Gregory Maqoma: “Beautiful Me” (Solo)

At the dance festival “Tanz im August ” 2011 in Berlin, Theater Schaubühne

Subdued lighting is to recognize in the auditorium of the theatre. People still talk, while on the right rear side of the stage, the musicians tune their instruments. When it gets dark and quiet at the start of the play, you can feel the tension in the hall. A dark yellow hard focusing spotlight is directed upon one of the musicians, whose dreadlocks cover up his face. The solo violin playing of Isaac Molelekoa is so impressive, melancholic and space pervading that the viewers are dispelled. Extremely slow a dancer becomes visible, who stands in a narrow cone of light in the center of the stage. It is a quiet, strong and contrastive picture - this disturbing music of the violinist, that encourages you to move either internally or externally, and the continued structural integrity of the dancer Maqoma on stage. He speaks, maybe Xhosa or Zulu, presumably in a language no one from the audience understands. The rhythm of his spoken words gets increasingly accompanied by a rhythm of foot movements and is reinforced by the instrumental accompaniment of the four musicians.
The sharp stage light caused a strong contour drawing. The dancer´s movements appear large, doubled and abstract in the shadow image. The fast rhythmic movements of his feet in conjunction with the space limitation and frontal orientation of his body as well as the elegant, versatile, precise gestural hand movements remind spectators of the classical motion of material of the Khathak or the Bharatha Natyam dance techniques from India. Gregory Maqoma moves in this dance style frontally to the audience and therefore takes the classical “kings way”. This is considered as the strongest line on stage and is used only very sparingly and mostly for symbolic space design to emphasize highlight moments. It seems like a throw to use this way on stage at the beginning of a dance piece. When he gets close to the ramp, his body position gets visible in a narrow light square of 2x2m. His movement impulses come from the hands, shoulders and feet. He assembles poly-rhythmic movements isolated from each other mainly through uses of these three body parts. His performance is amplified acoustically and visually through the use of the kora, the cello and the drum.
The second sequence starts at first with a technically similar movement, but then gets gradually characterized by space-reaching movements, longer space paths, clear motion stimuli, quick direction changes and the use of arabesques and turns. Sometimes the dancer breaks this aesthetic, when he flexes his feet at elevations considerably. Maqoma´s dance acts formally rigorous, yet versatile and ornamental. He realizes his dance techniques precisely, performs an infinite repertoire of movements and works with a detailed musical sensibility. But what does Gregory Maqoma communicate with this performance? Which form of aesthetic does he establish here? Why does this choreography seem to be polished, presented, exhibited, non-significant and somehow irrelevant, even though it is a well designed, musically and technically excellent dance performance?
The light changes. Now the focus is on the left front side of the stage. Maqoma is between two microphones. He starts to speak in English: “We talk about our South African history”. Then the light changes, blue, cold, clear. The dancer performs jumps, spins, attitudes. Suddenly, he interrupts his motion sequence, and enumerates historical data and names of politicians with a loud voice. He mentions the Belgian King Leopold II, who once declared the whole of Congo as his “private property”. After mentioning that historical figure he dances pervasive, strong, rapid, strictly formalized and never with an involvement of the ground. On the spur of the movement he immediately interrupts again and mentions Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa from 1999-2008, he dances again, he breaks up his dance expression for the naming of Daniel Francois Malan, the former Prime Minister belonging to the National Party of South Africa, who ruled the country between 1948-1954.
In which context are the obvious decorative movements of the dancer interlinked with his verbalized facts of political history? Do these facts serve him as a dramatic thread? Does he want to call these facts a mostly white European audience into mind to counter alleged ignorance, forgetfulness or denial at work? Does the explosiveness of this piece lie exactly in the special contrasting method and evocation of contradiction between an exhibited agile body, which issued apparently just empty movement formulas, and the denomination of political-historical events, which were part of a controlling system for shaping and suppressing physical bodies?

Now the dancer moves and speaks alternately, mentions Congo’s presidents Joseph Mobutu and Laurent-Désiré Kabila, then Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal Boer Republic of South Africa between 1883-1902 and the Prime Minister Pieter William Botha, who was in power between 1978-1984. What do these persons have in common?

Suddenly Maqoma looks up to the audience and asks the question: “How do we even begin to have a conversation with each other?”. At that moment his hands begin to tremble out of his gestures, he increases the effective optical speed and magnitude of the tremor, flutter, buzz. He walks through the room, jumps into the air several times while speaking about the Congo, Belgium, South Africa, etc. Details of his utterance are indiscernible. Suddenly, he stops, inclines his upper body forward, stays silent, and repeats the jumps with accompanying verbal statements about African and European history. What he says is incomprehensible.

Then he addresses the audience again, but now with a much sharper irony in relation to this theatre situation: “Which story you like to listen? Let’s have a conversation. I sell exotic stories to survive. I am an African dancer”. With the gesture of exhibiting, Maqoma performs movements that are especially close to the body and tend rather to emphasize the two-dimensionality of a picture than the three-dimensionality of space, as if he would freeze an old cliché in a powerful theatrical image. It seems as if he demonstrates the power of the voyeuristic gaze and the inherent permanent codification of his artistic production, his person, his identity just with the exaggeration of the well-known, stereotypical exotic vocabulary of movement. Additionally he amplifies the tension between the presentation and the reception by that strongly ironic statement.
Maqoma constructs a fictional character on stage, which must sell stories to survive and asks, what story would be acceptable to be heard to hold a conversation. And of course he would have to offer exotic stories, because he is an African dancer and this at least would be expected of an artist like him. In this context, perhaps Dirk Eiler`s statement is revealing (that could be translated into English like the following): “It is less determining what is said or shown, as that what is heard and seen, and what is expected according to the framing.” (Eilers, Dirk: Theater: In: Arndt, Susan und Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard (Hg.): Wie Rassismus aus Wörtern spricht: (K)Erben des Kolonialismus im Wissensarchiv deutsche Sprache: Ein kritisches Nachschlagewerk, Unrast Verlag, Berlin, 2011, S. 544.)
Thereafter Maqoma turns with his back to the audience, and claps with his hands on his circulating buttocks according to the rhythm of the music. Perhaps one can read the visual irony towards an absurd situation of prostitution combined with a subversive strategy of mirroring a specific acting within thought and action patterns, established representation structures and identity attributions. Then the dancer steps forward, mentions Zuma, Bush, Gaddafi, Mugabe and provocatively asks again which story he should tell here on stage. Suddenly a woman from the audience shouts: Nelson Mandela. The remaining hundreds of spectators wrap themselves in silence. Maqoma does not react on that statement. How could he? And why should he?
After a while he says on stage: “Change is possibility, prosperity, humanity. Changing in front of you, what am I saying? And what are you seeing?” In this moment Maqoma puts the question about the options of speaking and seeing straight and touches with that indirect questions about the power of definition, the power of view and the power of representation. But he probably is implicit questioning the idea of change and the changeability of reality. There is a slight pause after his communication attempt. Suddenly another woman from the audience screams: “a real human being”.
What intelligence, cosmopolitan openness and courtesy speak out of these four words? Gregory Maqoma, an internationally renowned choreographer and dancer, gets attested in Berlin, that he really is a human being (!?!) - and with him probably all those persons who are included in a specific kind of representation logic. His previously expressed concerns compressed in the question: “How do we even start to have a conversation with each other?” breaks like an endless shattering mirror into all those spectators, who know to read this situation with its versatile brutal dimension, but remain incapable of any reaction. Who talks about whom and who declares whom as what? In this specific moment it becomes obviously visible, what this performance with its oscillation between seemingly trivial motion sequences and the statements about relevant facts can bring up in the audience.

His previously ironic formulated question has just exposed exactly that material in the audience, which was included as a subtext in his performance already. Does not the explicit statement of the proclaimed equality and belonging to the genus of mankind try to fix and signify the difference of this artist? Is this statement to understand as a women´s publicized self-insurance of a knowledge which gets shaped in this moment just here and now? Does the statement serve to relegate this artist on a specific place in an illusionary order? Does the statement evoke a feeling in a dreamer of bathing oneself in a seemingly boundless generosity and “humanity” in connection to the alleged assumption of a significant change in the concerned historic realities? And is that one not immediately denied again through such a verbal reaction? Do we others perform an acceptance of this view through remaining silent spectators?
The dancer -obviously irritated- continues to move, silently, performing small steps, walking and measuring a seemingly unlimited space on this huge stage. Besides the music the audience can hear some text elements spoken by a well known male voice from the off. The text passage is dense. It deals with the loss of culture and values, the problem for many artists to establish their own language, aesthetics and structures. It ends with the sentence: “I would say the past is not dead”. After a while the light drives out. At this time, the audience responds giving a thunderous applause.
The piece “Beautiful Me” by Gregory Maqoma raises many questions already, but this specific performance situation in Berlin raises even more.
Gregory Maqoma performed dance movements on stage, which have been created by the worldwide known guest choreographers Akram Khan, Faustin Linyekula and Vincent Mantsoe. Maqoma cooperated with them artistically and incorporated their movement material. The stylistic differences between these movement sequences are no longer visible. In this performance the arrangement and composition of diverse dance vocabularies seem to be empty, hollow, stereotypical and ornamental expressions. His movements are – at least for one part of the audience, I suppose – quite irritating. Interesting in this context is the statement of Maqoma in an interview with Joana Simões Piedade published in the magazine Buala: “They expect me, constantly, to restrain my work to the stereotyped perception of the western world and the African traditionalism.” (See: http : / / / en / face-to-face / the-sincretism-of-gregory-maqoma, 12.09.2011)
Maqoma exhibits this kind of movement quality to expound the problems of the permanent reduction of his art production and the limitation of it on a level of fixed and dominant constructions of “African tradition”. With that dance attitude he follows and mirrors this continuity through his provocative absurd offer of selling, telling or performing exotic stories. Especially the question concerning the power of view is extraordinary provocative, well-directed, operative and succeeded, if the answers of these two spectators are taken into consideration. It shows exactly, that it is really quite irrelevant what he says or does on stage, since the white gaze threatens to stay always pejorative on him and demotes him to an object. In this case, in Berlin, he was demoted to an object and additionally stamped with the label “a real human being”. Has not just the concession or the deprivation of the status of being human as well as the categorization and the racialization of people lead to apartheid, justified the slave trade and extended the brutality of colonialism? Precisely through that his question according the possibility of any conversation gains a strong symbolic meaning. And it becomes amplified by the history Maqoma tries so desperately to recall. Solely based on its reference points of South African history, the following content points can hardly be ignored:
That part of South African history, which is directly connected with operations, settlements and invasions of the Europeans, the practice of slavery, colonialism, countless wars, continuous systematic violence and exploitation, begins in 1488. The white racist Boers developed a justified sense of superiority and a religiously motivated assumption of one’s own chosen-ness. The implemented spatial segregation policies in the 19th century worsened, it came to diamonds and gold rush phenomena, the workers’ suburbs at the mines expanded and the whole work migration had a devastating effect on African societies, which brought up problems of rural exodus, uprooting, urbanization, ghettoization and burglary of efficient social structures.
From the 1920s, the government of the National Party created and implemented important legal foundations of the later apartheid policy. As early as 1912 graduates founded the South African Native National Congress that was renamed as ANC. Still in 1948 the National Party established its campaign on the principle of radical apartheid policy and won the election. They initiated an extreme racist path with an established system, which lasted until 1990. The assignment of every South African citizen in a specifically defined category was implemented as a law under the “Population Registration Act”. Over time, more than 1,000 laws were enacted in the meaning of apartheid ideology. The active state apparatus, which exclusively represented the interests of white settlers went on to unlawful methods in the fight against Black people. The Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the permanent declaration of emergency, the ban on ANC and PAC, the increasingly radicalization of Blacks in high schools, the Soweto uprising of 1976 are just some facts of those realities.
Johannesburg´s suburb of Sophiatown was completely destroyed and the residents were forcibly relocated into an area later summarized as Soweto townships. The dancer Gregory Maqoma grew up there. Steve Biko, the spokesman and co-founder of the Black Consciousness movement, died in 1977. It might be not a coincidental correspondence between the idea of “Black is Beautiful” and the title of Maqoma´s piece with the name “Beautiful Me”. The persecution of political opponents with an ever-bloated operating security apparatus was continued obstinately under Botha. That man was explicitly named by Maqoma in his performance.
Gregory Maqoma mentioned through diverse isolated facts this context in his stage production and declared: “Colonialism spread people away from their culture. We want to bury the negative side in the attempt to create something new and better, but the past never dies.” And his question “How do we even start to have a conversation with each other?” remains unanswered. Those described reactions in Berlin only confirm the importance and urgency of this issue.

by Grit Köppen
Palcos | 22 September 2011 | dance, movements, Music, theatre