A Thousand Shepherds by Cape Dance Company. Photo by Helena Fagan.
The other 299 audience members are likely to disagree with me here. I did not enjoy the Cape Dance Company’s show today.
They do what they do and they do it well. They draw in the crowds because they deliver what they promise: great dancers dancing. But that’s irksome because it’s all so safe, and those artists who are working to shift artistic and social and political boundaries (their own and those of the art form) aren’t drawing the crowds… Why? Because one might actually have to think in their shows?
The Cape Dance Company (CDC) is on the main this year, after 21 years on the fringe. They present a double bill, A Thousand Shepherds and Enemy Behind the Gates, interspersed with a solo by Mthuthuzeli November called Convivencia.
November’s solo was the highlight of the morning. A former CDC member, he currently lives and works in London as a performer for Ballet Black. His technique is flawless. Simply watching the athleticism and precision he embodies is wowing. Doubtless, he could have presented a big showy number to showcase his talent and skill. Instead, the solo was tender and gentle, and reduced the huge Great Hall into an intimate sharing of playfulness. In his 10 minutes, November won the hearts of all in the crowd. In a recent interview, he spoke about how dance is an opportunity to communicate without speaking, and in Convivencia, we got the message. He’s a young South African to watch and hopefully in time he’ll return home for longer, to bring his choreographic voice to SA dance.
Both CDC pieces are re-staged works. A Thousand Shepherds was choreographed by Spanish/UK Jose Agudo in 2014, and Enemy Behind the Gates by American Christopher Huggins in 2001.
A Thousand Shepherds looks at spirituality and there was some interesting choreographic language used. Dressed in grey and evocative of monks, the group moves as one, performing various rituals. They use canon to reveal people’s gullibility – as the leader shifts behaviour, one by one they follow suit. I rather enjoyed one image where the Christian cross was abstractly but aggressively repeated until each dancer on stage added themselves to the group. The missionaries in Africa sprung to mind – relentlessly and ruthlessly bringing religiosity to the heathens. There was also good lighting used throughout, adding a mysteriousness to the subject matter, and in one particular scene a bright light shines on a priestly figure as the others worship her.
I distinctly liked Enemy Behind the Gates a lot less. Mainly because I couldn’t get past why the men got to wear slacks under their uniformed-styled costume and the women all had bare legs. It had no relevance to the subject, the choreography, I don’t think. There were many duets; but all appeared to be men lifting women and flinging them about. If there’s an enemy anywhere in sight, it’s the pandering patriarchal undertones in this type of choreography – highly irritating in a country (and world) that so desperately needs to bolster women’s liberation.
Overall, there are a few other reasons for my disappointment in the CDC show, which mainly revolve around the style of dance.
There’s no challenge. This isn’t to say that the actual moves aren’t difficult to perform – rigorous dance training from a young age is what makes the dancers able to pull off all those difficult jumps and twists. But it stops there. They play it safe with knowing what the audience will enjoy: impressive unison, dancing on time to the beat, high energy, fast paced… entertainment. So audiences can walk out going “sjoe but they’re good, hey?”
Resultant from this style is the case of the mechanical body. The dancers are disconnected, they’ve been instructed to show how intense the “feelings” are, so they glare out and about them with forced concentration. It’s a bit disconcerting. There’s little nuance in their performance then, with no visceral connection to the work, or any truthful intention. (A few lead dancers are exempt here.)
I would never discourage anyone from seeing dance in general. It’s hard enough to get audiences to something that doesn’t have a clear narrative or a neat explanation of what to think and feel. Cape Dance Company is probably sold out but if you can get a ticket, go for Mthuthuzeli November.
– Sarah Roberson
The Cape Dance Company’s double bill is next on tonight (02 July) at 20.00 at the Great Hall. Click here for more info & bookings.