BWW Reviews: Jazzart Dancers on Top of Their Game in WAITING FOR RAIN
It may be Jazzart's 40th anniversary this year, but the distinct sense of style that is the trademark of their work is alive and well in WAITING FOR RAIN, a revival of the company's full length piece from two years ago. The raw and obvious passion that is perhaps the defining trait of Jazzart dancers is also still very much a part of what makes the company's blend of contemporary and African dance so compelling. Even when semiotics collide in WAITING FOR RAIN, as they do too often in this loosely conceptualised programme of dance, the performers give it their all, which goes a long way towards masking the flaws that ultimately lie with the direction of the piece.
WAITING FOR RAIN is made up of a montage of dances, exploring - the programme notes tell us - the rain as a symbol for cleansing and rebirth. It is a little more complicated than that, because WAITING FOR RAIN is actually about the absence of its central symbol. The dances, when they engage with this theme, show us that in the absence of rain, life goes on. People bathe, they do their laundry and they live life with a sense of hope and expectation, tempered with the realities of their trials and tribulations. When the rain finally comes, their existential wrangling is washed away, replenishing the spirit as it goes out to face the world once more.
The choreography of the individual pieces, by Jacqueline Manyaapelo, Mziyanda Mancam, Ina Wichterich-Mogane and Christopher Kindo, is all top notch: expressive, challenging and emotive. While the pieces are mostly constructed to showcase the ensemble and their unity, there are moments where the talents of individual dancers come to the fore, with partnerships and groupings that unity to this episodically structured mood piece.
Highlights of WAITING FOR RAIN included an inventive piece of chorography with a washing line, which became the strings of a puppeteer when threaded through a dancer's jacket; a dance piece for the men, who performed in pairs of metal wash basins; the closing of the first act, in which the women danced in and around a water-filled steel bath; and the finale, which took on a ritualistic feel as the dancers seemed to compel the rain to fall from the skies.
Where things start to unravel is when the gap between theme and episode widens. The first dance in WAITING FOR RAIN, for example, opens with a pantsula-inspired dance piece, with the full company sitting on benches and shuffling their feet while each dancer takes the stage for a few counts to strut his or her stuff. The piece is high on energy and it is a huge crowdpleaser. It is a fantastic dance. But it has little to do with the ideas that are meant to define WAITING FOR RAIN as a whole. Similarly, the extended deconstruction of ballroom styles in the second act seems distanced from the central themes of show. It is also a brilliant dance in its own right, with some thoughtful commentary on gender roles in dance, but does it really belong here?
Perhaps they do. Manyaapelo, who directed the piece, says that WAITING FOR RAIN is also about getting up and doing, about the individual becoming a rainmaker in society. But to accept that as a justification for including the two dances mentioned above, one has to be satisfied that activity constitutes action. As there is no sense of the personae embodied by the dancers in those pieces being an agency for social rejuvenation, the reasoning is tenuous. Manyaapelo needs to develop a more focused eye as a director, I think, and a more ruthless approach as an editor.
The dancers perform to a blend of recorded and live music. Original compositions created especially for WAITING FOR RAIN by Tandile Mandela and Mthwakazi are performed by the Tandile Mandela Indigenous Orchestra, led by Mandela herself, and by Mthwakazi. These pieces interpret traditional African music in a contemporary framework and are often lush and hypnotic, a bridge between the audience and the dancers that creates a mesmerising aural backdrop for the dance seen on stage.
Linda Mandela designed the set and costumes for WAITING FOR RAIN. The stage was stark, with the downstage area left open for dance and a platform upstage on which the musicians performed. A red stage cloth is drawn over the stage in numbers where water is used in a perfect example of functional design: although its purpose is clear, the cloth also neatly shifts the mood in those numbers. The costume plot is well designed throughout the show, creating visual unity when required and emphasising individuality when it needs to come to the fore.
There is some irony in presenting a revival of WAITING FOR RAIN without interrogating more fully the link between the theme of the show and the dances of which it is comprised. It is almost as if the piece itself is waiting to be washed with the rain of rebirth and re-creation. That said, the dancing itself is excellent: the cast members - which includes company members Adam Malebo, Amy-Kay Klaasen, Elvis Sibeko and Sinazo Bokolo-Bruns supported by 15 Jazzart trainees - acquit themselves well, contriving a range of emotionally moving physical imagery. Watching them feels like watching dancers who are on top of their game. And that's as good as any a reason for going to watch WAITING FOR RAIN in its current season at the Artscape Theatre.