‘I don’t want you to decorate yourselves,” instructed the choreographer, “I want irony.”
Robyn Orlin then used Julia Burnham as a prime example for her fellow dancers. Wearing a black tulle tutu, her midriff exposed, her face covered by an African curio mask and her chest festooned with enough gold to out-pimp a rapper. “Beauty is a Bree Street tutu,” quipped the image-meister amid the riptide of plastic Fong Kong kitsch.
The Moving Into Dance Mophatong Company was in the final throes last week of creating their characters, with props, for Beauty Remained for just a moment then returned gently to her starting position... which has its world premiere at the 15th Lyon Biennale de la Danse, in France, on Sunday.
The performers, who are having their first Orlin experience, are Muzi Shili, Sunnyboy Motau, Thandi Tshabalala, Tebogo Letele, Oscar Buthelezi, Otto Nhlapo and Burnham. Sonia Radebe has been part of the process but she won’t be participating in this French tour because she will be performing her solo Inception at the Afrovibes Festival in Holland and the UK.
The work began in February when studio sessions were accompanied by a very special task. Orlin went on to the streets and bought fruit and vegetables from hawkers. The dancers had to create their own images, their visions of beauty, with this and other found material. The aesthetic fun and games had begun.
Additional hands-on exercises not only introduced the collabo-rators to Orlin’s improvisational strategy, but also empowered them to make their own creative decisions.
For the past month the explorations have continued for this piece whose mission is to confront the First World’s stereotype of Africa shrouded in victimhood and “to look at its beauty without colonial voyeurism and exoticism by tackling what is truly beautiful in Africa”. A tall order but not unknown territory for this now-veteran SA dance-maker.
“Beauty can be anything for anybody,” she explained during a rehearsal coffee break. Beauty Remained … came about when one of my co-producers, Mattheus Leridon, said he wanted me to make a piece about beauty in Africa. I’m sure his version is different to mine! I know beauty is very personal.”
Two people who share her very open take on this subject are celebrated fashion designer Marianne Fassler, who is creating the costumes, and long-time collaborator, French videographer Philippe Lainé.
“When I was sitting with Marianne, we asked ourselves what is beauty in Joburg, and I knew we had to have Solly (who lives under a bridge with his trolley decorated with CD disks). He is the personification of beauty in Joburg. We went to shoot footage of Solly, and when I first started working with the group I said we thought Solly is beauty. They said we were nuts. Now they are changing their minds. Frankly, if I can shift the mind of a dancer my job is done.”
Orlin is also acutely aware that she could draw flak for “presenting a poor homeless man as beauty” but that comes with her territory, which dates back to aggressively using suburban supermarket trolleys in her 1984 trio Here for the Duration… She nods. “There’s a lot of historical reflection from Marianne as well. We gave ourselves a problem to solve: to make costumes out of garbage or found objects – and make them beautiful.”
Another murky critical issue concerns white choreographers working with the black African body.
“It has never dawned on me,” stresses the woman who has been making work with fellow South Africans across race for 30 years, “that I am displaying their bodies. It has never come into my consciousness.”
Someone who agrees with this sentiment is Germaine Acogny, who has commissioned the South African (based in Berlin with husband film-maker Oliver Schmitz and daughter Ruby) to create a work on her Jant-Bi Company in Senegal for 2014.
Being predictable, or taking easy options, just isn’t part of Robyn Orlin’s artistic DNA.
• Beauty Remained… has a six-week tour of France. The SA premiere will be at MIDM’s “21” season at the Dance Factory from November 21-25.