Arts Festival Review: Beautiful Me

By Bernadette Rae

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Gregory Maqoma in Beautiful Me. Photo / John Hogg
Gregory Maqoma in Beautiful Me. Photo / John Hogg

The stage is dark with just the faint gleam of drum kit, sita, cello, violin and four seated musicians.

Then light as subtle as sunrise picks out the sculptured shape of a man. It highlights first his hugely expressive hands and immensely mobile feet as they flutter and stir.

The man soon introduces himself in words. "My name is Gregory Maqoma, an African dancer. I sell exotic stories to survive."

The physicality of Maqoma's dance is intense, with slapping feet, lightning speed, twisting torso, startling shimmy and shake, isolations of body parts - hips, shoulders, neck, ribcage - as sharp and clear as the clicking language of Xhosa that accompanies one section. It fascinates.

Maqoma collaborated with three fellow choreographers to make this journey through identity, culture and defining relationships.

In the first section renowned dance artist Akram Khan's influence flavours the performance with the techniques of contemporary Indian Kathak.

It is harder to isolate the possible Congolese influences of Faustin Linyekula and that of Vincent Mantsoe, who grew up, with Maqoma, in Soweto.

But traditional native dance, Afro pop and township jazz make for a rich and truly exotic fusion, heavily spiced by Maqoma's early idolisation of the moonwalk of Michael Jackson.

It is truly, as Maqoma describes both himself and his work, "a cultural cocktail".

The base of this heady mix is a serious one though, and the work is peppered with outbursts of dialogue: a recitation of historical names, from Rutten through Mbeki, Kruger, Smuts, Botha.

There is philosophical dialogue on the significance of the number "one", of change as in "change is who we are" and ruminations on rupture.

There are personal reflections, too, of Soweto boys practising their moves in the back yard, sharing a pair of white gloves for dance competitions in downtown Johannesburg, cutting their pants to three quarters to show off white socks.

Sometimes post-modern influences so deconstruct dance that only an intellectual pretentiousness remains.

But not here. The music is both sophisticated and spirited, the dance extraordinary, the whole communicative, personal and intelligent. Maqoma can truly lay claim to the title, Beautiful Me.

*Beautiful Me runs at The Bruce Mason Centre, until Wednesday.

- NZ Herald

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