Initiation begins with violence: it’s sounds, screams, contorted movements. The perpetrators are not seem but the victim is lying on a grey and white striped blanket similar to the traditional Xhosa Abakwetha blanket.
The work is choreographed and performed by the Is’Thatha Dance Project, founded by
Olwethu Sotiya in 2019, and this performance with five dancers tells the story of a young man called upon to undergo an initiation to free himself from haunting demons. The process of passing on is indicated by a swift change in costume as half-naked bodies are shrouded in brownish cloaks foregrounding the stages of lamentation, transformation and consolation.
Classical folkloric sound with a deep melodic structure morph into sharp edges of the bagpipe. The effect is an aura filled with tension and compression. The dancers’ skill and passion are awe-inspiring, particularly in the call and response segments where greater cohesion and intimacy exists between the performers.
The overall performance is charged and spirited, punctuated by beautifully quiet moments in music, pace, technique and atmosphere. The use of symbolism is isolated —The ankh, an initiation blanket, a cloak, interspersed tapping sounds, and a brief recurrence of uncontrollable laughter — yet remains powerful enough to draw the performance into an unsettling, mystic and unknowable world.
The closing scene completes the work with the words — Ima taima, Uzongiphula umlenze man (loosely translated; wait, old man, you’ll break my leg) — and at that moment viewers are returned yet again to the weird intimacy of violence and violent spirits.
Initiation is available to view as part of the National Arts Festival Fringe programme until 31 August, clickthrough here.
Photograph: Initiation livestream from Makhanda by Mark Wessels
Artistic Director: Olwethu Sotiya
Choreographer: Olwethu Sotiya, Lubabalo Pupu and cast
Artists: Mbulelo Mzazi, Sandisile Madama, Monwabisi Bence, Bongani Vellem, Lubabalo Pupu
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