Sabela: What’s in a name?

Thandazile Radebe, the 2017 winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist award for Dance. (Image supplied)

Who are you? The automatic, instinctual reply is your name.

How much of ‘us’ is within our name? How much history saturates your name, your surname? It identifies where you come from, which cultural heritage you ‘belong’ to. Radebe, Nyanga, Kobeli, McFarlane, Makhene… what do you see when reading these names?

What about Ndlovu, Jantjies, Moonsamy, van der Venter, or Roberson?

Thandazile Radebe, Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance this year gives us Sabela, an intriguing, brave, bold new work, that asks questions about what your name affords you, what your name restricts for you, and in a gently handled approach, asks why.

Radebe’s choreographic signature in Sabela reveals her vision for an unconventional and exploratory critique of subject matter through dance. It was a fascinating experience at her opening night yesterday. Having gone by the name Sonia over the years I’ve followed her work, the personal is deeply enmeshed in the work – but she manages to take this personal starting point and grow it to something inclusive of us all. It’s well done.

The stark stage opens back to the full recess, creating a long distance between us and the performers. They’re removed from us. Their gestures are pedestrian. They queue. Home Affairs is invoked through soundscape but this can be any bureaucratic process we go through – traffic department, clinics, voting stations – “name and surname please”. The distance between us and them (these two words projected huge on opposite theatre walls throughout the piece) speaks to the disconnect, to the distance between human connections made by reducing us to mere numbers.

In Sabela, Radebe reclaims the human, the personal.

Internal exploration of the self leads to an interesting embodiment of dance vocabulary. And each individual’s embodiment is given importance – which reads well within the concept. Identity, your name, your self stands independent, is significant.

Phumlani Nyanga (a sensational mover) is quite contained in his space. Touch is important. Hands move over face, enclose head, explode from the belly, he tilts a hip in a sexy pose. Thabo Kobeli moves like liquid across the space. Traversing the width of the stage in a moment, he shifts perceptions of space and weight. He is incredible to watch. In Radebe’s solos, she uses isolation and staccato and quickly rebounding moves to punctuate strained and sustained movements. It’s a feat of technique and she makes it look so effortless.

Their choreography, the dance vocabulary, is experimentation in response to the theme, which is refreshing and engaging. The personal investment resounds – Radebe stays true to devised work, not imposing choreography onto other bodies but allowing personal discovery.

Sabela is strongly conceptual – it’s clear everything is carefully considered. Fascinating imagery begs questioning.

In the beautiful soundscape, a clock ticks. Radebe recreates a clock: around a crouching Nyanga, she moves backwards, round and round, her arm extended. Is this the the march of time through history, life passing by, or the waiting we’re doing for something to change? Radebe instructs the audience, “if you like your name stand up; if you’ve ever been made to feel like a foreigner sit down; raise your hand high, claim your name; if you have a criminal record, sit down”. Your name dictates where you can go, what you can do, and everything you have done stays a part of you. Later, the trio dances in shadow, their silhouettes all we see against the stark, barren stage – they’re faceless, nameless, representative of the people society ignores or displaces.

Thematically the current flows from scene to scene, but at times it feels the overarching golden thread isn’t there to bring it all together. Clearer transitions, clearer connections to link the scenes, and link the dancers’ solos (how do they relate to each other?) felt unresolved some of the time. We see glimpses of it… but perhaps the disjointed and episodic structure is an expression through form of the relevant questions about a disjointed nation and fractured identities..?

Sabela had me engaging with the concept, questioning the form, appreciating the art, and with it Radebe proves deserving of the SBYA award.

— Sarah Roberson

Sabela is next on tonight 04 July at 18.00, and again tomorrow. Information and bookings here.

Choreographer: Thandazile Radebe
Dramaturg and Musical Director: Nhlanhla Mahlangu
Musicians: Matthew McFarlane and Tlale Makhene
Lighting and Set Designer: Wilhelm Disbergen
Costume and Prop Designer: Noluthando Lobese Moropa

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