Marcel Gbeffa performs “Et Si…” at Jomba! 2017 (pic: Val Adamson)

Different Dichotomies

by Victoria Graaf-Raw

We wait eagerly for the solo performance Et si… to begin. The auditorium lights are still on and we can see the outline of the set on stage. A large tractor tyre in placed downstage left and a wooden bench diagonally placed upstage right.

The auditorium lights dim and from the darkness a figure enters stage right and lies down on the bench. The stage is still in darkness when eerie music begins to play.

A slow fade up on the figure on the bench reveals Gbeffa almost naked with only in white socks and skin-toned underwear. His body uncurling from the bench at a glacial pace. His body is highlighted, radiant almost, under the bright light.

Each movement is precise and I find myself captivated how he extends his body; audience members are transfixed on him too and react to how each muscle is flexed and poised in repeated movements that resemble something instinctive, almost animalistic.

By now anyone, without having read the programme, would understand that Et si… looks at the repeated, ritualised, everyday movements of humans. The tensions of the body; the animalistic urges that we are taught to suppress.

Light and shadow play an instrumental role in this piece as Gbeffa moves between the highlighted tyre in light and its surrounding area in shadow. Gbeffa moves in and out of various pools of light, repeated actions that flow across the stage. Fast paced, some actions that look involuntary, others that make his facial features obtuse that we might find ourselves laughing at in another setting; but because of the tone — we don’t. His body pulses and gyrates, unsynchronised to the music.

The music begins to fade and he breaks the silence with a low grunt, a force of air that doesn’t sound pleasant or human. His movements become more violent as he throws himself against the tyre and finds ways to move in the tyre that allow his legs to stick out while his torso is hidden. His legs flailing the air, as if he is an animal that has been caught in a trap, frantic to escape. This is the very nature of the piece to distinguish between the fine line between human and animal.

Gbeffa’s movement is frozen for a time when he perches on top of the tyre and glares at the audience, as a lion might do to its prey. The breaking of the fourth wall from the fractured and repeated sequences is uncomfortable and striking at the same time.

This has to be the most striking solo performance I have had the pleasure of seeing for some time, Gbeffa’s ability to hold the audience for a long period of time, entirely by himself, is something I don’t think many will be able to master. There is a sense of restlessness and urgency that comes from the movements — perhaps a comment on our own lives? Gbeffa’s ending of Et Si… has him sighing in exasperation and talking softly to himself, almost like the musings of a madman. The music fades and he is left standing alone in the darkness. The audience hesitates before applauding unsure if the piece is over.

Mamela Nyamza and Aphiwe Livi in “De-Apart-Hate” at Jomba! 2017 (pic: Val Adamson)

The second work for the night is by Mamela Nyamza, entitled De-Apart-Hate (a clever play on the word apartheid), which explores the relationship between ritual, spirituality, sexuality and the body through performance art.

Unlike typical theatre, this performance work starts while audience members are entering. We are greeted with a wave of energy as we walk into the auditorium to find our seats. Mamela Nyamza and Aphiwe Livi are dressed-to-the-nines, in an elegant tight fitting gown and a formal black suit, and are riling up the audience with a spiritual song.

The ushers handed lyrics to audience members, some take this to their full advantage by clapping, singing and ululating along while others sit awkwardly, appreciating the experience around them. They are, much like apartheid was, included but separate from this spiritual meeting. Nyamza and Livi begin a call and response with the audience quoting various biblical verses and belting out “Amen!” and “Hallelujah”. This sets the undertone to the music which is loud spiritual music, some audience members continue to sing along with the performers as the auditorium lights and I am caught between trying to watch the performance, write down my notes and read the lyrics we were given so I too can be in the moment with them.

The work has a deep-seated political agenda; there is a bench on stage painted in thecolours of the rainbow. Intended to signify the unified “rainbow nation” that is the “new” South Africa but when Nyamza sits on the bench it becomes clear that it is not weighted down equally. Livi then joins her on the bench and the two play a game of seesaw, alternatively a battle of the sexes as they try to counter one another’s weight before sitting still and balancing the bench. The sequence is first done in silence, making the audience uncomfortable as we watch two people sit, holding the weight of the other. The game of seesaw is sped-up and begins to look funny, until Nyamza is thrown off the bench.

The most striking moment of the performance is when Nyamza pulls up her dress to reveal fishnet stockings, sits on top of the bench, spreads her legs open and places a bible in between her legs and begins to quote verses while licking her fingers and turning its pages. The imagery of a religious woman “touching” herself while holding a holy book, ignites shock from the audience. She glances up at the audience, still paging through the bible smiling and then says, “It doesn’t end, hey?” yawns and then slowly closes the bible with her legs. The sequence leaves the audience to question whether it’s blasphemy or exotification. Nyamza and Livi both take to riling the audience up again in song and it seems that all is forgiven as audience members stand join in, they take their bows and exit stage, the audience continues their song united for a brief moment once again.

Performances such as Nyamza and Gbeffa’s remind us that the function of the theatre is to arouse feelings of shock, revulsion, fear and to provoke a challenging dichotomy of change.

These very different works showcase the incredible diversity of dance genres that Jomba! showcases, both internationally and locally. The second viewing of this work is tonight 26 August 2017 at The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, with a Talk Back Session hosted by Pumelela ‘Push’ Nqelenga.

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