Rite Disrupting cycles of violence

Rite / Jay Pather
Rite / Jay Pather | Photo: © John Hogg

Jay Pather’s rite exploited rituals to articulate the contemporary moment, writes Same Mdluli.

Violence in South Africa has become such an intricate part of our lives that at times it appears alluring. Although this is not the main focus of Jay Pather’s piece rite, it is a an underlying theme and provides the means for the Cape Town-based choreographer to merge a traditional classic work with a contemporary edge, narrating the uneasy seductiveness of violence. Through Russian composer Igor Stranvisky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, a ballet and orchestral concert work, Pather creates a seamless dialogue between classical music, contemporary African dance and song, imagery and installations, all of which come together into a dramatic journey through episodic rituals.

Performed by the Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre, rite is a selection of the original fourteen-piece work with a cast of seventeen dancers. The opening scene is a rich display of visual references. It starts with a conversation between what are presumably lovers, physically debating a crossroad in their relationship. Next to them is a half dressed male figure standing on a table, strapped with string all around his body and a young chicken tied to one piece of string by its foot. The figure has an apple and a lit candle in his mouth and as the heat of the flame gets closer to his mouth the dialogue between the couple intensifies, drifting somewhat into a dream-like shamanic realm of a ritualistic dance, video projection and music. It ends with a violent act, a characteristic that is a motif in each scene that follows.

The audience is then led to the next scene, which starts to integrate them into the piece through interaction and confrontation. Here violence is enacted through the use of metaphors like raw cabbage, red chilli, red high heels and deodorant spray. This is carried through to the following scene, which takes this interaction further by presenting questions to the audience but also actively facilitating a conversation between the performers and their viewers. It is in these moments that the work probes larger inquiries around beliefs, memory/remembering and other philosophical themes that permeate in what is an intricate glance at the contemporary South African moment.

Besides the use of interdisciplinary modes, one of the work’s strengths is the use of space. The choice of space, Pather explains, is because “the piece is also about deconstruction”. The narration of the story is articulated via different forms from light, costumes and sound. The industrial rawness of the Museum of African Design (MOAD) was not only a strategic choice given the site specificity of the work, but it also enhanced the overall staging of the work through the use of architectural structures inside the building. The strength of the work also relied on the performance of the dancers, all whom gave an impressive interpretation of the nuances of contemporary South African life. Although it ends with somewhat of anti climax, in that there is sense of disappointment of not actually seeing the maiden finally sacrificed, there is also something revealing in this about our own desires and attraction to violence. It therefore seemed appropriate for the piece to conclude without any kind of resolution but rather with a sense of empathy and embracing of humanness.

Pather’s re-imagining of Stranvisky’s work is not only stimulating but it also shows why he is one of the stewards of contemporary dance in South Africa at the moment. While the piece draws from a particular historical reference, which may not necessarily be familiar to most South African audiences, the sensitivity and attentive detail paid to the subject matter, makes it one of the most thought-provoking pieces to show at this year’s festival.

Information on the Dance Writers Workshop:
Young arts writers find it increasingly difficult to find a foothold in the mainstream press. This is even more so the case when it comes to dance and performance – an area of the arts often deemed difficult to access via words.

For this reason, the Goethe-Institut, in collaboration with the Dance Forum, for the third time hosts the Dance Writing Workshop running parallel to the Dance Umbrella Festival. The aim is to nurture, discover and support new writing talent in this field, but also to get established journalists to engage with contemporary dance. Mary Corrigall facilitated the workshop.

This year’s participants shared ideas about the role of gender in contemporary choreography, a timely topic to tie in with current debates, but also with the platform for female choreographers that is part of Dance Umbrella 2015.