Market Theatre, Johannesburg
March 30, 2019
One Spirit, a festival presented at the John Kani auditorium celebrated a slew of anniversaries: 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi, the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, and the 30th anniversary of Tribhangi Dance Theatre.
It is also a marker of cultural history. Since the mid-nineteenth-century, Africa has been home to large numbers of South Asians, mainly through indentured labour and the resulting migration. Despite secondary migration to the UK from some newly independent countries like Uganda and Kenya, many remained and South Africa is currently home to around 1.3m of South Asian heritage. With this history behind them, Tribhangi Dance Theatre with their roots in bharatnatyam, African and contemporary dance has a resonance that goes well beyond entertainment. The performers exuded waves of positive energy evidence of an unlikely fusion that has found a viable form.
Artistic director, Jayesperi Moopen, sees the company’s mission as experimenting, exploring and challenging notions of what Indian dance is. The performers are drawn from Indian and African heritage, skilled in both forms of traditional dance and with a sound contemporary dance base, not to mention engaging personalities who warmed to their enthusiastic audience.
The festival ran for four nights and between the company items, the platform was given to guest dance groups, some professional companies and some amateur schools of Indian dance. The standard was mixed but the commitment uniform as carefully rehearsed, numbers on interesting themes were interspersed between Tribhangi’s high voltage works.
Each night closed on Circles and Squares, choreographed by Moopen and the highlight of the evening. The fusion of classical Indian and traditional Zulu dance encapsulates Mandela’s wish for a rainbow nation. Three male dancers brandish hide shields and sticks, bringing a technical prowess to the traditional moves, rolling and leaping with agility. They are dressed in skins and feathered bands, while their three female companions sport bright coloured Indian silks. The women’s hand gestures are distinctive, but it’s in the rhythmic foot beats that the dancers come together in thrilling unison. The mix is electric. It brought the audience to their feet.
If Circles and Squares was the showstopper, other numbers were not far behind. Resonate, a similar ethnic fusion, was built on the rhythm of sticks pounding the stage. It increased in complexity as beats multiplied within a clever structure.
Tribhangi’s opening number, Talas in Conversation, featured live musicians revealed behind a back gauze as a drummer and saxophonist played a furious Afro-jazz fusion. The movement vocabulary is contemporary with a dose of street dance where the jazz influence is visible. There is a brief injection of Indian dance before it returns to the street and more staggeringly good dance.
Of the guest groups, Moving into Dance, one of Johannesburg’s foremost dance organisations and the earliest of the non-racial dance companies, presented Bapu, the title a term of endearment for Mahatma Gandhi. It has a subliminal narrative thread displayed in ritual themes and presented in confident contemporary dance. A strong piece of choreography given a fine performance and a moving tribute to the great man whose time in South Africa fired his activism.
This mix of dance styles and of both amateur and professional performers brought in a varied audience with obvious enjoyment on both sides of the footlights. Festivals like One Spirit need to be applauded for taking the initiative.