Mayhem & Gula Matari: powerful double bill launches Dance Umbrella 2018

Vincent Mantsoe (right) and Gregory Maqoma (left) in Gula Matari, on the opening night of the Dance Umbrella. Photo credit: John Hogg.

The human world. Fraught, ugly, frantic.

The natural world. Serene, beautiful, tranquil.

When and why did we separate? Have we, really?

A wisely chosen double bill launched the 30th edition of the Dance Umbrella last night. Gregory Vuyani Maqoma’s Mayhem and Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe’s Gula Matari are evidently contrary in style and content… but work complimentarily in allowing us viewers to consider our lives, our place in the world, and perhaps our concerns (or vision) for the future.

Mayhem is the human world where a stark emptiness is created by a constantly full stage of fourteen bodies. Gula Matari is the natural world, where an open space permeates with life through the performance of only one body. Until later when he’s joined by four more – life begets life.

The backdrops illustrate this too. Mayhem’s naked, black, exposed brick wall sporadically contains tall strips of white light – at times creating the effect of crooked, overbearing skyscrapers, in a fractured and dark cityscape.

Gula Matari’s backdrop is a magnificent tree composed of countless overlapping small leaves in blues and greens, filling the stage’s rear wall. The magical lighting effect might have deceived my eyes, but the tree appeared to be in flux, flickering and glowing, shifting and growing.

Mayhem isn’t ‘about’ Joburg or city life – it’s more complex than that – but descending into the City of Gold yesterday morning, the plane passed over abandoned quarries, long straight highways gashed into the land, over the suburbs marked by tree-lined streets and rectangles of blue in every garden, and over the areas where twenty small tin boxes fit into the same plot size of those aforementioned pockets of privilege.

Visiting Johannesburg is always exciting, yes, but accompanying that is a perpetual held-breath state… It’s in the air here. Maybe it’s the pollution. The electrified atmosphere is palpable to us who have lived in small Eastern Cape towns our entire adult lives.

And so, Mayhem can be about Jozi… about any human settlement across the world, about human relationships, about humans in nature, or rather, not in it.

The bodies on stage are pained and tense. Exaggerated gestures make these people almost grotesque in their interactions. One man continually twists his tongue out of his mouth, another cannot stop an incessant shudder up and down his spine, bodies recoil from each other, a woman notices her leg lifted seemingly of its own volition and she tries to push it down again… in unison bodies rise to reach for something, then relent and slowly sink backwards toward the ground.

The Vuyani dancers impressively manipulate their tools (their limbs and presences on stage) to create almost indefinable shapes as they seem to come out of their bodies, attempting to escape this uncertain and maddening world.

Gula Matari premiered as a solo by Vincent Mantsoe at the 1992 Dance Umbrella. 26 years later, it remains timeless. How has such a seemingly simple work endured for so long?

Probably because it’s not that simple. Of course, the viewer must imbue the performance with meaning, must hear what the work says to them. This viewer saw life cycles, and animalism, and the spiritual melding of humanness with the natural world.

Before nearing Joburg’s sprawl, I watched the rolling mountains and deep crevices of Lesotho unfolding below. This powerful place of unfathomable geological time is a reminder of humanity’s fleeting existence against the backdrop of eternity.

Gula Matari somehow encapsulates this.

With a spellbinding performance, Mantsoe transforms himself into different birds: a curious pigeon clocks us suspiciously, an ostrich buries his head, a flamingo wades through water, a bird of paradise performs his mating dance, a chicken scratches in the dirt. It is masterful transformation – every movement, every moment considered.

Is this piece purely a spectacular display of power, control, and precisely articulated movement? It is that… but it is also a porthole. In witnessing the dancers’ connections to something outside of themselves, we too are entranced and can access something intangible or inexplicable.

Perhaps in this double bill, Mayhem shows us the ashes, and Gula Matari reveals the phoenix.

Dance Umbrella’s 30th edition opened with a phenomenal bang. A treat for audiences last night was the privilege of experiencing Mantsoe and Maqoma on stage together. They will not be on stage again tonight, but as Maqoma today wrote: “History will be made … when a baton is passed to a new generation of dancers – Vincent special solo will be performed by Lulu Mlangeni as the first black women to perform Gula and will be joined by Vuyani Company Members.”

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