Get a child in need a pair of shoes for free
African composers who have an affinity for working in the medium of contemp-orary dance are few and far between.
Equally, choreographers that are willing to take risks with either musicians, or theatre directors, are just as sought after.
More recently the Johannesburg (and international) theatre dance stage has been blessed by inspir-ational collaborations between Gregory Vuyani Maqoma and James Ngcobo and also collaborations between William Kentridge, Philip Miller and Dada Masilo.
But the sustained track record for this brand of artistic synergy belongs in Cape Town, where a substantial repertoire has been created by Soweto-born musical visionary Neo Muyanga (better known as part of the Blk Sonshine duo).
Muyanga’s collaborations have been with Jazzart Dance Theatre, notably in Rain in a Dead Man’s Footprints, Cargo and Partly God; also with Magnet Theatre in Every Day Every Year I am Walking and Voices Made Night (which is being revived for the 2012 National Arts Festival ) and with Remix Dance Company in Lovaffair.
Then there’s the remarkable ongoing working relationship with choreographer Ina Wichterich, a German-born former Pina Bausch dancer who is connected to both Jazzart and Remix.
The latest chapter in the choreo-grapher and composer’s no-holds-barred explorations began last year with Memory of How It Feels.
This theatre piece had blurred boundaries as theatrical storytelling and chamber music morphed into dance theatre.
Muyanga, who wrote the text of three short stories themed around the messaging of a beaded Zulu love letter, was on stage conducting and playing with the six-piece classical orchestra.
Wichterich was choreographing and directing.
The three performers were Remix dancer Andile Vellem and multi-faceted actors Chuma Sepotela and Apollo Ntshoko.
Now, fast forward to May 2012.
Two weeks before the world premier of Muyanga and Wicterich’s The Flower of Shembe, produced by youngblood arts & culture develop-ment, the chosen venue, Iziko South African National Gallery, was not available.
Artscape came to the rescue with the Drama Theatre. Not quite ideal for this aesthetic beehive which requires an interactive ambience with its audiences.
The mesmerising Sepotela stars as the fated Addis Shembe, offspring of Anharit Shembe (the majestic Faniswa Yisa) and the comically evil patriarch Ledimo (Luvuyo Madumo).
The Flower of Shembe, described as a mythic tale of faith and destiny, is a fictional narrative based on past messiahs including the celebrated Isaiah Shembe, founder of the iBandla la maNazaretha church of Zululand, and is not unprecedented in the annals of South African opera or choreography.
For his 1994 Standard Bank Young Artist Award Michael Williams wrote, and produced, Enoch the Prophet of God – towards opening night, which was staged, with a score by Roelof Temmingh, in Grahamstown, by Cape Town Opera.
The late Marlene Blom choreographed this experimental piece based on Prophet Enoch Mgilima and his followers The Israelites, 200 of whom were killed in the Bulhoek massacre on May 24, 1921 near Queenstown. It premiered in Cape Town in 1995.
The Flower of Shembe, with its enigmatic eclecticism, is far less specific as it thrillingly conjures with various musical and performance traditions.
It is no accident that the narrative of The Flower of Shembe is also choreography driven. One of Muyanga’s influences is the musical theatre of Gibson Kente.
In a brief interview hours before the debut of his NeoSong musical theatre company he recalled how, when he was nine years old at the Nkathuto Primary School in Dube (blocks away from Bra Gib’s famous school), his principal invited his close showbiz friend to give the children tips.
Even though his memories of seeing Kente shows have been wiped as a result of police beatings (when he was aged 10 and 11 in 1984 and 1985) that interaction with the township theatre maestro made indelible impressions which inform his flair for his own performance quality as a conductor, singer and musician.
This “operetta”, which borrows then reinvents Italian bel canto, African choral traditions and maskanda, also dips into storytelling and theatrical genres.
Before he wrote a note on August 1 last year (finishing on December 24) the composer and librettist researched mythology thoroughly, from Credo Mutwa to the Hindu Ramayana. Then he created his own. While resisting a definition of the tantalising hybrid forms he and his co-creators are producing, Muyanga declares, “We don’t know what it is. We know how it feels like.
“We have a shorthand of what is needed.”
The inclusion of Zulu guitar (which he plays brilliantly) is one of the keys to this puzzle.
“Maskanda is a traditional music played on manufactured instruments. They take any instrument. They detune it – accordion or guitar. That’s what they’re doing with the form. We are in that space.”
Just add piano, violins, viola, cello, contrabass, clarinet, saxophone, drums and percussion with maskanda guitar and accordion.
As a choreographer Wicterich triumphs in her deconstruction and use of traditional stamps and undulations for the Angels portrayed by Jazzart’s Shaun Oelf and Thabisa Dinga. At its debut the direction of this complex work in progress demanded editing and refining.
Craig Leo’s design, a floral fantasy of recycled lights, is worthy of a Rousseau painting.
Above all, The Flower of Shembe is an exhilarating foray into uncharted possibilities of African performance and theatrical storytelling.
• The Flower of Shembe travels to Johannesburg (in a venue still to be confirmed) from July 6 to 9 and participates in Biko Week in King Williamstown in September.