Jay Pather of Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre in collaboration with Junaid Ahmed, Storm Janse van Rensburg, Virginia MacKenny, Thando Mama, Greg Streak and the Our Hour Pansula Dance Company, Shwibeka Dance Company, Celtic Dance Company, Pravika's Kathak Kendra, Technikon Natal Drama Department and the Flatfoot Dance Company
by Virginia MacKenny
'Cityscapes', award-winning choreographer Jay Pather's site-specific dance/video collaboration, played its grand finale at the Durban Art Gallery (DAG) this weekend to much praise. Conceived to engage with five specific locations in Durban - North Beach Pier, the 320 West Street escalators, Musgrave Centre, the Out of Africa coffee shop at the Workshop, and a room at the Albany Hotel - 'Cityscapes' in its final form took up nearly the entire DAG. Shown over four nights, it was slipped in between a radical rehang of the gallery's collection so the walls were empty and open to receiving the large video projections that most of the visual artists utilised in response to the project.
The Albany Hotel piece was the most intimate and demanding on its audience, both in its original incarnation in one of the Albany's rooms and later at the DAG. More a piece of physical theatre than dance, on location it allowed for only 10 viewers at a time. Standing for the duration of the piece, backs pressed against the wall with the dancers brushing up against them, spectators became party to the relationship between a conflicted young white man (Denton Douglas) and young black woman (Ntombi Gasa).
Storm Janse van Rensburg's response to the Albany Hotel piece was to film the rehearsals and performance with a small spy camera from different viewpoints. Unedited, the "evidence" of the first performances was replayed for the DAG audiences on five televisions, with a sixth, utilising the same tiny camera, showing real-time footage of the audience viewing the work. With the televisions banked up in towers of three on either side of the performance, Van Rensburg's utilisation of the idea of surveillance, its voyeuristic implications bounced back on to the audience watching both themselves and the work, was a superbly appropriate encapsulation of the discomfort the piece generated.
Pather's injunction to the artists was to "document" the original works in situ; then, adopting a hands-off approach, he left the artists to get on with it. This approach had its advantages and disadvantages. Largely replaying the original dance piece, Thando Mama's response to the invigorating pansula sequence on the moving escalators of 320 West Street often produced a conflict of timing with dancers appearing onscreen before they were on stage and vice versa. More successful was his slow time filming of the buildings in the area, evoking a looming metropolis very different from the popularised sea, sun and surf image normally projected of Durban. Here city as concrete jungle produced an edgy backdrop to frenetic suited businessmen with briefcases and cellphones with a murder in their midst. Set to a pulsing remix of Carmina Burana, a whimsical ascension into heaven aided by a helium-filled red balloon completed the work.
Greg Streak's intensely cut piece, highly cohesive when seen alone, suffered some of the same problems when viewed up against the live performance. His documentation, interspliced with movie footage from When Harry Met Sally, Gummo and Pulp Fiction, created moments of irony, humour and tragedy, reinterpreting Pather's work with wit and intelligence.
North Beach Pier fed Pather's fascination with rhythm and sounds created through the dancers themselves. Live Shembe horns, the anklets of the Indian dancers and the fast tap work of the Celtic dancers echoed the sea and produced moments of sheer beauty when juxtaposed with Junaid Ahmed's part impassive observation, part lyrical interpretation of the beachfront and the early morning light shattered on a rising sea.
The Musgrave piece involved a "black kugel" abseiling down the walls of the centre kitted out in black and gold descending to the sound of a group of male isicathamiya singers. My video gave viewers access to what could not be recreated in the gallery - the actual jump. Under the neon Legends sign, and shown to the accompaniment of the song "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away ...", the piece was both absurd and tragic.
Reflecting the paradoxes of a South Africa engaged in redefining itself, Pather succeeded in joining a disparate number of performers and artists in a manner that provided food for thought as well as an immensely enjoyable evening.