BOK by Underground Dance Theatre was possibly my favourite dance piece at the Grahamstown Arts Festival. I thought I would “save the best for last” but I have left this all far too late and it seems like I watched the piece years ago. I would like to write something that would do the work justice, but this post has become a difficult to the point of silly task and I’m just hoping something gets written. So be kind and remember, this is not a review but a reflection.
Choreographed by Steven van Wyk, Cilna Katzke and Kristina Johnstone, BOK is a re-imagined work of Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun) that was first shown in Paris in 1912 causing a great stir because of its sexual imagery, choreography and content. Like most of the work of the Ballets Russes it was intentionally controversial and left a profound mark on the history of dance in a way that manages to be relevant even today. So to re-work an already exciting piece in a South African context is not only in itself a quite exciting venture, but also quite a brave step for this company that seems to be going from strength to strength.
Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun tells the story of a faun who encounters several nymphs and promptly seduces one of them (that’s the very general summary). Nijinksy’s choreography was inspired by the two-dimensional painted figures found on ancient Greek vases; the original choreography is very stylized and for the time it was a completely revolutionary step away from ballet. It touched on themes of masculinity and sexuality and (possibly because of his relationship with Sergei Diaghilev) there is often a homoerotic reading of the piece.
This is all prevalent in BOK. The references are clear and clever, but it exists beautifully in and of its own right. A friend of mine had no idea or knowledge about Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun and she walked just as enthusiastic as I did. It feels like a bit of a change from the previous work that Underground Dance Theatre has produced, possibly more mature or ambitious. The choreography traverses ideas of masculinity with an aggression and a tenderness that managed to be tight and original. I think what I loved most about the work was the way in which it managed to avoid those mundane approaches to fall-back thematic threads. I could very easily mention words such as masculinity, animalism, ritual and primitivism (a word I dislike and quite frankly confuses me) because in essence, BOK was ‘about’ all of these things. But it seemed to pass through these ideas with an ease and confidence in its own conceptual strength.
I find a dance work to be rewarding where the idea and the bodies, the concept and the choreography, are in such deep dialogue with each other that eventually one cannot tell the difference. By discussing the idea you are simultaneously discussing the dancers. BOK, I felt, managed to achieve this. Each movement of the dancers fulfilled a certain idea of the specific world created by the choreography, a world that seemed to be driven by physicality and desire. Desire to touch and move and connect and disconnect. A desire to tap into something possibly grander than oneself.
Possibly one of my favourite sections was the faun’s solo to Debussy’s music. Strangely enough I had watched the various videos of original choreography at a dance film festival earlier this year and certain images of the original were quite fresh in my mind. Every movement of the faun in the original work is direct, alert and completely intentional. In BOK, there were references that were almost fully danced out, but broken, cut short. The faun seemed defeated, he limped along in his tragic almost-similar solo. His isolation managed to be heart-breaking.
There is so much more to say about this piece. However, I’ve been desperately attempting to finish this post for about two weeks now and if I don’t stop now I’ll get increasingly vague and incoherent. In short, BOK is yet another brilliant production from this South African collective that I feel is making work both original and contemporary. Pieces such as BOK are deeply important not only for the aesthetics and evolution of South African contemporary dance, but also for future generations of South African choreographers and dancers.