'Cityscapes' at Durban Art Gallery
by Peter Machen
Take more than 40 dancers, five video artists, one world-class choreographer/director and a small behind-the-scenes support network. Give them a city located somewhere on the southern coast of Africa to play in. Give them a beautiful, lively, bustling city filled with different cultures, all dominant, all cross-pollinating on a daily basis. Give them a city called Durban to play in. To dance in, to sing in. To make art and to come alive.
The brainchild of choreographer and director Jay Pather, 'Cityscapes' is an ingeniously simple project with grand yet intimate ambition. Consisting of five site-specific dance pieces in five different locations in and around the city, the performances were filmed by five video artists, namely Greg Streak, Storm Janse Van Rensburg, Virginia MacKenny, Thando Mama and Junaid Ahmed. The dance pieces were then re-performed in the Durban Art Gallery, in conjunction with the video pieces.
North Beach, the Workshop, 320 West Street, the Albany Hotel and Musgrave Centre might not be particularly historic sites in the usual sense of the word, but they are spaces that have been shifted in their meaning and their function by the forces of history itself. Ballardian spaces filled with the residual force of left bodies, spaces humming with the almost forgotten exchange of human energy. They call to mind that great copy line - "We shape the things we build, thereafter they shape us".
Seeing a troupe of pantsula dancers, devils and angels, impose their delicate, delicious mock-reality onto the architectural landscape of 320 West Street illustrated how much of physical reality is occupied by our own projections, by our own stories. On the North Beach promenade Celtic, Shembe and Indian dancers moved in a polylogue of patterns with the tongue of the Indian Ocean, that sea that has delivered so many human beings onto this land, licking the shore in the background. In the sunken coffee shop in the Workshop, a suburban soap opera unfolded before the eyes of hundreds of onlookers. The Albany Hotel, more discreetly, was witness to the inner workings of a couple's tortured relationship, and from the Musgrave Centre office tower a black kugel abseiled from the top of the office tower to the sweet, sweet strains of isicathamiya singers and local rising performing star Joel Zuma proclaiming "humanity is not for sale".
The dancers themselves were fantastic and Pather must have felt privileged to work with such a sturdy collective of talent. Together, in one giant exhibition, with several pieces playing at any one time, dance and video in coitus, 'Cityscapes' at the gallery was a powerful exploration of the notions and histories attached to place and our sense of place. And more than that, it was a thing of pure and intense beauty. The layers of meaning you could write a book about, but in the words of the kugel, "that's just beautiful".
Pather is to be commended for both the immaculate conception of 'Cityscapes' and its brilliant execution. It is yet another example of the spirit of creative collaboration that makes Durban such an exciting place in which to live. As well as the engagement between Pather, the dancers and the artists, there were scores of other people involved. Every outfit had to be made, every sound rig carried. The Durban Art Gallery had to be pretty much completely rearranged for the event and security guards had to have their ontology shifted for a short while. Some poor complaining soul in Musgrave Road even had to call the police about the noise.
It is important to note that the project was largely funded by the National Arts Council. Important, if for no other reason than the more the project gets mentioned, the more likely it is to receive similar funding in the future. I haven't seen a single work in any medium that tells me more about myself than 'Cityscapes'. I haven't experienced another art piece that has a greater resonance with my experience of being human in this country. Of course, South Africa produces world-class art on many fronts but the very scope of 'Cityscapes' is phenomenal. Just one of these video-dance-art pieces would have been a gift. Five of them are almost too sublime, too much to expect.
While what Pather and all his beautiful cohorts have achieved is remarkable in artistic terms, there is an equal achievement here, one that is in many ways a far, far greater feat. The 'Cityscapes' team managed to get audiences to come and watch it. And they did so without a single note of compromise. In a community that is largely markedly reticent about engaging with art, this was something of a miracle. For four consecutive nights the Durban Art Gallery was filled with faces, mostly marvelling at these new and beautiful forms, bathing in this new sea of language.
There were flaws in 'Cityscapes', weaknesses, places where the pace dropped, moments where maybe the video didn't work. But in relation to the scope and breadth of the project, these aberrations barely warrant a mention. Everybody involved deserves a medal. And as for Pather, well, he has earned a place in dance history now, and a place in all our hearts, a bunch of red helium balloons from the 320 West Street piece lifting him aloft into the blue, blue skies of the future.