Coloured Swans 1: Khoiswan: what’s between black & white?

Moya Michael in Coloured Swans 1: Khoiswan. Photo credit: John Hogg.

Coloured. Coon. Café latte. Half-caste. Half-baked. Half-breed. Hottentot.

Not black. Not white. Right?

Choreographer and dancer Moya Michael, in collaboration with visual and performance artist Tracey Rose, both with Khoisan ancestry, pick apart the history of the “vacuous” (so stated by Michael’s uncle) and colonial-given, collective term ‘coloured’, in the work Coloured Swans 1: Khoiswan.

This is a deeply complex work and subject.

What do you think, when you hear “First Nation”? Remember the four Khoisan leaders who walked 1200km from Port Elizabeth to the Union Buildings in December last year to demand recognition for their language and their claim as the true indigenous people of South Africa. And now, the highly emotional subject of land reclamation plasters the headlines again. Who should get the land? And how far back should we go? 1913, as current legislation dictates? 1800? 1652?

Michael tackles this head on. A recording of her uncle plays: “African nationalists… those who don’t want to admit southern Africa belongs to the Khoi”. The recording plays with the stage in near-darkness. Significantly, Michael isn’t visible to us.

Khoiswan is strikingly layered and textured. Using the tools of text, sound, movement, and visuals, Michael and Rose interlace historical knowledge, a subtle critique of postcolonial discourse, and body politics of exoticism and eroticism.

Michael, in silhouette and apparently naked, shifts into changing positions. Against a bright backlight flashing rhythmically to a bassline of strong clicking – evocative of Khoisan languages – we recognise the well-known image of Saartjie Baartman. Michael contorts: her bum made prominent. Displayed. Exposed. Exotified.

Khoiswan is a series of vignettes, carefully meditative in tone.

When she dances, Michael’s movement is crisp and captivating. With the subtlest hints she includes iconic but brief flashes of Swan Lake choreography… a nod to her classical ballet training, the dance form historically reserved for a white elite; and perhaps a nod to the form that demands or favours a ‘white’ body, tall and thin with no bosom or bottom… bodies not like Saartjie Baartman’s.

But in between the vignettes, Michael is personable and jokey; we’re kept aware she is performing and that we’re watching a framed set of performances. This adds a strange quality to the work – we’re being let in, but she decides just how far. She comments on one scene which didn’t quite go to plan, “well that was a disaster” … she draws us in with her funny familiarity.

In what appears to be a light-hearted scene, Michael ‘interviews’ Aunty Mil, who asks her “how can you come in front of the people with your hair like that?” With one humorous, brief statement, Michael says so much. Hair. This stuff that keeps our scalps warm… has been used as a weapon of control for too, too long.

Notoriously (and absurdly), apartheid’s pencil test determined race categorisation for those who were ‘questionable’ in race classification… mostly, coloureds. For those of you unfamiliar with this grotesque piece of apartheid history: a pencil was ‘combed’ through the hair and if it fell out easily… lucky you! You could be classified white. If the pencil stayed in your hair, you were classified black.

And today? Systemic colonisation subsists through the ‘beauty’ industry’s message to young coloured and black girls that smearing caustic chemicals on their heads (containing developing brains)… will make them ‘pretty’. Thankfully, we have stories like that of the learners of Pretoria Girls’ High who in 2016 protested discriminatory hair regulations at school, simply asking for the right to ‘wear’ their natural hair. How about… enough policing of girls and women’s appearances altogether? Thanks.

Coloured Swans 1: Khoiswan is intelligent, stirring and challenging. But Moya Michael’s natural performance makes it easily accessible, and although it hasn’t been stated enough here, her extraordinary movement is majestic and must be experienced.

Coloured Swans 1: Khoiswan is commissioned by Dance Umbrella 2018 and supported by the Government of Flanders.

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