if that’s possible). The stage transformed into a ship, as the dance focussed predominately on her voyage from Cape Town to London. I felt this is what saved the piece. The uncertainty, instability and constant dipping and swaying that the stage/ship seemed to undergo served as the perfect springboard from which the piece could unfold.
I felt a sort of motion sickness throughout the piece (in a good way) as the dancers, when still, were constantly rocking with the movement of the ‘ship’. The steady back and forth of both people and props was disarmingly efffective allowing powerful imagery to appear almost suddenly. I kept thinking of the watery preservation of the past and inhumanity rooted in ideas of progression; bodies being ‘discovered’ by scientists, land being ‘discovered’ by European adventurers and just people behaving abominably in the name of something supposedly logical.
The choreography of the stage and the props was almost more impressive than the choreography of the dancers’ movements. With the use of an amazing piece of material, space and people got pulled and tugged violently by some sort of unidentifiable source. Ultimately, it was very effective. When inanimate objects are dramatic and beautiful, it takes less pressure off performers and even though each performer was deeply present and passionate about their place in the work, none of them seemed to be performing another’s life, but maybe rather embodying an idea with a sensitivity and respect that even the audience could feel.
Another contributing factor to why I so loved this piece, was the pure relief that it was South African artists who created and performed the work entirely. This may be strange and unfair to say, but if the exact piece was made by a European or American company, it would have been insufferable. It was inward-looking, self-reflective and made with an understanding of the difficulty and importance of talking about the stories that construct this country’s identity.
Cargo: Precious is not the sort of dance I usually like, it certainly not the sort of dance I could ever create, but despite my hesitance walking into the work, I walked out feeling glowy and pleased, relieved that dance like that exists in this country. I liked this piece a lot. And mostly, I felt it to be an important work for South African dance, confirming that not only can we tell our own stories, but we can tell them damn well.