Review: Baxter Dance Festival 2012

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Now in its eighth year, the Baxter Dance Festival offers a chance for choreographers to showcase their work to captive audiences and fellow dance enthusiasts.  Established companies join emerging dance schools and youth programmes to offer 10 days of performances at the Baxter Theatre Centre.

Thursday’s opening night programme presented two pieces that were evocative and unnerving.

Umnikelo “Offering”, choreographed by Luyanda Sidiya, is a moving piece that offers a veritable candy store of delights.  Eight performers took the stage, identical in appearance with shaven heads, flowing silver satin pants and tunic tops, fittingly tied with twine around their torsos.  Initially I thought it was an all male cast, but eventually realized that three of the eight dancers were female; an intriguing discovery to make half way through a piece.  I found myself leaning in to try and decipher which of the identical looking performers were male and female, fascinated by the deliberate androgyny of their looks.

Offering’s programme notes stated “we offer ourselves to God(s) in submission.  The ancients would deliberately create organized chaos in order to reflect the internal chaos of the mind”.  Sure enough, this piece had strong spiritual and religious undertones, without being denominational or overbearing.

The dancers were evocative and percussive; shaking their hips, jumping, lifting and reaching in synchronized movement, holding arms open in a crucifixion pose and spinning around like whirling dervishes with their skirts flaring.  Accompanied by three live musicians/vocalists that were drumming, playing violin and shakers and singing/chanting throughout the performance, it was delightful on the ears as well as the eyes.  Midway through the piece there was a male duet that was breathtaking.  Umnikelo was a strong piece well-executed.  Having given their all to the performance, the audience rewarded the musicians and dancers with a standing ovation.

Mayhem, choreographed by Gregory Maqoma, was a piece of an entirely different nature.  Its programme notes described: “a mental institution where we are left with a body of work that strips away the beauty and gives us a mirror to interrogate ourselves and our actions.”  By the end of this piece I found myself wishing both the choreographer and the audience had interrogated their own actions a little more.

The same eight dancers as before, plus one additional woman, entered the stage shaking, twitching, talking to themselves and, in one case, methodically kneading dough in a metal bowl.  The entire piece consisted of the nine dancers walking in circles, bumping into each other, and generally looking agitated, confused and very disturbed.  This might have worked if there was an arc or evolution to the story, a way to make the “crazy” look more human and less insane, but there was not.

Add in the monotonous techno beat for music and the audience laughing loudly at the idea of the dancers portraying crazy people and you get the picture.  I shudder to think what someone who actually has a mental illness might have thought or felt, watching this mockery.  If the choreographer’s objective was to agitate and offend then he succeeded, and then some.  I honestly don’t know which was worse, watching nine dancers pretend to be insane in the most basic, almost comedic sense or listening to the audience heckle and mock the dancers’ performance.

Admittedly, there were moments when the dancers’ talent and skill was able to transport me beyond the offensive material. There were fleeting seconds when I could appreciate the almost Pina-Bausch-like movement of running and falling, tripping over imaginary objects, twitching and looking around in paranoia, but these moments were short-lived and in the end this reviewer was relieved when this second piece ended.

By Suna Hall

The Baxter Dance Festival ran from 4 to 13 October 2012 at the Baxter Theatre.

 

 

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