Confined: Irrevocably shifted

Lulu Mlangeni and Charleston van Rooyen in Confined.

For those fortunate to have never experienced it (which is far too few of us), it is difficult to imagine the horror of domestic abuse. What it must be like when the home, which we are wired to view – which we need – as a place of safety, the secure base from which we act in the world, is a place of conflict, violence and the threat of violence. It undermines the very fabric of our being. Including the perpetrator. In fact it appears it is the perpetrator, most often a man, who is the one person most seldom able to heal. Who, when the horror has come to and end – whether it be after weeks, months, or years – crumbles piece by piece in a slow suicide of the soul. The perpetrator, and sometimes, most tragically, the children.

The death of the perpetrator and the emotional destruction of the child is spectacularly shown through the Windybrow Arts Centre’s dance work, Confined.

Despite the ugliness of the subject, Confined is a rare work of beauty, containing movement that moves us to tears, gasps, and a slack-jawed wonder.

After watching a couple of shows which might be described as ‘heavy’, I got that sinking feeling as I walked into the Ramolau Makhene Theatre at The Market. A maze was marked on the stage with white tape and upon it, right at the front, was Lulu Mlangeni with thick rope bound to her arms and ankles, held like reins by two men upstage. Connotations of slavery and lynching, underscored by a dramatic soundtrack of a rising storm. Right at the back, in semi darkness on a stepped platform, four men in suits appear to be impassive observers. They later turn out to be the iComplete a capella group who provide an astounding vocal soundtrack throughout the performance.

But for now, as the storm rises, the two men start pulling on the ropes, jerking Lulu this way and that, threatening to topple her or dislocate a limb, brings to mind horrific images of slaves being quartered. The unthinkable violence we are capable of inflicting on one another. The men inexorably draw her in, pulling against her struggles, until she is exhausted, downed. It is heavy. But the mastery of movement also makes it compelling.

And then Sunnyboy Motau enters beneath a low-brimmed fedora, overcoat and hard-pulled cigarette. Menace in a suit. The ensuing dance of violence a breathtaking show of choreography and timing. The kind of movement you no longer watch, but become part of, forgetting to breathe, exhaling only when the dancers pause. The dance scenes between what I perceived to be mother and son, and later, son and father, taking us right back in, into the spaces between the grab, the hold, the push and the pull. The desire, the fear, the intimacy and the anguish. While the wails, the sobs, the keening and the shouts emanate from the dark, unmoving observers.

Confined is apparently inspired by the struggles of Winnie Mandela, and thus more political than personal, but part of the beauty of dance is that the interpretation is subjective, and I wasn’t the only one who saw this as a finely wrought work about domestic violence, the ropes symbolic of patriarchy that continues to oppress outside the home. Only the neckties made of knotted rope worn by the iCollective quartet – which we only see at the end when they step forward to take a bow – indicate a broader political statement with their reminder of the hangman’s knot used against anti-apartheid activists.

Yet nowhere is there the didacticism of telling. Rather, Confined is transportive, moving us into a space of active feeling and understanding. It does not load us with the issues of violence and oppression, whether state orchestrated or domestic. It involves us, slips beneath our defences to shift us emotionally and intellectually so that, when the lights go down, we are changed. We can no longer fail to imagine the pain, yet are released.

Confined is presented by the Windybrow Arts Centre at the Arts Incubator’s Trade Fair taking place at The Market Theatre precinct this week. It will be on stage again on Saturday at 10am.

Performers: Lulu Mlangeni, Sunnyboy Motau, Charleston van Rooyen and Smangaliso Ngwenya.

Choreography: Lulu Mlangeni

A capella soundtrack: iComplete

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