BWW Reviews: Instead of Soaring, Jazzart's BHABHA Crashes and Burns

The Company of BHABHA
The Company of BHABHA

Jazzart's latest production, BHABHA, represents a low point for the company, after a downward spiral over the past 18 months. Two of their major presentations in the last year, DESTINATION... LERATO and WAITING FOR RAIN were at least curate's eggs, both offering some great dancing even when the concepts that held each respective production together lacked coherence. In contrast, BHABHA, choreographed by Moeketsi Koena and directed by Jackï Job, disappoints on almost every level.

A piece conceived to showcase the talents of the 2014 trainees in the Jazzart Training Programme, BHABHA proposes that the themes of democracy and freedom as its subject matter, while the title points to flight as a central motif. Koena's choreography offers only the broadest engagement with any of these ideas, which are generic enough to begin with. His work feels like nothing more than one combination after another, with not enough variation in style or conceptual development to involve either the mind or soul of the audience. After 75 minutes of mind-numbing repetitiveness, nothing about the nature of democracy or freedom emerges from the piece; none of the dancers - even those who display natural talented and good technique - take flight; and not even an experience that embraces diversity of form, imagery or movement has been achieved. What Job's role in creating BHABHA was, cannot be seen in what appears onstage in the production. A show that should at the very least be taut, slackens exponentially as the show moves from one sequence to the next.

The trainee dancers featured in BHABHA include Katlego Moncho, Lee-Joel Bosman, Lewellyn Afrika, Lusanda Dayimani, Lusindiso Dibela, Nichellé Linnert, Nkosinathi Mngomezulu, Nkemiseng Khena, Tamsyn Spannenberg and Yaseen Manuel. Many of them look disengaged as they perform their combinations, bored dancers delivering boring choreography, particularly when ensemble sequences are performed, where a great deal of work needs to be done to improve unity and specificity. Even when a dance company embraces what is individual about their dancers, as Jazzart does, ensemble work is about dancing together in the space, not competition.

Lee-Joel Bosman, Yaseen Manuel and Lewellyn Afrika in BHABHA
Lee-Joel Bosman, Yaseen Manuel
and Lewellyn Afrika appear in BHABHA

What is perhaps most disappointing about BHABHA as a piece that is conceived to be a showcase is that dancers who showed promise and skill in earlier Jazzart productions appear lost. Spannenberg and Mngomezulu, for example, delivered memorable work in DESTINATION... LERATO, but fade into the background here. Manuel, whose greatest assets in the past have been his strength and presence, appears bewildered by much of the choreography. Moncho, whose sassy presence was a dominating force in DESTINATION... LERATO, still nails her solo, but fails to impress otherwise. Likewise, dancers like Linnert and Khenahad have some good moments, but need to display greater overall polish and mastery of technique. Only three of the trainees really come into their own in BHABA: the strong and focused Dibela and Afrika, and the magnificent Bosman, whose excellent control makes him a standout amongst his peers.

The trainees are joined by company members Sinazo Bokolo-Bruns and Amy-Kay Klaasen. Both are strong dancers, with Bokolo-Bruns having her strength in her agility, while Klaasen's lies in her unique style. Even their talents are underutilised in this production.

The design of the piece is the simplest I have ever seen on a Jazzart production in recent memory. Working with an empty stage, broken only by a raked platform upstage left, the design compels you to focus on the dancers and the choreography. A screen upstage displays projections. In one indulgent sequence, all of the dancers' faces are displayed on the screen while the show comes to a complete halt for a few minutes: what a missed opportunity to create a showcase piece that introduces the dancers in a way that integrates those images with their dancing. Later on, text is projected onto the screen, but the slides flash by too quickly for them to be read or to have any impact on what is being framed by their presence. One further visual proposal is made mid-production, when two ropes drop from the ceiling. An opportunity for some innovative choreography is lost and the ropes ascend once again, hardly having been used at all.

BHABHA is a disappointment; more than that, it represents an artistic crisis for Jazzart. Instead of soaring, the piece crashes and burns. Although Jazzart - like all dance companies in this country - faces huge financial challenges, work like this pushes the company into a place that is more perilous than the threat of liquidation. BHABHA is a piece that has nothing to say - not by design, but by error. And when art has nothing to say, when artists making art have no voices, that is when the battle has been lost. Can Jazzart still win the war? Maybe, but that would require a great deal of strategy and a return to the company's creative manifesto. Even so, BHABHA could yet be a turning point. Let us all hope that it is.

BHABHA completed a short 4-performance run at the Artscape Theatre yesterday.

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