PATHER’S “UNDERTOW” PULSES WITH CURRENTS OF HISTORY, URGENCY AND BODIES OF THROBBING KNOWLEDGE WITHIN LANDSCAPES OF DEEP MEMORY
By Siphumelele Gumede
The 23rd edition of JOMBA! was officially opened over a YouTube livestream in a ceremony very true to our times. There was no lifting of a curtain or an uproar of applause as you would have a theatre opening. Instead, the heartfelt voices of the three opening speakers, Ismail Mahomed, Dr Lliane Loots and Professor Jay Pather, each isolated in their own spaces, opened with a few words on the resilience of art and dance in South Africa as we struggle in the collective “breathlessness” of socioeconomical crises.
This year, JOMBA! has been structured with the curatorial approach of “Border Crossings”. The festival bypasses geographical borders by including dancemakers from the Americas, Europe, India, and Africa, all joining to re-frame and respond to contemporary dance in South Africa. Beyond this literal border-crossing, the pieces in the festival have been created using transgressive strategies in defiance of the restrictions of social injustice.
Jay Pather thus seems like the inevitable choice for the JOMBA! “Festival Legacy Artist for 2021”. Pather renounces the idea of singular success and attributes it to his collaborators at Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre. It is precisely this communal way of thinking that makes his work so significant. It stems from a visceral understanding that art, hope and resistance are interwoven with community.
Pather’s composite dance film, Undertow, kicked off the festival. Undertow is exactly that: a flowing current of various eras, characters, countries and cultures. It moves through excerpts from Pather’s most revolutionary pieces such as Qaphela Caesar, Hotel, rite, and Body of Evidence. Undertow is both archive and memory and is a celebration of Pather’s “unrelenting gaze at cultural clash”.
Ultimately, Pather’s stage is everyday life. Undertow shows works performed on stairs, balconies, kitchens, hotels and littered sidewalks. His work does not try to escape the everyday lived experience, instead it reveals that in the cacophony of “life” going on art still, unrelentingly, exists. The boundary between life and art is further disturbed by the situatedness of the audience who are often right in the middle of the pieces. This disturbance and discomfort are not a display to be watched; it is a conversation in which the audience is included.
Under the overarching theme of transgression and resistance, many more motifs punctuate Pather’s work. Multiplicity and layering echoes in the incorporation of the spoken word, the projection of historical archival footage behind the dancers and the dramatic lighting achieved sometimes through hand-held lights. Pather does not just choreograph bodies rather he masterfully conducts a symphony of bodies, music, visual art and poetic language.
The final work in Undertow is Pather’s Cartographies of Survival, choreographed entirely over Zoom in July 2021. Central to the work is a poignant duo between mother and daughter, Nelisiwe and Noxolo Rushualang, a lament of loss, of what Covid has stolen. This juxtaposition of old and young connects this work to the generational embodiment of history foregrounded in all the work Pather produces with Siwela Sonke. The format also speaks to the current struggles choreographers and dancers are pushing through to make work.
Every piece in Undertow is still relevant to South Africa today. It is tempting to be disheartened that we can still find expression for our current pain in works that were choreographed over a decade and more ago — there are still significant strides to be taken towards social justice. However, when a festival like JOMBA! can grow so proudly, in spite of financial and logistical constrictions year after year, we are all encouraged in the growing movement that is contemporary dance; it is hope embodied and active, capable of bringing about a new day.