Dance Umbrella Festival 2017 Land and Landing in The Heart of the Country

In The Heart Of The Country
Christo Doherty

When you land, you arrive. It is a question of belonging. Fana Tshabalala’s latest offering at Dance Umbrella this year is a meditation on the multiple meanings of land for the human psyche.

In the Heart of the Country, which takes its title from a poetic treatise by J.M. Coetzee, looks at what it means to exist as a landless being. Its tone of disquiet is described by Tshabalala as that of "insects: always crawling". The work’s meditative rhythm is "really to build something that never stops inside", Tshabalala says. The pulse of In the Heart of the Country is a continuous vibration. When the performance ends, it is with the sounds of unfinished business. Its beginnings are equally insecure, if not as bold as the uncertainty of the conclusion.
Uncertainty is thematic in In The Heart of the Country with means of engagement being tested in endless games. Each performer walks around the others. They orbit their own spheres as they circle one another’s. The moments of inhalation become pauses in space as they try to find synergy. The trio are a single story of different parts; one mind of split consciousness. Moving separately, their interconnectedness becomes palpable in the breath. The smallest impulse of one ripples into the body of another as their shoulders lean back – a hiatus in the air with softly held breath- and then a step starts the motion of the group in a domino effect. The individual entities connect and affect. The performers stress the importance of the quality of the movement. Wind needs to be gathered between them for their motion to change. This tentativeness makes their choreographic games like a carefully crafted Rube Goldberg machine. The three dancers connect three different worldviews.
Google: land, and the very first result that appears is the Department of Justice’s “Land Claims Court of South Africa” Home Page. From the German Google, the results differ because the term translates directly to “country”. Images of land on both German and South African pages present idyllic scenes of vast country sides, generally inhabited by farmhouses and farmers. This pastoral setting is the mythical space upon which the Afrikaner Volk built their image and it is the most contested space in land reparation discussions, in the post-apartheid era. The farm is the setting for Coetzee’s novel and Tshabalala’s rehearsals. Tshabalala’s In the Heart of the Country diverges from these countrified connotations to bring a different consideration to the question. The dance draws from its collaboration between the South African choreographer and German-based choreographer Constanza Macras, whose two dancers from Dorkypark form the trio with Tshabalala onstage. The “country” becomes “the people” and its heart beat is set in a restless city. The individual’s need to belong is presented as a trio-solo with the three dancers representing disconnected identities from one conflicted psyche. The restlessness of the human soul becomes the site of the disquiet in the piece. The three dancers constantly ebb and flow toward each other, away from each other and ripple back and forth in this relation in space.
The to-and-fro conversation of one person with themselves is perhaps the most striking element drawn from Coetzee’s sparsely used story. ‘We did not want to make a piece about the book’, says Ana Mondini, one of the dancers. Emil Bordas says the physical process, instead, started with finding what was common in their cultures. The novel stimulated starting points. For Tshabalala, who is admittedly unimpressed by Coetzee’s book, performative excitement began with the dancers’ initial conversations drawing parallels with one others’ experiences. Tshabalala recalls Mondini spoke of the favelas (informal settlements) in her native Brazil and issues of land after colonisation there. Bordas also discussed Hungary’s politics of irredentism (popular movement to reclaim lost territory). The idea of reclamation became a global polemic. Land’s significance for the soul symbolising the necessity to reconnect with oneself.
Land, becomes a signifier of something as intangible but necessary as breath. The rehearsals began with improvisations in the spirit of release. By not blocking each other’s different offers to the physical conversation, Tshabalala observes the performers move beyond “the impossible dialogue” between black and white in Coetzee’s writing. Bodies inhabiting the same space- the same consciousness even- had to find their ways to breathe together. The work brings forward an intriguing alternative to the discourse of disquiet by shuffling and shifting in space, not just to reveal the unrest but, in the attempt at discovering ways to access one another. The psychological is also political. In the Heart of the Country entrances by turning the reflective lens of our times inward.
Tshabalala says the constant vibration of the work is ‘creating a space where you get drawn inside’. This introspection makes the final speech-score an impactful drop- back into reality. An atmospheric score by Nicholas Aphane works as the underbelly of the performance with sounds of wind and groaning beasts. The underscore turns into an overtone when it flips into the recognisable voice of Julius Malema talking about the issue of land. Concluding with the continuing conflict of the South African land reformation issue In the Heart of the Country plunges the viewer back into reality from the trance of its hypnotic vibrations; landing in reality’s relentlessness.
The turbulence of the external impossibilities had been subsumed by the unstill split personality. As Ana Mondini says, ‘Even if you are talking about another space, you always belong. [She softly touches the floor as she speaks]. It’s very real. [She slaps the ground in punctuation.]’ The long-awaited winds of change howl gently in the music and intermingle with audible exhales of physical exhaustion. When shouts from the current cacophonous political landscape are fine-tuned to grow out of the meditative work they reveal a complex conception of land as connected to the heart of people. In the minds of the country’s people, each person has to find ways to exist with themselves while they wait for promises to be fulfilled. The dance lands as a departure.