Review: Jazzart’s Azishe!

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A respected institution not only in Cape Town, but in art circles all over South Africa, the Jazzart Dance Theatre is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year.  With an aim to encourage the transformation of individuals, it is perhaps best exemplified by its outreach programme which annually reaches 5000 young people from historically disadvantaged communities, exposing them to the joy and creativity of dance and performance.

In the spirit of spreading a love of dance, Jazzart offers these young people who have dance in their blood the opportunity to perform in front of an audience. The annual Azishe! festival (formerly Danscape) teams professional choreographers and teachers with both professional and budding new dancers on the Artscape theatre stage.  From the isiZulu word that means “let it burn”, Azishe! is about that inner fire – the passion on which it feeds and the energy it releases.

The opening night rocked into action with a young and strikingly confident all-girl group from Khayelitsha, representing the Afrika Tikkun Mfuleni Community Centre. The audience was enraptured with their piece named Iqala Ngam, which translates as “For change to take place it must start with me”. With djembe drums and spontaneous battle-cry vocals as their musical score, they moved their bodies with rhythmic yet supple freedom, owning the stage with lithe bodies.  With more than enough attitude to drive the audience into whoops of excitement, the 19-strong group set an unbeatable standard for the night.

After such an explosive start to the night, the second performance was a dramatic change of gear. The piece Umlando was pleasantly hypnotic, almost meditative, performed for the first time by two of the groups from the Outreach Programme and directed by Jazzart Training Programme graduates Aphiwe Live and Wendy Thoane. Moving together in a group with insect- or animal-like movements, the piece takes the premise that each individual can only understand his own journey.

Dreamfinders, a group from Kwa-Zulu Natal, took on a solo stage for the third performance. Choreographed by Mlekeleli Khuzwayo and performed on opening night by Vusi Makhanya, their piece Life Architecture explored the journey of daily life. Despite being overly repetitive at times in the repertoire of movement, the piece had a certain beauty in its simplicity. Extra points go to the audience, who applauded madly at the smallest movement deviations in the performance.

Opening their performance silhouetted behind a screen, the female cast of Jazzart performers and trainees exuded a powerful femininity. They performed three pieces under the title Seya, or ‘joy’. On opening night, only the seven trainee performers were onstage, with the five Jazzart dancers being absent. For good reason as it turns out… they were at the Grahamstown Arts Festival performing Biko’s Quest, a collaboration between Jazzart Dance Theatre and The Steve Biko Foundation which premiered in August 2012 and has been hailed as “an instant classic”. But they were missed.  The joy and passion for their blossoming dance careers shone through the beautiful dancers dressed in flowing white, but I suspect the presence of the professional Jazzart crew ties the performance together.

Another visiting performance group, the Daveyton Arts Foundation from Gauteng, performed an entertaining piece named Elbeko, where love, desire, uncertainty and celebration were themes that ran through a performance that told stories through movement. Though all the performances were set to an original and brilliant musical score engineered by Liam Cookson, the djembe drums, also used for Elbeko, brought a sense of African tribal rhythm which works wonderfully well on stage.

Despite a few slower moments during the night, Azishe! began and ended with mind-blowing performances. The final piece, Unlimited, was expertly and fluidly performed by the male Jazzart Dance Theatre crew. They awed me with the effortlessness with which they controlled their bodies. “Unlimited is about understanding the body and working with one another’s energy. By making use of this energy it fulfills a greater purpose” says production director Mziyanda Mancam and choreographer of this final performance. Watching these chiseled bodies move individually and play off each other like water flowing over rocks, I was inspired anew by the Jazzart Dance Theatre and what they bring to South Africa. All the outreach students and trainees who at this stage are still developing into their dancing bodies are being given the most wonderful opportunity. To slowly chip away at their own inner potential, to be empowered through developing their dancing skills supported by a creative and professional group, to find their inner voices through self-expression.

Azishe! left me wanting more, and I look forward to the next performance of the Jazzart Dance Theatre group. But, even more than that, it left me wanting to take off my shoes and dance, dance, dance.

Marilu Snyders

Jazzart’s Azishe ran at the Artscape 4 – 7 July 2013.

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