Candongueiro: the promise of a journey but we’re left stranded

Candongueiro in performance. Photo by Xipango Creativo.

We were a crowd of about ten in the stadium-like Centenary Hall. My heart always sinks in an empty venue. So, oh did I wish the Palasa Dance Company from Angola who’ve made their way to Africa’s major arts festival, would blow we ten away. I crossed fingers they’d give us something good with which to spread the word – the fringe’s key marketing tool – and encourage some ticket buying for the visitors.

The Critter might one of these days get into the nitty-grittys of the costs of creating a work, transporting it to Makhanda, staging it on the fringe, finding a comfortable enough place for heads to rest and obtaining sustenance too. Suffice it to say, it ain’t a cheap venture! Notice the shorter runs from so many fringe shows?

Which is why I sat thinking of the Angolan group who had come all this way to be greeted with a near-empty house, and the demoralising effect this can have on artists, especially the ‘emerging artist’ generation.

To these dancers’ credit, they gave us their all. And there were some good parts, but the whole didn’t deliver the impact I’d hoped for. Choreographer Miguel Carlos also dances (beautifully), but once again I say an outside eye crafting the overall shape, conducting the overarching rhythmic quality, and simply trimming the fat, is indispensable.

Candongueiro explores the lives and narratives of those using the most common means of transportation in Angola, the candongueiro. South African audiences might recognise similarities to our disreputable public transport – taxi violence between competitors, unroadworthy taxi crashes, reports of sexual assaults, bus driver strikes, Cape Town trains set alight, the Gautrain only accessible to those who can afford it… Public transport has millions of people around the country relying on it to get them to their jobs. Yet whose hands hold a tight grip onto deciding how these systems operate? In Candongueiro, the focus is on the taxi. We are shown different people’s experiences in and around it, but it feels there’s no further probing into the power structures that create and keep unsafe public transport going.

I learned that choreographer Miguel Carlos trained in dance at TUT (Tshwane University of Technology) then took what he learnt back home. This explains the familiarity in style; there was much of the South African aesthetic we’ve come to recognise in contemporary dance. I had wanted to watch the international company to see something wholly different, but that’s my own minor issue. In the later vignettes, the company expresses their own style, with some bounce, some popping, gestural work, and a splash of breakdance. Their ownership shows through in these parts. More of that, please.

But, I found the work untidy and dragging in places. The intentionally unison sections were most of the time, out of time. Unison work can be impactful and enhance a dance’s purpose… but if using the device, it has to be in sync. Because the cast were operating at different levels of technical proficiency it effected the pictorial composition of the choreography. The men were excellent movers but one woman (in red) was two steps behind almost throughout, and so was never completing her movements… which distracted and detracted from any potential impact of the movement language.

When the scenes weren’t played out literally, like the assault scene where a woman is ‘kicked’ to the ground and then a man roughly scoops at and eats a paw-paw; or the bullying scene where a girl is surrounded and laughed at “ha-ha-ha”… I found myself asking “why”. Why is everyone raising their legs behind them? Why is that jump inserted there? Why is the soundtrack all classical cello or piano or orchestral pieces? I feel a few more whys were necessary in the conceptual process to marry the ideas to the practice.

Candongueiro finished its brief run at this year’s festival today. Perhaps we’ll see the Palesa Dance Company back sometime with more focus on what makes them unique, as they clearly have a passion to share their voices and we’d like to see them doing just that.

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