ON FIRE South African performances on stage in Berlin

On Fire / Constanza Macras
On Fire / Constanza Macras | Photo: ©Manuel Osterholt

Constanza Macras/dorkypark presented a series of collaborations between South African, international and German choreographers in Berlin, titled ON FIRE. The tension between tradition on the one hand and gender on the other was at the centre of the stage. A tension, which - 20 years after the end of Apartheid - is still of great relevance.

From the outside, the Studio 44, where Constanza Macras’ company dorkypark is based, it does not seem very well inhabited. Although it is just a stone’s throw away from Berlin’s Alexander square, one has to search a little to find the way to the poster reading “ON FIRE” next to the entrance. The audience is standing in the foyer of the studio, waiting, smoking, until the doors open. This scene occurred every two weeks between March and May 2014, when South African dancers and choreographers came to Berlin for a short residence to create new or refine old works.
The project reveals versatile insights into the South African dance scene. An evening might begin with the sight of a woolen worm, as big as a human, lying motionless on a small platform in the middle of the stage. With the start of the performance, the figure starts moving. The sewed in person is the 34 year old performance artist Lerato Shadi. Over the course of 45 minutes, the audience follows the slow squirms of the woolen body. Finally, the bundle opens up and a red arm appears, followed by the first sight of the artist. Slowly, absently and absolutely calm, she spits out a red ball of wool onto the stage. Lights out. The end.

Lerato Shadi is renowned for her meditative, esthetic and enduring works. In 2010, she staged the work Se Sa Feleng at the project space GoetheonMain and climbed through a white cubic structure for more than three hours, pulling a red woolen string behind her. Spiderlike, she waved a net, which outlasted the process of production and stayed as the relict of her performance.
A second piece follows. Shades of a Queen by Mmagosi Kgabi revolves around improvisations and tech gadgets: Working with a smartphone and an iPad, we watch Mmagosi Kgabi as she finds out, what to actually do, being put in the middle of a Berlin stage. People from around the world, choreographers, authors, dancers, friends, even her confused-sounding mother, pick up the phone and try to answer her questions. We can hear them through the loudspeaker, as she performs the suggested actions live on stage. With this improvised spectacle, she addresses identity – the fact that who we love tells more about us, than we could with our own words.

Of course, there are nights, when the audience arrives at the Studio 44, expecting a work, which talks about disputes between gender and tradition in less abstract ways: That is the case when Zanele Muholi, Maureen Velile Majola and Jelenea Kuljic perform Sifela I Ayikho. People have to crush on the studio floor, as all seats are occupied quickly.
On stage, Maureen Velile Majola and Jelena Kuljic develop an unsettling scene of mourning for the victims of brutal hate crimes against lesbian women. Small memorial shrines are built out of stones and candles. Zanele Muholi’s video- and photo-projections enrich the scenes in the background.
Zanele Muholi’s works arouse and concuss. Her unclouded images document human rights violations, hate crime and discrimination and never forget that there are actual people behind statistics and case numbers. The personalities of strong women and men from the LGBTI community in southern Africa.

Athena Mazarakis, Anouk Froidevaux and Emil Bordás have worked out personal negotiations on the topics of discrimination from their various backgrounds: South Africa, Canada/Germany and Hungary. As the audience enters the studio, the dancers approach them with recording devices, asking for their relationships with tradition and gender. What is your tradition? Which tradition could you easily let go of? Small speakers play the answers afterwards. What follows, is a 50-minute-long performance with solo presentations reflecting on tradition, identity, in- and out-group-notions. They are interrupted by personal deliberations of the three. Strong moments, well known from own experiences, which raise questions. There is Anouk Froidevaux, who reads an excerpt of a blog, written by refugees from Oraninenplatz, who have camped in the middle of Berlin to protest Germany’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers. How do we as the audience position ourselves? What is our opinion on asylum, migration and refuge?
Later, Athena Mazarakis performs a sort of guilt-auction, in which she begs the audience to sign online-petitions, revealing the hypocrisy of the matter. Are we doing enough? One feels, that the dancers have asked themselves the same questions which they now pose to the audience. What do I do, when I am not directly affected by violence? Do we become accomplices in crime, when we keep quiet and do nothing?

Gender and tradition are massive topics, which Constanza Macras and Tamara Saphir chose as the basis for their curatorial work. They invited performers from Southern Africa to create works – including plenty important names from the dance- and performance scene: Mamela Nyamza, Zanele Muholi, Athena Mazarakis, Kieron Jina, Lerato Shadi, Mmakgosi Kgabi und Lucky Kele.
Many artists interpreted the topics loosely and presented pieces which ask for identity, for what really concerns us personally in life. More than only drawing esthetic pictures, they managed to balance between two extremes: on the one hand, to counter an image of the African continent which is often negative and full of clichés, on the other hand, to not play down the acts of everyday violence against homosexuals.
Over all, the series achieved to draw a diverse image of the young South African dance scene, which raises a painful subject through performance art, where language often fails.
Who profits from this collaboration? Most definitely the audience, which usually does not have the chance to see such a tight web of focused contributions by one of Africa’s most diverse dance scenes. And obviously the scenes in both countries – certainly more joint productions are to follow.