BWW Reviews: BLUE is a Testament to Cape Dance Company's Artistry and Vision

James Bradley, Elzanne Crause and Mbulelo Ndabeni
dance "In the Mirror of Her Mind" in BLUE
Photo credit: Helena Fagan

Nobody does dance on local stages like the Cape Dance Company (CDC). Their 2013 season of CADENCE at the Artscape Theatre was the local dance highlight of the year and they top themselves in 2014's presentation of BLUE, a compilation of eight eclectic pieces from half a dozen choreographers. Working in their trademark neo-classical style, the CDC's latest production confirms everything its brand has come to represent: artistic vision, excellent technique, a commitment to growing and challenging its dancers, and outstanding production values. Reflecting on two decades of excellent work in the programme for the show, artistic director Debbie Turner quotes Paulo Coelho: 'Courage in the path is what makes the path manifest itself.' The path Turner has travelled with her brainchild of a permanent dance company structure has undoubtedly led the CDC to its current position as a world class South African ensemble. BLUE is a testament to everything for which the company stands.

Two pieces presented in last year's CADENCE return to the stage to open and close BLUE: "Scenes", choreographed by Bradley Shelver, and "Bolero", one of three ballets by Christopher L. Huggins in the programme. Both have shifted in the last year, with "Scenes" in particular leaving a greater impression. While both pieces remain technically strong, what emerges more clearly this time around is a masterful sense of character, narrative and relationship dynamics.

Cara-May Marcus in "Obscure Sorrows"

"Scenes" is a piece that juxtaposes the creative process with performance, with multiple frameworks through which both the dancers and audience observe Shelver's choreography. Elzanne Crause and James Bradley's 'Duet' in the third movement of "Scenes", to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata", is spellbinding, a breathtaking centrepiece to the striking opening of BLUE. Crause is grace personified, fluid and commanding as she glides and slices through space, while Bradley perfectly balances litheness with strength. Theirs is a perfect partnership. "Scenes" opens with 'Trio', a powerful formalist sequence in which Bradley is joined by Nathan Bartman and Mthuthuzeli November, followed by 'Quintet +1', which features the ladies of the company. Louisa Talbot, a stalwart of the Cape Dance Company, delivers standout work in this sequence, better than ever in combining technique and personality. Talbot is also most delightful in "Bolero", which features the entire company in a more playful and sharply characterised reading of Huggins's passion-filled piece.

Set pieces like "Scenes" and "Bolero" are complemented by more intimate and introspective works, including "The State In-between", created by Mblulelo Ndabeni in collaboration with Simone Muller-Lotz, and Cara-May Marcus's "Obscure Sorrows". The former piece begins with Muller-Lotz performing solo in a clean spotlight, working beautifully with breath, movement and text to create a culturally specific persona that becomes a universal archetype, reflecting the anxious human tendency to second guess one's instincts. Ndabeni joins her for the central section of the piece, at once an elegant spirit of liberation and the source of a powerful personal connection. The conceptualisation and choreography of the piece works neatly with contrasts in style, tone, design and sound.

"Obscure Sorrows" takes its cue from John Koenig's "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows" with Marcus exploring strategies of embodying internal psychological conflicts, communicating in particular the tension between holding on and letting go. It is a piece that feels like a seed for a major work, a sense augmented by Marcus's inspiration for the piece.

Another new work in the CDC's repertoire is "Fadeout.Five", commissioned by the company as a result of their Thundafund New Works Campaign. Choreographed by Belinda Nusser, with assistance from Nelson Rodriguez, the opening night cast this startlingly contemporary piece featured Nathan Bartman, Londiwe Khoza, Odwa Lindokuhle Makanda, Thamsaqa Njoko and Mthuthuzeli November. Like "The State In-between" and "Obscure Sorrows", the piece engages with text, this time foregrounding it within the score of the piece. Personal narrative collides with commanding performances in "Fadeout.Five" to create a remarkable piece of work.

"Blue" soloist, Mbulelo Ndabeni

As in CADENCE, one spot in BLUE is reserved to showcase the CDCII Repertory Ensemble, this time in a new piece created for them by Mthuthuzeli November. It is a challenging piece of work and the young dancers rise to the challenge. Their growth as dancers since last year's "Treasures of the Heart" is remarkable and speak to the character of CDC on the whole: when the company's director and permanent company members refuse to let in even a whisper of complacency, and challenge themselves to grow in their vision and performance, this is the kind of excellence that is inspired throughout the ranks of an organisation.

The final two pieces in BLUE are both works by Christopher L. Huggins. The first, "In the Mirror of Her Mind", is a phenomenal pas de quatre danced by Elzanne Crause, James Bradley, Mbulelo Ndabeni and Mthuthuzeli November. A meditation on identity, love and loss, "In the Mirror of Her Mind" is one of the most arresting pieces in the show. Exquisitely performed by all four dancers, the piece features standout individual and ensemble work, with Crause executing simply magnificent work as the woman at the heart of it all. The best of everything that CDC has to offer, "In the Mirror of Her Mind" offers a moment of compelling perfection in which every element of performance comes together.

"Blue", which gives the show its title, brings something quite rare to the table: an all-male work that throbs with testosterone and which also requires an incredible level of stamina and technical dexterity from its cast. The piece has a gentle and unassuming start, in which the dancers struggled somewhat to find a seamless sense of ensemble. But when they found it, and "Blue" found its stride, the piece was stratospheric. The sense of competition between the men onstage is tangible, as is the feeling of their camaraderie, and the piece ultimately becomes an expression of the totality of dance as an expressive medium.

Cara May Marcus and Lwando Dutyulwa in "Bolero"

While it is the dancers that bring the show to life, the high standard of the production values of BLUE undeniably augments their performances and the mood of the individual pieces. The costume design many of the pieces comes from Dicky Longhurst's stylistically adventurous mind's eye, while the designs for "Scenes" and "The State In-between" originate with Aviad Herman and Mbulelo Ndabeni respectively. The lighting is handled by Niall Griffin, shaping the vast stage with broad washes of colour and light to help showcase the ever shifting imagery that inhabits the space.

BLUE is the culmination of two decades of artistry and tenacity. The CDC has become a symbol of just how much can be achieved with the courage to work hard enough to realise a vision. Turner and her dancers, past and present, have been uncompromising in striving to do everything they have done - and to do it properly. They are an inspiration not only to the local dance scene, but also to any company within the performance arts sector that wants to dream big and transform those dreams into a reality.

Performances of BLUE run until Saturday 6 December at 8pm in the Artscape Theatre, with a matinee on 6 December at 3pm. Tickets cost from R140 to R160 with booking via Computicket or Artscape Dial-A-Seat on 021-4217695. BLUE has been made possible with the support of Fruit and Veg City and Business and Arts South Africa (BASA).

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From This Author David Fick