Jazzart’s powerful dance drama
It’s always a good sign when theatre forces physical reactions out of its audience.
Goosebumps. Tears. Sweat. Gasps. Laughter.
Jazzart’s latest work, partly god, does all that and more. By the end of it, as I rose with most of the opening night audience to a stunned ovation, I felt rather as if I had just been crash-tackled by Schalk Burger.
But I was also strangely elated. Now I had some idea why he wanted to smash me…
The piece explores violence and conflict in current-day South Africa with a visceral vividness. According to Alfred Hinkel, Jazzart’s Artistic Director since 1986, partly god takes a different point of departure from some of the important historically-based works in the Jazzart repertoire.
“In Jazzart’s collaborations with Magnet Theatre – producing works like Rain in a Dead Mon’s Footsteps and Cargo – Mark Fleishman used historical or literary texts as his departure point. This time director Lara Foot drew on the experiences of the dancers themselves as her archive,” Alfred said.
“She spent time talking to every one of them, researching their personal experience of violence, and found time after time the same issue coming to the surface: the destructive impact of the missing father figure. Whether literally or emotionally absent, she found she was dealing with a chain effect of trans-generational violence, passed like a curse from father to son.”
Partly god takes the form of a dream-like narrative in which one individual makes a torturous journey back to his father, aided by the imp-like spirit of an AK-toting boy soldier. Reconciliation, however, can only take place once the father can find a way to express the abuse he himself has suffered – which takes the form of an astounding, confessional monologue that pours out in a torrent of fractured phrases from the hitherto stony silence of Douglas’s father, portrayed with impressive presence by John Linden.
It is a rich, multi-layered and evocative production that would well be worth seeing several times, staged with great creativity that sees everyday objects transmuted from literal to symbolic objects. A wheel barrow, for instance, is transformed from a labourer’s tool into a psychological burden. It also becomes an implement of torture… a snail’s shell shelter… a prosthetic device… a bath… and a minute stage for the production’s most intimate and moving pas de deux between Douglas and his lover.
An enormous suspended net becomes a border fence over which dancers claw themselves in a frenzy of anxiety to reach the other side. Minutes later the net crashes down to the stage and is seized on to throw a dancer into the air, then is used to snare her like a hunted animal.
The production is an intense, unbroken and fascinating single act, driven on by the mesmeric music of the prolific Neo Muyanga, one of the founders of Blck Sonshine, and performed live on stage by a group of hugely talented musicians.
The performances of the cast of 32 dancers were incredible. Chuma Sopotela was uncanny as the child soldier, giving a deft delivery in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa. Douglas Griffiths as the central protagonist is outstanding, delivering a mature, sustained and sensitive performance of great athleticism and lyricism. Thabisa Dinga’s solo as boy soldier’s mother was a tour de force, as was the moving and innovative double work Douglas Griffiths performs both with John Linden and Refiloe Mogoje.
But some of the most powerful moments in this collaborative work by six different choreographers were provided by the big group pieces – hugely energetic, writhing, raging, hate-filled, leaping contortions that captured the frenzy of xenophobia and gang-warfare with devastating intensity.
The piece takes its rightful place in a canon of important work Jazzart has produced over the last two decades – a theatrical heritage that needs to be preserved and celebrated as a national treasure.
Over and above the works themselves, Jazzart must be congratulated for having developed an authentic indigenous dance language. Their home-grown style incorporates a variety of dance forms from contemporary and jazz, but includes traditional African influences, hip-hop and lithe capoeira-like movements, all of which have clearly been fused through sustained discipline into a powerful shared technique that is uniquely local.
This powerful, poignant, gut-wrenching and profoundly thought-provoking work should not be missed. By confronting and transfiguring some of our most shameful issues, Jazzart has once again made me proud to be South African.
Partly god runs until Sunday 25 October at the Artscape Theatre.