Interrogating beauty: Gavin Krastin in Alan Parkers Cellardoor which celebrates The First Physical Theatre Companys 20th anniversary.

For decades Grahamstown has not only been the home of the National Arts Festival. Think off-the-wall creativity produced by fearless bodies, inquisitive minds and unfettered imaginations.

During and after the annual arts bash, The First Physical Theatre Company, founded by Gary Gordon in 1993, not only launched South Africa’s first physical theatre company, but acquired a reputation for its exciting experimentation.

First Physical, for a number of reasons, is a shadow of its former powerhouse self. But as it celebrates its 20th birthday in skeleton mode, its real stature lies in its indelible legacy in choreographic development, academic research, groundbreaking collaborations and resourcefulness anchored by excellence.

Not to mention the slew of Standard Bank Young Artist Award winners for dance starting with the inaugural laureate Gordon himself in 1989, shortly before he left for the Laban Centre in London as co-ordinator of choreographic studies, where he interacted with leading choreographers and emerging trends. On his return to Rhodes, Gordon implemented his new experience and established First Physical as a student performing company which became a regular on the NAF Fringe and at the national Dance Umbrella in Johannesburg.

Subsequently First Physical gained professional status. National Arts Council funding allowed it to develop into a nationally significant entity linked to the academic practice, which led the way in producing masters degrees in choreography and invaluable research. The funding woes have taken their toll and the departure of Professor Gordon in mid-2010, on sabbatical to take up a post as head of academic studies at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts has left a gap. Juanita Finestone has valiantly kept First Physical afloat with help from the remaining dedicated performers and choreographers.

In honour of the birthday, Alan Parker (who recently left Grahamstown for Cape Town) has been commissioned to rework Cellardoor (Centenary Hall) his 2012 Dance Umbrella commission. And he’s not alone. By his side are Rhodes graduates and First Physical guest artists, designer and performance artist Gavin Krastin, dancemaker Nicola Elliott and composer-choreographer Shaun Acker, Jen Schneeberger and UCT School of Dance student, Lorin Sookool.

First Physical’s tracks are all over the 2013 festival. On the main, distinguished founder member PJ Sabbagha’s Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative produces and premieres Young Artists 2013 winner Fana Tshabalala’s Indumba (Rhodes Theatre).

Taking pride of place on the shiny new performance art slot is Gavin Krastin’s Rough Musick, which he performs with Alan Parker to an original score by Shaun Acker. In September this ethereal Capetonian is exhibiting at World Stage Design in Cardiff. This exhibition is based on his installation work presented at the National Arts Festival (mainly under the First Physical banner) from which themes of “displace-ment, colonisation and war emerged”. As a result, “I have conceptualised and called it Land Mine. My new work Rough Musick has also been invited over as a means to exhibit design for performance.”

There’s plenty of physical fizz on the fringe. Andrew Buckland, renowned Rhodes drama graduate and current head of department, teams up with director Rob Murray and performer Liezl de Kock for their Crazy in Love (Glennie Hall). PLASTIC (Centenary Hall), a double-bill created by Cape Town’s Standard Bank Ovation and Fiesta award-winning Underground Dance Theatre, includes the Voortrekker idyll Skoonveld co-created by Steven van Wyk and Thalia Laric (who danced with First Physical in 2011). The cast includes Elliott and Parker.

Matchbox Theatre Collective’s Bailey Snyman (SBYA 2012) and Nicola Haskins are now based at the University of Pretoria Drama Department. Students will perform revivals of Haskins’ As Night Falls (PJ’s) a tribute to Helen Martins and Chasing (Centenary Hall), a take on the poet Ingrid Jonker.

Recent Rhodes graduate Nadine Joseph premieres her full length for.GIVEn (PJ’s), a collaboration with composer Daniel Nubian.

Rhodes alumni Joni Barnard and Kyle de Boer are back with Kieron Jina and their Stash the Suitcase Collective.