Seven Ways to Say Goodbye: Bearing witness

‘Jabu.’ A name. The only word uttered on the stage of Seven Ways to Say Goodbye is simply spoken. It is delicately given voice by a dancer who looks behind another, walking off into the darkening lights. ‘Jabu.’ The sound is not said to mean anything. It is just a name. The name of a dancer who has just exited the stage. It is smooth, short and clipped, as though there is nothing really to be said. The soft call reminiscent of the everyday ways we call after our loved ones. We say, ‘Ma’, and then come up with a reason afterwards. Jabu does not turn.

The thing about death is that it is final. The life of a body moves as though in a straight line, birth to death. When Jabu Siphika leaves the stage, they leave. Entrances and exits in rows of rectangular light shafts are perhaps the only straight lines in Seven Ways to Say Goodbye. But this elegy moves to the rhythm of grief rather than dying. Bodies swirl in endless circles. They are rotations of joints contracted and extended paying witness to the fact of mourning as a cycle and not a linear process. In this work choreographer Lliane Loots constructs a list of seven observations made in Durban during the Covid pandemic, the endemic poverty following multiple floods, the terror of the political and social unrest with looting and burning leading to more than 330 people dead.

Death is final, but mourning is a cycle. The piece begins with a single performer spiraling in a grey-blue Japanese-styled dress over large black pants. Ludovici Einaudi’s ‘Solo’ plays. In the long shaft of light another dancer joins in a navy-purple dress of the same modern Japanese cut, and they orbit each other, spinning in tightly controlled circles of arms and torsos. They continue in whirls only their technical training could allow them to perform without a drop of sweat. On their knees they straighten and bend their arms from the floor towards the heavens, cupping the insubstantial air as though releasing it and gathering it back. The gesture has the sensibility of a detached prayer – a wheel of asking and circling back to asking again, without stop. There seem to be no answer expected.

The initial pairing stop to witness the second pair, and the second and third pairs do the same as another pair enters and begins their rotation. They could be nurses in a clinical ward. The aesthetic is so ascetic.

Once all four pairs are in an ensemble swaying and whirring in different shades of blues and greys, they could also be the dead spilled by torrents of water. If the cool blue lighting symbolizes water depths, the dancers could be embodiments of our national subconscious. There is a communal call to the things Seven Ways to Say Goodbye presents. ‘Jabu’, is a name, and perhaps it could be any name, your name, their name, our name. A call receiving no response.

On a large-scale projector creating an immersive background for the elegiac dance, Loots types, as though in thought, amending some words as we watch, ‘1. Things to provoke memory’ until, ‘7. Things that are precious’. As number 1 proceeds, the dancers who witnessed one another and their partners turn to face the audience. It is unassuming, the gaze. But it is direct. It seems they are asking questions of us “Are we here? Are we present to this moment? Are we heeding the call to pay witness to the dead?”

The cycles of grief become frustrating to watch. The nonchalant manner in which Seven Ways to Say Goodbye performs its act, its call to witness, becomes exasperating when searching for the grief to move forward and out of the cyclical pattern. The music, sourced from recorded songs, gloss over some evocative choreography where bodies are carried in oddly frozen shapes and multiple magnificent movements. But there is no spectacle to be observed in this piece. This appears to be an ethical choice in the manner of witnessing that the Flatfoot Theatre Company holds under Loots’ choreography. When Max Richter’s* track ‘Solo’ plays a reprise, it is easy to roll one’s eyes and wish for that better score. Then the projector becomes a black-and-white photo album. Precious austerity. It catches critique with its bare humanity. This work is about people. People died.

With a touch of watery lighting swirling on the walls next to the audience, the piece performs its final call to witness, by immersing everyone into this memory in the subconscious of South Africa, haunting us.

*Max Richter’s work was initially referred to as that of Ludovici Einaudi.

Choreography: Lliane Loots (in collaboration with the dancers)
Dancers: Sifiso Khumalo, Jabu Siphika, Zinhle Nzama, Yaseen Manuel, Mthoko Mkhwanazi, Siseko Dube, Ndumiso ‘Digga’ Dube and Sbonga Ndlovu.
* also acknowledged is Kristi-Leigh Gresse who was part of the original cast but who is not performing in this iteration of the work.
Lighting and Audio-visual design: Wesley Maherry
Costume Design: Greg King

2 thoughts on “Seven Ways to Say Goodbye: Bearing witness

  1. Thanks for the insightful review! Just as a note that the first and final music was composed by Max Richter and not Ludovici Einaudi. It sort of matters?

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