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THEY come from far away, walking in single file across the lawns behind the Drostdy Arch.
Tall, strangely tall, they stride towards the light, growing in stature until they stand as high as the lamp-post they gather around.
They wander across the lawns, inspecting people gathered beneath their gaze, before they huddle together like a closed flower bud, conferring silently.
The bud unfolds as they move apart and start to grow. Eventually, they are huge, blown-up light puppets on stilts who walk around the lawn, trailed by the audience, raising static electricity when they rub one person’s head, eliciting “oohs” and “aaahs” from kids and adults when their heads and bodies light up.
They even check out some art through the window of the Fine Arts building.
They dance and sway and generally amuse and fascinate and never is a single word spoken or a narrative exposed to the light, but everyone is entranced by these five magical beings who eventually wander off as mysteriously as they appeared. In single file, this time deflating back to beings on stilts, swathed in white material, tall, and still enigmatic, but now just a bit more enchanting.
This was Herbert’s Dream, pretty much how I started my National Arts Festival experience this year.
The festival for me was all about a little touch of magic, the use of technology and singular performances. I learnt something, and I wasn’t the only one.
Or at least, that’s how I experienced it. But, it takes years of practice navigating the system to make it work for you.
This year 65 former Young Artists returned to celebrate 30 years of the country’s biggest art award, so there was a lot of looking back in that sense – a lot of the usual suspects to be found on the main programme.
The experimental could be found on the Fringe, though usually more through trial and error than because the shows necessarily delivered what they promised on their posters.
You have to be a festino with ink- stained fingers from paging through your battered programme for days, long before the fest starts, to find that magic.
And from reading the Cue – which you really have to read between the lines, since they can send would-be journalists who can’t necessarily speak the requisite languages to watch shows and critique them just as easily as they task seasoned professionals to help them out.
But, given enough time, plenty of headscratching and some legwork, you can have a lot of fun.
This time around I found the magic right at the beginning with Herbert’s Dream, an experience which was pretty much like wandering through someone else’s dream.
There was also magic on the jazz programme, which is by far the biggest jazz festival we have in this country. Melanie Scholtz started it off with a spellbinding performance, finding her own fun as she scatted alongside the rapping Jitsvinger.
Kyle Shepherd was in even better form, delivering music from his new album, Dream State, which he will launch in Joburg later this month. He drew on a repertoire that reflects a growing worldly sensibility, but is still rooted very much in a South African idiom.
Singular performances could be found, but again, you had to look. Director Basil Appollis drew a strong performance out of Denise Newman in Cold Case – Revisiting Dulcie September.
While she does raise the question of what exactly happened to her, Newman still manages to foreground September’s humanity and commitment to fighting injustice.
On the technology side, the festival is making the leap into selling the tickets themselves with a new system they swear works better for them than Computicket. They are just a few keystrokes away from establishing their own app, which should make navigating the festival easier.
Specialist in dance on screen, Jeannette Ginslov, though, approached tech from a different perspective with her walk, P(AR)take, using augmented reality to curate a dance archive.
This particular walk was for a finite time period, but the archive of 10 clips covering specific dance performances at the festival exists online and can be expanded.
The entire project can be recreated using theatre, or any art form for that matter, and points to a way the festival can use the thousands of pictures they archive of performances, the reviews and stories that are written and the video clips the artists make of their work.
The possibilities are endless.
Not only did I learn about who Dulcie September was, but I also learnt about a woman called Henrietta Lacks, the person who gave rise to HeLa cells which are used in biological research in laboratories which do research using human cells.
The play is a one-woman drama which incorporates an impressively huge amount of scientific data into the monologue, yet never once feels didactic, dry or boring.
The cherry on the cake is how Adura Onashile manages to pack an emotionally relatable punch, while still getting you to think about medical ethics and the abuse of trust.
I was not the only person totally taken by Joey the horse, who wasn’t even performing at the festival.
Handspring Puppet Company brought Joey to the Drostdy Lawns, and if the way the audience responded is an indication, the War Horse production will be a hit when it plays in Joburg and Cape Town later this year.
The children who kept on sneaking up on the life-sized horse (manipulated by three puppeteers called The Head, The Heart and The Hind) to tweak its tail, were surprised every time the horse twitched its tail, stamping its foot at their temerity. But, they kept on trying, and kept on scurrying away, squealing in delight – delight that was mirrored on the faces of the adults around them.
Up at the Monument, a rearing Topthorn – another horse in the production – greeted people entering a gallery space which housed the Fabricate exhibition.
While the Handspring Puppet Company is reluctant to exhibit its work in a static environment – because it feels that its puppets should be experienced moving on stage, not displayed as non-moving artwork – it should perhaps consider Ginslov’s augmented reality approach.
Still, even unmoving as they were, arrayed on the tables, the puppets retained a sense of their innate magic, daring you to imagine them moving on stage.
• Dare to stretch your imagination at next year’s National Arts Festival which will take place in Grahamstown from July 2 to 12.