The astonishing, heartbreaking beauty of Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro

Imagine a song….that gives voice to people’s anger….The anger precedes the song…but the song precedes the people…The voice must be sung into existence, so the song precedes speech, clears the ground for it.” – Ben Lerner

It begins with a single gesture. The throat opening to form a sob ­‑ a cry, a wail. A bellow bellowing soon becoming song. Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro is a poetic expression of grief, sorrow, anger, and joy. The sorrow precedes the cry. The cry precedes the song. The song precedes the people.

Over sixty solemn minutes brimming with intensity and astonishing beauty, the Vuyani Dance Theatre transported us through a spectrum of emotion at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.

Ravel’s Boléro is a captivating orchestral piece marked by a repetitive and gradually intensifying melody. Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro is underscored by the insistent quality of the original ostinato through the relentless sound of the snare drum ‑ ra-ta-ta, ra-ta-ta… A repetitive rhythm passing through time to reach a breaking point. Maqoma’s version takes this motif of embedded stubbornness and wraps it graciously with folkloric and contemporary hymns. The mood is reverent, conveying praise, devotion and pleading – which is another way of saying prayer. ‘Lungisa indaba yakho no jesu’, goes the traditional song.

Directed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu and performed by S’busiso Shozi, Thabang Mkhwanazi, Simphiwe Bonongo, and Sipho Mhlanga, the production features melodic and textured voices delivered live, creating a nuanced connection between the singers and the audience. Unlike recorded music, which compresses time, live music stretches it. The voices in Cion emphasize this fluidity of time and roots us deep in the present moment.

Christina Sharpe, in her seminal text, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, reflects on voice, stating: “The voice is a call for a different kind of contemplative desire to remake a world where black life might be fully possible beyond the degradations enacted on it.” Similarly in Cion voice expresses desires and their lack: “I don’t want the coffee table, I don’t want a door, I don’t want this body, I don’t want this blood, I don’t want this breath”, is stated in an atmosphere of increasing tension, finally released through a collective sigh. We sigh together as they breath together; a resonance of the commons.

To think of voice is to think of silences and breaks. To think of voice is to think of breath. Which in turn, is to think of life.

The traditional Spanish dance, Boléro, is characterized by sharp turns, stomping feet and sudden pauses in a position with one arm arched over the head. At different parts of the production, this style finds expression through a spirited choreography filled with a rhythmic staccacato; Otto Nhlapo’s performance a blend of versatility, precision, and effortless transitions between styles is smooth and captivating; be it the nay nay, pantsula, traditional zulu dance, or tap, his gravity is centred.

Alongside Nhlapo’s performance is a bewitching offering by eight virtuoso dancers: Katleho Lekhula, Thabang Mdlalose, Tshepo Molusi. Noko Moeketsi, Nathan Botha, Monica Magoro, Gilbert Goliath- including Roseline Wilkens’s gravity defying spins. Dancers run across the stage carrying black flags and I think of anarchy, attached to some kind of radical ideology. Surely death is inevitable, yet there is within it a sense of the comic.

Cion, of the old Irish Cin – meaning love, affection, respect. But also guilt, crime and offence. In Zakes Mda’s Cion, mourning is intermingled with the exploration of recent and ancient pasts and presents. Here too, weeping signals death and the desire for liberation. Weeping is also a central part of worship. In my mind, ‘Cion’ and ‘Zion’ are near-homophones, recalling Jerusalem, a place of refuge and peace. I think of Zion as the dancers shuffle together in a circle surrounded by wooden crosses. I think of Zion as a body falls in space. I think of Zion when I see the dancers fully wrapped in fabric. This connection to a holy place adds a complex layer to watching the production as the world is burning.

Portraying the widest range of lamentation, mass and memorial, Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro teases repetition as a method to understand cultural and political processes. This recalls author Wilson Harris’s The Infinite Rehearsal, a novel that delves into complex themes of history, identity, and the nature of reality. Suggesting eternal repetition and the cyclical nature of history unfolding through its plot and title, the book traces the persistence of trauma of subjugation and of struggle. In Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro repetition proposes transformation through symbolic gestures. As the dancers twirl, stomp, tap, and spin, history repeats itself … and breaks our hearts*.

Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro was performed at The Baxter theatre in Cape Town from 21 to 23 March.

*Kemang Wa Lehulere’s exhibition: History Will Break Your Heart, was presented at the Iziko National Gallery in 2016.

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