2013 South African Theatre Retrospectives: Dance and Physical Theatre

As the year draws to a close, it is time to wrap up our South African Theatre Retrospectives here at BroadwayWorld, with a look at some of the dance and physical theatre productions that appeared on stage in 2013. This is the fifth retrospective column, with four earlier columns having been focused on new South African plays; revivals of classic South African plays and South African productions of international plays; stand-up comedy, variety and storytelling and musicals, opera and cabaret.

Dance, in its many forms, appeared on many stages around the country. In Gauteng, Joburg Ballet mounted a season that included DON QUIXOTE, CINDERELLA and THE NUTCRACKER, while in the Western Cape, Cape Town City Ballet performances included a new ballet, THE TIN SOLDIER, as well as classics SLEEPING BEAUTY and CAMILLE.

Robin Malan, the owner and manager of Junkets, an imprint that specialises in the publication of new South African plays, found this last-mentioned ballet, featuring choreography by Veronica Paeper that was restaged here by Elizabeth Triegaardt, to be a 'really memorable experience'. He continues: 'Seven years after retiring, Tracy Li's comeback was nothing less than triumphant. She was sublime in this role. As soon as she is onstage, your eyes never leave her. Of course, she is a superlative dancer, but what makes her performance of this role so special is that she is also an actress. Everything about her - her eyes, the tilt of her head, her lips, the position of her shoulders - tells you exactly what is going on inside Camille at that moment. I say you never take you eyes off her, but that is not entirely true, because Cape Town City Ballet have a star in their midst. Li chose a 22 year old relative newcomer to Cape Town City Ballet, ex-London, Jesse Milligan, to partner her. And he is wonderful! Grace, poise, fluency - and also an actor. His air of disdain on entering Madame Flora's salon was palpable; his joy and elation in his love for Camille made one's heart feel light; and his terrible sadness at her sliding into death was heart-wrenching. Together, their various pas de deux were wondrous to behold. The equation Truth + Beauty = Art was never more applicable. The only adequate response was tears.'

Contemporary dance was also well represented on stage, with presentations such as WAITING FOR RAIN from Jazzart and CADENCE from the Cape Dance Company. CADENCE, in particular, was a landmark production, showcasing the Cape Dance Company's exquisite dancers in a series of diverse and engaging pieces.

Physical theatre was represented this year in full scale productions such as the First Physical Theatre's CELLARDOOR, which deconstructed traditional concepts of beauty, and Magnet Theatre's VOICES MADE NIGHT, which physicalized the stories of Mozambican writer, Mia Couto. The two productions were like bookends for the two divergent approaches to physical theatre in South Africa in the contrasting methods employed to explore the various relationships between the physical body and verbal language.

Perhaps one of the most interesting concepts to be realised on South African stages this year was URBAN DEATH, a co-production of Cape Town's The Mechanicals and Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group from Los Angeles. Directed by Jana Wimer, URBAN DEATH is a live theatrical horror experience, part sketch theatre and part physical theatre.

Director, theatre-maker and production manager Greg Karvellas - who also runs a production company, Dark Red, with Louis Viljoen - reflected on why URBAN DEATH was so effective: 'I haven't seen anything like this before, simple, effective and totally entertaining. South African theatre, in my opinion, is too concerned with itself and the issues it is trying to explore and I think audiences often feels left behind. URBAN DEATH is the first production this year that I felt completely invited to. Maybe it was the simple complexity of the way it was performed or the subject matter which is so accessible - either way it welcomed me with open arms and took me on a ride. Not all of it was pleasant, but it was always entertaining. And that, for me, is the purpose of theatre, to entertain, the educating, the social responsibility, the "art" of creating theatre is all important but none is more than the enjoyment of the audience and the simple act of telling a story.'

The much smaller in scale, transformative one-man shows that are a staple of the South African physical theatre equation were also readily seen on stage this year. One of the masters of the form, Andrew Buckland, was back with a new show, LAUGH THE BUFFALO. Dealing with the controversial issue of state security, the play followed the exploits of a secret police agent who is sent on a mission to hunt down and contain the damage caused by a whistle-blower. Arts publicist, Christine Skinner, thought the show was 'awe-inspiring': 'Buckland makes us think, laugh, gasp, cry and marvel at his phenomenal skill. Every twitch or flick of his body was imbued with meaning. A particular highlight of the year.'

Simon Cooper, the founder of KBT Productions and co-owner of the Kalk Bay Theatre in Cape Town, also enjoyed two shows that make use of elements like physical dexterity, multiple characters and vocal transformation. The first was Gaëtan Schmid's THE BELGIAN, which he said offered 'amazing insight into what it is like to be Belgian and what it is like to be Belgian in South Africa' and the second was GOING GOODING, which saw Malcom Gooding play two dozen characters from the history of South Africa's golden era of broadcasting. Of GOING GOODING, Cooper said, "It was not a high profile piece, but was a wonderfully nostalgic, gentle humoured look at 45 years of broadcasting in South Africa with different political parties running the SABC during that period.'

Physical theatre and site specific work often go hand in hand and one production that married various arts forms to tremendous effect was Nicola Hanekom's multi-disciplinary production, LAND VAN SKEDELS. Actress and theatre maker, Janna Ramos-Violante, who also runs her own production company, THINSKIN Productions, found LAND VAN SKEDELS inspiring: 'This site specific masterpiece left me completely in awe of a South African super talent whose bravery, care and beautiful attention to detail forced me to push my own boundaries as an artist and theatre maker. From start to finish my jaw was on my chest as the incredibly committed and honest cast walked us, literally, through a world of small, intimate stories, epic battle fields, poetry, stunts, flawless soundscapes, costume drama, opera, contemporary dance and more. I left Aardklop elated and humbled.' Ramos-Violante summed up the piece as the 'ultimate theatre experience'.

So with that, BroadwayWorld's five-part retrospective of South African Theatre in 2013 comes to an end. Want to share any of your dance and physical theatre highlights from the past year? Head to the comment box below. Otherwise, why not join us as we count down to a brand new year on South African stages - and then, go see a show!

Photo credits: Pat Bromilow-Downing, Oscar O'Ryan

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From This Author David Fick