30.08 - 31.08.2022
JOMBA! 2022 opened with a performance of Hominal / Xaba on the exceptionally cold evening of August 30th at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre on the University of KwaZulu-Natal campus. The 24th edition of the annual contemporary dance experience runs until the 11th of September under the auspices of the Centre for Creative Arts.
The first live festival since 2019 thanks Pro Helvetia for making it possible for Marie-Caroline Hominal and Nelisiwe Xaba to kick off proceedings with a piece that was conceptualised by the former in 2019. Hominal / Xaba is the second work of the series Hominal / xxx, which features collaborations with artists initiated by Hominal. The purpose of the work is to explore notions of authorship, appropriation and transformation in the creative process. The juxtaposition of the artists’ names in the title is meant to dissolve hierarchies in authorship, but Hominal still manages to appear first.
Hominal / Xaba was created at La Bâtie festival in Geneva by the pair of choreographers who wanted to collaborate after studying together in London. Swiss journalist Arnuad Robert describes the piece as “a choreography of appropriated cultures, online tutorials, and patterns reproduced by machines.” As a framework for the collaboration and its dynamics, the description is more of a point of departure than a synopsis.
It is slow work getting to grips with the thematic concerns of a piece that begins with the choreographers threading hooks on the borders of the stage with multicoloured, fluorescent balls of yarn. As soon as one finishes, Xaba and Hominal grab another from the periphery. All the while the sound of a loom, motor, or fax machine loops endlessly, amplifying the suspense with which the audience must grapple before the protagonists change tact.
Under the web of thread the choreographers descend, potentially signalling immersion in that other world-wide web. Their movements are laboured as they pass one another without acknowledgment. Scissors emerge from secret places after a spell of wandering aimlessly under the yarn. Ostensibly, the choreographers snip their way out, but closer observation reveals deliberate entanglement in the loose fragments. By the time the stage is clear, Hominal and Xaba each wear a neon suit of string that is simultaneously laughable and unsettling.
Is this a commentary on the insidious and long-lasting negative effects of prolonged internet use? While contemplating that, rolls of kaleidoscopic fabric unfurl from a rig above the stage, among which the choreographers stalk and hide from each other and the audience. When mutual acknowledgment eventually occurs between Xaba and Hominal, it is around a bluetooth speaker and laptop retrieved offstage, and made to face away from us.
Thus begins a parody of meme and reel culture as the choreographers mimic the dance moves of popular music videos and reality shows. There are as many readings of this satirical sequence as there are audience members, but the word “authenticity” comes to mind.
Is it still possible to strive for genuineness when the majority of the outputs of our internet culture are recreations or re-enactments of other media? How good is good enough when good enough is only as good as the last video? It may no longer be necessary to invest 10,000 hours to master anything.
“Technology easily dominates,” says Xaba in the Masihambisane Keynote Dialogue of 2021, wherein she voices a wariness towards the screen and its relationship to the body. As a conduit that makes bodies immediately available for consumption, the smartphone and its access to social media have been hostile spaces for female bodies. “These virtual spaces are my death,” asserts Xaba, “I refuse them.”
Back at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, the fabric banners are winched skyward to mark the proceedings’ conclusion. Xaba slams the laptop and prostrates herself on the floor. An impromptu conversation breaks out with Hominal on the topic of the performance they have just given. Xaba is adamant that hers was a great experience since the last time she performed two to three years ago. Much of the 2013 FNB Art Prize winner’s work is preoccupied with the intimate sharing of space, so communion with a live audience is life-giving to her. Hominal, though, is ponderous in her assessment as she points out something in the audience that Xaba insists she cannot see.
Back and forth they go about Hominal’s need for chaos versus Xaba’s desire for calm while the lights dim, and the audience scrutinises this unmiked, unscripted dialogue. As darkness descends, Xaba claims to see the phenomenon to which Hominal referred moments ago. It is the rainbow nation composed of audience members, which is only visible in the absence of light.
Rainbows occur when light strikes water droplets that refract it, separating it into its spectrum of colours. What, then, is to be made of a rainbow that is only there in the dark, like Schrodinger’s cat? Can it even be said to exist? Perhaps the critique is that a rainbow in the dark is no rainbow at all.
The choreographers must be commended for their insistent presence in any conversation that may germinate in and from the space of their work. Such boldness disrupts audience expectations about their role or performance as consumers in the space.
Given that the curatorial provocation of this year’s festival is the (im)possibility of home, the introductory paragraph of Dr Liane Loots’s opening night speech dovetails with Hominal / Xaba’s thematisation of the tenuousness of human contact. The artistic director and curator remarks that, “Our world is, and has been, changed forever over the past three years and with this a profound and pervasive loneliness at work in a contemporary view of ourselves made worse… by the algorithms of on-line living.”
In the South African context, this sense of un-belonging is exacerbated by “the vagaries of a pandemic… rising levels of poverty, increased class divides, unprecedented levels of gender-based violence, [as well as] poor and negligent national leadership.”
Fortunately, these feelings can be worked through now that pandemic regulations have been eased. For artists as rooted in bodily practice as dancers, physical interaction is nothing less than a precondition for work. And for the audience, as demonstrated by Hominal / Xaba, performers stand the best chance of influencing our relation to their work when we are actually present.