Scars: Gender, bashed

Lead dancer Tsulile Binda enters upstage right with slow magnificence, dressed in a glittering silver gown, distored by cords trailing from her waist. It emerges the cords are attached to bodies who emerge as she drags them on behind her. And so, in Scars, produced by Durban’s The Playhouse Dance Residency, we see the stereotype of the glamorous woman comes with its burdens (six of them in this case). The gown’s sleeves are also far to long, so there is a point in Tsulile’s movements where the sleeves slap around her back, similar to the sleeves of a straightjacket.

She then pulls these semi-inert bodies toward her, each in turn, and performs an embrace before rolling them back out again, which may indicate the attachment women might have for their burdens even thought they need to be dragged through life.

But she loosens them. Freed, they go on to perform a frenetic dance of their own, men moving with men, women moving with women, often melding together to the point where it is difficult to distinguish limb from torso, only later mixing it up.

The dance is frenetic, and almost anguished. As if, with no tethering, these bodies don’t quite know what to do with themselves. Dancer Leagan Peffer moves from anguish to what appears to be malevolent anger as she approaches Tsulile who by now has gently ditched her gown and tethers in a heap.

Then in a shift to tenderness the figuratively naked Tsulile is dressed. Wrapped up in the layered flowing genderless garments all the dancers are wearing. Only then, having moved into what may be an un-gendered state, does she return to her gown and tethers, only this time piling them on her head as wrap symbolic of the headwear sported by African women.

In the end they all strip down to flesh-coloured pants and tops and meld together in one orgiastic heap, flowing into the future.

Not that the choreography and symbolism made much sense to me while watching the performance in the Market Theatre’s Ramolau Makhene theatre last night. Part of the reason was there were no programme notes for the Arts Incubators’ Trade Fair showing.

But a quick google shows that in Scars, choreographer Lulu Mlangeni is exploring the negative effects of gender stereotyping and attempts to “tap into the energy of unlimited human imagination” as a means to sweep these stereotypes aside.

While I, and possibly quite a few of the audience who filled the steeply raked stands, were absorbed by the accomplished and committed movement performed within an original and at times daring choreography, not to mention the beauty of the cross and downlighting by Oliver Hauser, we were also a bit nonplussed.

A bit of research and putting some of the main elements of the performance down clarifies the interpretation but this is one of those performances where a couple of clues enhance the viewing. I can’t say my interpretive confusion was helped by the oversized rope ladders hanging above the dancers. They are visually arresting but also serve to arrest the vision. They are not even touched by the dancers, not to mention hang unused. They also provide no clue as to what the work is about, and are thus redundant. In a steeply raked theatre such as the Ramolau Makhene, they also obstruct the sight lines for those seated in the back rows.

Other than that, Scars is another splendid achievement by Lulu Mlangeni. Go see it at the Arts Fair showcase tomorrow, but check the programme notes, and don’t sit at the back.

Scars is performed at 12h15 on the Market Theatre’s Ramolao Makhene stage tomoroow (Sat 22 Sept) as part of the Arts Incubator’s Trade Fair. Click here for details and bookings.

Performers: Tsulile Binda, Leagan Peffer, Lebohang Mduli, Kristy Gresse, Mzamo Kunene, Sandile Mkhize.

Choreography: Lulu Mlangeni

Lighting: Oliver Hauser

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