BWW Reviews: Mesmerising Dance in BIKO'S QUEST at Artscape Theatre

The company of BIKO'S QUEST Photo credit Jazzart
The company of BIKO'S QUEST
Photo credit: Jazzart

Memory. Identity. History. Emotion. These are the cornerstones of BIKO'S QUEST, the newest production from Jazzart Dance Theatre that opened at the Artscape Theatre last night. Directed by Mandla Mbothwe and choreographed by Jacqueline Manyaapelo, Ina Wichterich-Mogane and Mzokuthula Gasa, the show draws its inspiration from "The Quest for True Humanity," an exhibition at the Steve Biko Foundation, which portrays Biko's life and death and offers a space to reflect upon the relevance of his philosophies 35 years after his murder at the hands of the security police during the apartheid era in South Africa.

BIKO'S QUEST is no mere retelling of Biko's life story. Linked using the device of a schoolgirl narrator, effectively played by a spirited Sanga Mabulu, the show moves episodically through certain key moments in Biko's life while also giving voice to the search for what Biko called 'the glittering prize,' identified by Mbothwe in his programme notes as 'the spirit of Ubuntu: self-reliance, self-worth, self-respect and respect for others'. In line with that ideology, Mbothwe's direction and the choreography characterise the production in a manner that emphasises dignity over guilt. Perhaps the ultimate measure of that spirit was how the company's exploration of their blackness in the performance opened up the opportunity for me to explore my whiteness in response to it in a non-confrontational and enlightening manner. There is no finger-pointing in BIKO'S QUEST: only a personal challenge for each of us to remember Biko's words and to craft some part of our identity around the concept that 'history works though people.'

In the past, I have seen some first class dance and physical theatre from Jazzart and I was expecting no less from BIKO'S QUEST. What surprised and impressed me was the stides forward the comany has made at physical and vocal integration in this production. Furthermore, watching the company perform reminded me just how powerful a medium for expression the body can be, and not just the kind of body that is generally perceived to typify dancers in general. No matter what their physical identity is, each cast member of BIKO'S QUEST commits fully to telling the stories that are retold in this production, using their unique bodies to add resonance to what they are communicating.

Shaun Oelf and Refiloe Mogoje in BIKO'S QUEST
Shaun Oelf and Refiloe Mogoje in BIKO'S QUEST
Photo credit: Machael Pinyana

Dancers like Refiloe Mogoje and Shaun Oelf come to the fore because of their remarkable energy, while Rozendra Newman impresses with a sense of grace that is embodied even in the emotional extremes of her performance. Best of all, however, is Vathiswa Nodlayiya's depth of feeling and her brilliant physical expression thereof. While I value that kind of uniqueness in each of these performers, I would have liked to see tighter, cleaner unison in the smaller group sequences, particularly those in which the women or men were dancing in smaller groups and in contrapuntal sequences.

While the interior landscape of BIKO'S QUEST is mesmerising, the visual and aural world inhabited by the dancers is less successfully designed and executed. This might seem irrelevant in a production that relies primarily on the body in space to make meaning, but I was reminded of something that Shirley MacLaine wrote in her recent book, I'M OVER ALL THAT AND OTHER CONFESSIONS, about how people open up or shut down their receptivity when it comes engaging with profound new ideas, the likes of which BIKO'S QUEST has the potential to ignite. MacLaine argues that she can say the same thing as the Dalai Lama, but that people will take the Dalai Lama seriously and dismiss her. The difference, she says, has to do with the dressing. The way that each of them manifests themselves physically in the world affects the manner in which they are perceived.

Certain elements of the sparse set work really well, particularly the multi-functional chairs for each performer; the heap of sand that becomes a vital element in the storytelling; and the small desk and typewriter, around which everything revolves. However, the lack of any unifying structure in Linda Mandela's set design allows for focus to become too widespread at certain points in the performance. The element that is out of the loop here is the open, white cyclorama, which was often badly lit. Part of me wonders what it would be like to fill that space with something that gives it as much height as it has depth, possibly housing a live percussionist or musician that complements both the canned music and the brilliant live ensemble vocals by the cast. This might sound like a rather extravagant suggestion, but this is the kind of show that I feel should be competing in the international arena as a representation of our culture and talent, and a higher standard in production values would help it accomplish just that. For now though, even the use of a conventional black curtain to cover the cyclorama would help to define and unify the space more effectively.

The company of BIKO'S QUEST Photo credit: Jazzart
The company of BIKO'S QUEST
Photo credit: Jazzart

Sometimes, it is difficult to make people feel something when it comes to history. It can be an even greater challenge to make people feel that history is relevant today. Distance via time offers what some might call perspective, making it easier to look at the past with a cool detachment when a vital engagement is what is required. BIKO'S QUEST faces these challenges head on: it is an emotive and engrossing piece of theatre, brilliantly serving Biko's vision of South Africa's journey towards a more human face. This journey continues in contemporary South Africa and this production is a reminder that this pilgrimage is one that we must all take together. It offers an honest reflection not only of our past but also of where we are today.

BIKO'S QUEST runs at the Artscape until 16 September. Bookings can be made through Computicket.

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