Here’s the brief essay I wrote for the Boyzie Cekwana (South Africa)/Panaibra Canda (Mozambique) performance at New York Live Arts. Their concert opened the fall, 2013 season. The ensemble is incredible, laudable, sterling.
The Discomfiting Discord of “The Incomati [dis]cord”
“I turn my back on a future I don’t remember . . . .” “I do have to get back, for the past is under siege, and I have a truth to tell.. . .” “But then again it could be a lie.” “I don’t remember I ever had a name and who it was that gave it. . . .I’ve walked so far into the future that I’ve lost the present.”
These musings, extracted from the litany uttered by Boyzie Cekwana, invoked in me my own memories: the news of the day in all its horror; the voices of reporters putting spin on fact; the impotence of people in the face of power—all adding up to the surreal reality of life “as is,” on this planet, at this time. How do we remember/recall/retrieve who we are and on whose ancestral shoulders we stand, when the ground we inhabit and the air we breathe is polluted with lies?
There are three movements or moods to The Inkomati [dis]cord, and there’s a kind of music to the madness: the calm before the storm (lento); the storm (presto); and finally the aftermath/commentary section (tenuto). The parts hang loosely in a structure that keeps improvisation precariously riffing and balancing on its frame. The calm opening moves slowly, deliberately, building up a backstory with intimations of repression. Cekwana’s voice, throaty, husky, draws you in. (He sounds like Harry Belafonte in another incarnation, without the songs or the panache.) He tells of lies and wasted lives. His articulations are Kafkaesque, and he may be addressing them to an interrogator. In the sustained conclusion the cast calmly sit together and act as subject (Maria Tembe), translator (Amelia Socovinho), interpreter (Cekwana), and reporter (Canda) in a scene that is both hilarious and bitingly ironic. We leave with the message that speech is compromise, truth is lies, and words can be re- and mis-interpreted until their meaning is transformed to meaninglessness.
But I want to focus on the duet—the storm—that is central to the middle section. When Maria Tembe is catapulted from her wheelchair to the floor, all hell breaks loose—presto/change-o! To the strains of Astor Piazzolla, she and Panaibra Canda tear across the stage and collapse, run-fall-collapse, again and again, laid flat by beautiful music when it would’ve been bullets in the life described by Cekwana’s utterances. But, we remind ourselves, this is theater. Tembe’s and Canda’s duet is shocking. Not leaning on emotional expression but tapping deeply into kinetic reality, they roll/tumble/scuttle across the stage, on top of, under, beside each other, giving, taking, throwing, catching weight and hiding none of the effort. It shocks, at the beginning, because this duet’s moves are predicated—that is, extended and limited—by the fact that Tembe is legless. Exploitation? No! As the duet continues—and by the expression of agency and power in her half-body, by her beauty as a dancing half-body, by her facial expressions—we come to understand that she is nobody’s victim. Occasionally she stares at the audience, her visage calm, sometimes almost haughty, as though she’s saying, “and you thought I was handicapped!” Sometimes it looks as though she’s trapped underneath Canda and trying to escape as they race across the stage, crawling, crouching, running. They’re panting—but it’s physical effort, not emotional. At one point he makes a yoga bridge, supporting himself on hands and feet with hips and chest lifted, and in this pose carries Tembe atop his torso across the stage. Then they switch so that she’s underneath, facing him, her arms holding onto his back as he walks dog-like, on all fours, while she suspends herself from his chest, her short torso swinging back and forth like breasts on his body.
This duet makes a layered statement. It bespeaks torture. How can we not assume, given the words spoken in the first section, that Tembe’s condition is anything other than the result of malfeasance? But, then, it also speaks transcendence. They’re dancing a kick-ass contact duet, unlike any that’s ever been danced on any concert dance stage anywhere else, as far as I know. Just as the first time two males danced a love duet on some stage decades ago and forced spectators to rethink and revise, so also here. (Or think of Arthur Mitchell for the first time partnering a white ballerina in “Afternoon of a Faun” on the staid New York City Ballet stage in the 1950s.) This one makes us look, see, and maybe accept a wider lens on beauty, moving us farther away from our preconceived notions of who should dance, on a public stage, and why. And that’s what I want from my dance world: stretch me, reshape me, open me to embrace what I’d never imagined.
Brenda Dixon Gottschild is the author of Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance_Dance and Other Contexts; Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era (winner of the 2001 Congress on Research in Dance Award for Outstanding Scholarly Dance Publication); and The Black Dancing Body – A Geography from Coon to Cool (winner of the 2004 de la Torre Bueno prize for scholarly excellence in dance publication). Her most recent book, Joan Myers Brown and The Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina-A Biohistory of American Performance, was published in 2012. A freelance writer, consultant, and presenter, and former consultant and writer for Dance Magazine, she is Professor Emerita of dance studies at Temple University.