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In Review: Baxter Theatre reopens with 'Baxter Back on Stage' with Gregory Maqoma and Zolani Mahola

The Baxter is back. Theatre staff, patrons and highly valued artists feel so much better for it...

In the early ‘90s, reviewing dance and being the first to get the story published meant rushing home after the performance, writing ‘til the wee hours and rushing in to meet the editor early the next morning – floppy disk in hand. 

It’s a relief, in a way, not to have to do that now. Thanks to email and the internet, I can take time to properly reflect on the kind of performance that heralded the recent reopening of the Baxter Theatre after lockdown. In Baxter Back on Stage, with Gregory Maqoma and Zolani Mahola who are both consummate storytellers in dance and song respectively, music is a common passion.

Maqoma is the founder and creative director of Johannesburg-based Vuyani Dance Theatre, which celebrated its 20th birthday last year. He spends most of his time working abroad, so it was a privilege to see him performing in Cape Town again – “just breathing… exploring what it feels like to move again” – while he wonders how many more contracts he will lose to the pandemic.

“As we die, as we hang, as we drown, Bhambelela.” Maqoma’s words stay with me. “Bhambela means hold on,” he later explains. “Holding on to hope at this time of uncertainty, holding a mirror to reflect on our time in isolation.”

Gregory Maqoma - © Marijke Willems
Gregory Maqoma - © Marijke Willems

Meanwhile, we were exploring what it felt like to be an audience again, masked and seated in groups of two and three, two seats apart, the glare of mobile phone screens noticeably absent. (Photography and video recordings are not allowed, and patrons are always requested to switch phones off. This is often ignored.)

“My dance is not about the aesthetic beauty of movement, it is about the fundamental realities of people, my own reality where I come from and my own history. By acknowledging my history, I also acknowledge the history of many of my ancestors,” Maqoma notes on social media.

For this short season, he premiered a new work, No Humor, in collaboration with Xolisile Bongwana. It forms part of his Human Trilogies. Bongwana delivered much of the live music accompaniment that is Maqoma’s trademark. (Maqoma received a Bessie, New York City’s premier dance award for Exit/Exist for original music composition in 2014. I saw an unforgettable performance of that production at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.)

Maqoma produces such complex work, all is never quite what it seems. No Humor explores the “delicate balance of sensuousness, violence, ethical sensitivity, ugliness, grace and humour, where there is none”. One must pay careful attention to grasp the nuances of his facial expressions, hand movements with long, outstretched fingers, his words, his music, the dance and the drama. And we did. Nobody stirred. We barely breathed.

What makes Maqoma’s choreography distinctive is his ability to bring classical African dance into conversation with the contemporary idiom. He takes rituals and codes from long-established practices of Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho people, and uses them to tell contemporary stories. That’s the way it was described for the New York Times, ahead of the US premiere of Maqoma’s Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro at the Joyce Theater in January 2020. The piece won him a Naledi Theatre Award for Best Contemporary Dance/Ballet, one of many more that include the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Arts and Literature) Award from the French Government in 2017.

Maqoma also choreographed and performed in William Kentridge’s new opera, The Head and the Load, which premiered at The Tate Modern Gallery in London in July 2019. A world tour is planned to include Germany, Holland, Austria; and New York. When is anybody’s guess. 

The One Who Sings

Mahola opened her part of the programme noting that together we complete a circle. The performers on stage make one half, the audience the other. We co-create moments. 

As she spoke and sang and moved and acknowledged (sometimes inappropriate interjections from the house), it became clear that she had a lot to say and to share. The material resonated deeply with listeners who relate to similar experiences. Loss, hurt and betrayal of the worst kind. “So often the people who we are closest to are the hardest to reach,” she mused.

Zolani Mahola - The One Who Sings - © Antona Steyn
Zolani Mahola - The One Who Sings - © Antona Steyn

The programme notes the launch of Mahola’s solo career as a musician, storyteller and public speaker. I’m not surprised. She has a powerful presence, almost meditative, spiritual even, and an ability to mesmerise an audience with her stories. “It’s easy to feel we can’t trust and that we’re going to be okay,” she said. 

After founding Freshlyground, and performing as their lead singer, Mahola is ‘coming out’ as The One Who Sings. This Baxter performance gave us a taste of her work that explores the sanctity of childhood, the importance of our connection to nature and the role that story plays in our life experience. 

Like Maqoma, her message is multi-layered. One must listen closely when she speaks or sings. This was not a Freshlyground context and up-tempo is not always the sign of joyful content. Sensitive accompaniment by auditory storytellers Sakitumi (musical director) and Frank Freeman (guitar) make the performance even more potent. 

It was truly an honour to be in the presence of greatness at the Baxter Theatre at the weekend. As Mahola said: “Exactly the right time and exactly the right place.” It’s the key to success.

This limited exclusive season of five performances of Baxter Back on Stage has come to an end however other productions are scheduled, for more info and to book head to www.baxter.co.za.

Support the Baxter Theatre’s sustainability efforts. Visit baxter.co.za and join the Baxter Coffee Angels. It will cost you a coffee a month. 

About Debbie Hathway

I am an award-winning senior journalist, who has been published in leading publications across Africa and beyond. I'm fortunate to feature coverage about luxury lifestyle, travel and watches as well as international and local property investment in my portfolio.



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