A week after the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and a few experiences still swim around my thoughts and waver some of my judgments around art, people and self-preservation.
8. LANX AND OBTUS
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, Transnet Great Hall
Choreography Cindy van Acker
Interpretation Tamara Bacci
Sound composition and live performance Mika Vainio
Scenography Line Fontana & Cindy van Acker
Lighting Luc Gendroz
Technical direction Victor Roy
Costume Aline Courvoisier
Administration and promotion Tutu Production
Production Cie Greffe
Choreographer Cindy van Acker has been classically trained in ballet, worked in Geneva’s Grand Theatre and in 2005 with Italian director Romeo Castelluci. Like Castelluci’s work it is deeply meditative; however her aesthetic contrasts that of Castelluci in every way: minimalist, focused on one perfumer and exhausting.
Had I been severely docile, I would have thoroughly enjoyed these two solos. Unfortunately I’m in the middle of finishing my honors thesis and ferociously scavenging the Internet to find employment for next year. Like most people today, my attention span has grown shorter than a child with ADHD and my brain is constantly excited by the brazened world around me. I appreciate the precision taken to achieve the delicate rhythm through which she moves in order to achieve the gradual development of these two solos; but her treatment of this artistic choice struggled to sustain our engagement, maybe because its not very pertinent to what’s happening in art today. I live in a caffeine-fueled generation who access information at 7.2mb/s and forget things as quickly as we update our Facebook statuses. The caliber of van Acker’s work is of an exceptional standard and the concept has been realized with absolute tenacity; yet it is not audience-friendly. The concept’s lateral development prevents the stakes from being heightened and so loses all its worth by blocking off its audience from intelligibility or even identification with the work, and is thus terribly boring. Artists working in minimalist aesthetic need to be aware of how it applies to today’s audiences: we’re not as fascinated by the absence of material objects like we were in the 90s. The only material object I need for entertainment today is a laptop connected to the Internet. You need to be able to top that, and its not going to be achieved simply by moving a body very slowly and attempting to play with my sense of perception.
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, Victoria Theatre
Monoliberia captures your imagination and runs away with it. Using a white screen and a live visual artist projecting his drawings over the performers the Italian theatre company Scarlettine Teatro bring comic book to life. The play begins with a business presentation of a company’s stock figures. The presenter tires from the bore of numbers and creatively transforms them into pictures that become a story of a man and woman who journey through a flooding tap, traffic jams and shopping of mass proportions. Drawing from the physical techniques of Jacques Lecoq and Dario Fo’s fantastical treatment of narrative, this is a work of superb artistic investment. The focus on character acting and its interaction with the live drawing was central to every event in the drama. Everything unfolded through these elements and managed to demonstrate creative exploration without relying on a host of multimedia options as many contemporary works do; truly proving creativity is everywhere and can cross the generational divide. Monoliberia lives within me today because now I look at everything I don’t want to do in a different light. Now I think how I could make it fun; how I could find the best part of doing what I hate.
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, Graham Hotel
Featuring Lance Herman
Eliezer is the latest project of Lance Herman, who was last year’s GIPCA fellow for literature. I attended most of Herman’s work during this time and throughout I questioned the value of academic research as a means towards artistic outcome. The artistic quality of someone’s work is almost always more valuable if it stimulates or pushes the boundaries of your intellectual capacity; but sometimes it is so intellectual and wades so far into the depths of its own research that one must study the abstract to find an entry point. I don’t feel this way about Eliezer – the music is hauntingly beautiful and layered in emotion. It welcomes me in, gently taps my foot for me and sways my shoulders to the rhythm; it urges me to hum along to something I nothing about yet. For this reason I feel Herman is successful with Eliezer. Regardless of whether or not I can acknowledge the amount of work or research that has gone into this project makes no difference to how I respond to the music; what does matter is how well I can identify with it and I can; as did the rest of the room whom I shared the moment with. This is no reflection then of how useful his research was to me; rather the success of his work to influence me is evidence enough of the value good research can do for artistic work. His lyrics and score are evidently well rehearsed and layered by a depth of understanding. What works here, I think, is that for it to influence me I don’t need to know what his research entails. It influences the journey of his art but is not necessary for me to understand the arrival.
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, The Hangar
Director Sylvaine Strike-Nakar
Featuring Greg Melvill-Smith & Craig Morris
Presented by Past Paleontological Scientific Trust (PAST)
“Africa is the birthplace of humankind, the continent on which the ancestors of all people originated, and the place which preserves a fossil record of the origins of humans unmatched in its richness.” (National Arts Festival Programme)
Why are humans so obsessed with heritage and history and determining whom it belongs to? For a few years since democracy dawned there have been ongoing debates about street and city name changes. To defend the right of these names to claim ownership of public spaces opposing groups will push through cruel political processes and devise plans of mass, and sometimes violent, protest. They are so intent either to force change or prevent it from happening, all for the sake of preserving or promoting a particular history. The protection, preservation and promotion of Africa’s ancient cultural and natural heritage have been the driving force behind PAST, a public benefit organization founded in 1994. Craig Morris and Greg Melvill-Smith have worked with PAST to conceptualize and perform in ReVerse, which explores the evolution of Homo sapiens and the interaction between words, mind and body through a visual and verbal interpretation of humankind’s complex interactions between modern people and divergent beliefs. I could not connect with this performance and although I could see how dedicated the performers were to it, they were unable to engage me with the content. Either because I have no interest in paleontology or because I watch too much theatre to be amused by recognizable use of shadow effects, minor physical theatre and a simple plot. What did amuse me for most of the production was how its content got the support of a funding body, and even more surprisingly, a full house. This work was able to attract investment by its content that, in the midst of a time in South African art where one’s work has to somehow be done for the upliftment or empowerment of previously disadvantaged people, is flabbergasting to say the least. Standard Bank is the principal corporate funder of PAST and also of the National Arts Festival, proving that you certainly must know the right people to push your work. In my opinion it was not the artistic integrity of this work, which I cannot elaborate to challenge, but rather its position in a web of interests. Which leads me to think: whose heritage is Standard Bank interested to defend and whose are they wanting to claim ownership of and why? What are they doing this for and whose interests are they defending?
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, Alec Mullins
Choreography and featuring Athena Mazarakis & Hansel Nezza
Digital Art Tegan Bristow
Lighting designer Barry Strydom
Original score Liannallull & Hansel Nezza
Supported by Dance Umbrella 2012, the Goethe-Institut South Africa and the Embassy of Spain in South Africa
inter.fear was performed in the same venue where I saw PJ Sabbagha’s Zebra and Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake. Both experiences have influenced how I think of innovation in movement and this was no different.
Mazarakis and Nezza Start with a discussion that reveals their individual fears: acutely simplistic to each other. Their conversation is a game of taunting that soon influences their every involvement in the piece. The development from this game grapples the audience by engaging our knowledge of the ideas catalyzed in their conversation. Nezza projects Mazarakis’ fear of rats onto the audience: using Mazarakis’ irrational fear to lead us to believe in the possibility that rats could spontaneously be anywhere and everywhere even under the seats of audience. This challenges the boundaries between performers and spectators and its understood that what they’re talking about is not their fears, but OUR collective fears. Theatrically rats could appear from under our seats, the audience do not know how their game works and haven’t seen this production before and so begin to believe in this possibility, this fear. They ‘inter.fear’ with our perception of boundaries, and prove what fear is: when something moves beyond our comfort zone and challenges the safety of what we know.
Their physicality generates a vocabulary of dance that is understood within this framework of meaning provided by the initial dialogue. Their seed, fear, grew steadily throughout the piece and it was interesting to see how it unfolded seamlessly with the aid of digital art, set, music and dialogue. What impressed me most was its ability to be present among us without invading our physical space. Boundaries were pushed, not physical but conceptual boundaries; and I think those are the fears that are strongest: the ones that we don’t feel physically but rather inside our beings and in our heads; the ones that we can’t push away; the ones we can’t see staring outside at us; the ones that are caused by ourselves.
3. GUITAR LEGENDS & GRAHAM GILLOT BAND
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, Cuervo Music Room
Featuring Graham Gillot, Duncan Combe & Jeane Combe
The Graham Gillot Band had a repertoire of guitar legends spanning Hendricks to Santana and was enjoyably above average. Judging from the Windows media player projected stage right, the band have plenty of corporate experience and enough of Duncan Combe’s stage tricks, from changing wigs to firecrackers off the end of his bass, to pull off an impressible cover show.
Graham Gillot spent almost an hour playing guitar legend covers with skill and simulation that evoked the favorable times of his 30-year-old-plus audience. It was only until he demonstrated his own artistry with an original composition titled ‘Tap Dancing’ that blew the expectations of his audience and sent hands rippling in amiable applause. Making his own mark on guitar tapping – a style of playing that has taken the European folk scene by storm – Gillot’s skill was immaculate and I’m stunned to see him playing in a cover band. But there are so many brilliant artists who make the compromise of being able to practice their passion by selling their soul to the commercial industry. Why is a talented artist like Graham Gillot not being granted the opportunity to make incredibly breathtaking original compositions for which he has the necessary skill to achieve it with? Why do artists spend 90% of their time NOT doing what they’re best at? Is it for security – fear for not making a living? I’m not suggesting he starve himself for his art, I’m asking him not to starve his art for himself and give it the creative time it deserves to realize its potential.
2. NIBS VAN DER SPUY AND GUY BUTTERY
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, The Highlander
Featuring Nibs van der Spuy & Guy Buttery
This was one gig I did not want to miss: two names I hear about every time I mention my interest in Avant-garde and experimental art and music. My friend, Peter, arrives on Friday afternoon and can only see the gig that night as he leaves the next morning. Making the decision then to get our (student discount) tickets we head off from the Village Green beer tent to the box office where the systems are down and we can’t get tickets. We race off to find a Computicket in the local Checkers: we’re too late, which will cost us double the price of a student discount. Unfortunately nobody at the door to the gig will entertain this story and despite Peter’s numerous attempts to slip through the door the odds are against us and I’m ready to give in. But the world wanted us to see this gig and sends Nibs van der Spuy swiftly through the door to grab us in, on his comps. Stunned with gratitude and mutual fervor we spot our seats and enjoy the best free half an hour of the year. I will never forget this moment; and though I have said that a lot, this time is different. This time I learnt something: the most valuable fans are the ones who are shown value. Next time I will pay full price for Nibs’ gig, not because my student card expires soon but because I am now a valued fan.
1. MANGO GROOVE
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, Guy Butler Theatre (1820 Settlers’ Monument)
Vocals Claire Johnston, Beaulah Has he, Khanyo Maphumulo & Siziwe Ngema
Penny Whistle Kelly Petlane
Trumpet Sydney Mavundla
Sax Percy Mbonanu
Guitar Mike Bester
Keyboards Harold Wynkwardt
Bass John Leyden
Drums Neill Ettridge
I don’t think my generation really knows what Apartheid was. Maybe that’s why we’re so tired of hearing about it. Aspiring political or socialist intellectuals will keep saying how much Apartheid’s legacy still affects the lives of rural school children who don’t have access to what privileged lighter skinned kids might; but the fundamental difference between today and then is the feeling of that time. I can’t imagine how anyone on either side would have felt at that time: riots, turmoil, fear of civil war, random shootings and extreme violence. Uncomfortable must be an understatement. What did it feel like when there was so much going wrong and there weren’t enough people to stand up and do something? What did it feel like when so many people knew what was happening wasn’t right, yet didn’t know what any of the little people could do to stop it?
I imagine that Mango Groove was the answer for many. For the hour that the melodies of Mango Groove filled my ears, my heart was transported to another time. I felt something very, very different to what I feel in today’s South Africa. There are a good handful of artists today who fuse political awareness into their themes; some more blatant than others. But what Mango Groove does with the same agenda is something remarkable and incredibly inspiring. Their objective was simple: people are separated, how do we bring them together? They didn’t appeal to the intellectual capacities of the masses with wordy verses or ill-disguised connotations to political parties, but rather the emotional vacuum within the hearts of the nation. Simply: they made good music that made people come together. In the auditorium, the music was so powerful that I saw a reenactment of a concert probably 30 years before: people were standing up form all corners of the room, dancing and singing along with people next to them who they didn’t know. The Guy Butler Theatre is a 1000-seater auditorium with comfortable seats, designed for the audience to sit back for three hours and watch the performance without having to readjust themselves; Mango Groove changed this dynamic and their audience stood up from their seats and danced, forgetting what the intention of the space was created with.