Theaterhaus, Stuttgart (as part of the Colours International Dance Festival)
July 12, 2019
Making political statements through art is nothing new, but doing so in a way that doesn’t feel like you are being lectured to is an altogether rarer beast. Making the point while still being entertaining, still providing a superb evening of dance gives you a far better chance of getting your message across. Via Kanana by Gregory Maqoma, performed by Via Katlehong, does just that.
Via Kanana focuses on corruption in South Africa but also asks wider questions about those in power; the promises that were made when the country moved to democracy and that have never been fulfilled. It’s about society, what has changed in the past 30 years and holding the country’s leaders to account. The title comes from promised land of the bible, Canaan, a place that in South Africa, has not been delivered. It’s a call for change but it’s also not without hope.
Right from the off, the cast of eight unleash a torrent of energy. There are a couple of quieter moments but the activity is largely non-stop. At the heart of the dance is pantsula, a dance form of drive and vitality that’s a fusion of indigenous influences and contemporary dance; jazz and other music; and perhaps more than anything, the transformation of everyday gesture into choreography that is theatrical while remaining realistic.
Pantsula embodies the spirit of protest born during the apartheid years. Its roots can be traced back to the 1940s and the cultural hub that was the Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown, noted for its writers, musicians, politicians and gangsters. In the townships, pantsula was first a social statement as much as anything, often involving dress. It was a way of people expressing who they were. From the 1970s, it became increasingly used as a form of protest, at a time when apartheid restricted many forms of expression. These days, pantsula is a mainstay of the cultural fabric of South Africa, around Johannesburg in particular. Recognised internationally, it’s as likely to be seen in theatres as on the street.
A voice talks about “Creating a new Africa; one where there is honesty.” At times, Via Kanana is very blunt. “Those who are elected are theives,” we are told. The word ‘reshuffle’ provokes laughter. It will change nothing.
Anger and frustration bubbles through again and again. Clenched fists appear again and again Fear too. In one scene, a dancer is baited like hunters might a wild animal. There are images of intimidation as we see how people get enmeshed in ‘the system. “Sleeping with people is part of the game.” Eyes are covered in a demonstration of how people close their eyes to what is happening
Questions are raised about where South Africa is headed. It is impossible not to read Jurgen Meekel’s film of an endless train journey through the largely empty high veld as a metaphor for the journey being taken by the country.
The cast are universally outstanding. They seem to be fuelled by some vast internal reserve of energy. The dance is detailed, fast, intricate. Solos allow us to see everyone as individuals at some point, each bringing their own speciality to the piece. But Via Kanana is at it’s most powerful when the collective voice speaks.
It is just unfortunate that one large chunk of speech is in what I think was Xhosa, though, especially when one sensed it was important.
Via Kanana yells ‘South Africa’ in the loudest possible voice. Yes, it highlights a major issue, but it also speaks with an underlying sense of hope, one that comes through the power of the people. There are chinks of light. Let’s hope so, because it is a beautiful, diverse country.
A marvellous hour or so that got the immediate standing ovation it fully deserved.