The vacuum-packed meat lies ready for sale. Don’t think beef or chicken. This is human flesh. It is Gavin Krastin’s lithe 25-year-old body which is revealed by co-perfomer Alan Parker (in eerie plastic head mask and tatty dressing gown) lying under a black shroud on a concrete St Andrews College locker room floor. This is how Krastin’s eight-part Rough Musick, presented on the National Arts Festivals’ performance art Main festival programming, began, watched by audiences sitting on benches or standing against the thick walls.
A wrought iron carriage hangs against the opposite wall where Parker first emerged riding on a tiny antique rocking horse. Memories of childhood, dollops of nostalgia, infuse this performance in which design is as integral as the curated action, the ritualistic audience interaction and choreo-graphy. The most obvious reference is Phia Menard’s extraordinary Vortex, which was part of the French season in Grahamstown last year. Yet, instead of inflating plastic, this artist sucked the air out of it, using a mouth tube to breathe.
A writer in Cue, the festival newspaper, commented that Krastin’s work was the equivalent of Brett Bailey meets Steven Cohen. Apart from the implications of derivation, this is far too easy an equation because, although heavily influenced by Cohen’s transgressive artistry and possessing an eclectic design ethos like Bailey’s, Krastin is developing his very own radically conceptual signature rooted in his own cultural heritage.
The medieval practice of “rough music”, in which criminals and social outcasts were publicly humiliated, is transposed to 21st century Grahamstown encased in its colonial, post-colonial and post-apartheid history. The only section of this highly ambitious work which didn’t ring true was the awkwardly stereotypical Sin Eating interlude in which the audience is asked to pelt a young black person with fresh bread. (The throwing of tomatoes and eggs at Krastin in the penultimate scene was far less contrived. One young man, still angry at being sexually propositioned, let rip. )
After Krastin’s vulnerable body is carried to the adjoining room where he emerges bare-chested in sky-high fetish boots, a black tassled skirt and pearls dancing to Christina Aguilera’s Nasty Naughty Boy, themes of temptation, sacrifice and sexuality seriously kick in. As a dancer Krastin’s dangerous beauty is meshed with a decadent fragility. Elements of the mythical and the fantastical intertwine with hard core reality, gender politics and textures of space and place. The narrative, told through the performer’s spine, is embedded with fetishism .
The stigma of being different from the norm climaxes to the clamour of pots and pans banged by the public as the shamed human is placed on the cycle carriage, wheeled into Worcester Street and hooked onto a donkey cart which clatters into the African sunset.
An important subtext to Rough Musick is raging homophobia in certain South African communities (not to mention the rest of the continent). Three days before the Grahamstown premiere the body of lesbian Duduzile Zozo, 26, was discovered in Thokoza with a toilet brush shoved into her vagina. As also proved by Mamela Nyamza and Mojisola Adebayo’s I Stand Corrected (2012), and Athena Mazarakis’s Standing By (2012/13), issue-based art with a capital “A” remains one of the cornerstones of our theatre and contemporary dance traditions.
In this respect Rough Musick functions both as a requiem for victims of gender violence and as a site-specific intervention in which unsettling tactile performance taps into psychological playgrounds and intellectual hinterlands.
Rough Musick and Land Mine (an exhibition of Krastin’s costumes and photographic documentation sourced from previous works) feature at World Stage Design 2013 in Cardiff, Wales from September 5 to15. This Capetonian is one of 100 finalists selected from 600 entries from 52 countries to exhibit and perform at this four-yearly “celebration of international performance design”. The African continent is only represented by Krastin and Illka Louw from Cape Town.