Creative Feel spoke to Gregory Maqoma, Mannie Manim and Jacques van der Watt of Black Coffee about the planning and pre-production for this interesting new work. In Cion: A Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro, Maqoma brings together the works of two virtuosos who have inspired his own creative output: French composer, pianist and conductor Maurice Ravel and South African novelist, poet and playwright Zakes Mda. This is not the first time that Maqoma has used Ravel’s Boléro; he performed a stunning interpretation of the piece in Joys of Sharing, his 2016 collaboration with Wouter Kellerman and Simphiwe Dana. Originally composed as a ballet commissioned by Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein, Boléro, which premiered in 1928, is Ravel’s most famous musical composition. While on vacation at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Ravel went to the piano and played a melody with one finger to his friend Gustave Samazeuilh, saying, ‘don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.’ This piece was initially called Fandango, but its title was soon changed to Boléro. According to Idries Shah, the main melody is adapted from a tune composed for and used in Sufi training. ‘Apart from the music being popular and certainly one of Ravel’s most known composition, I am fascinated by its simple structure which I find to be African in its structural and haunting nature,’ says Maqoma. ‘Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Xolisile Bongwana are working on developing a score that gravitates the choreography into a space of worship, love and hate, and a fight for survival. The Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro is our healing, the song to the departed souls, to pause for second and think about life, what it means, maybe just maybe we can value life again.’
To bring home the African structure he hears in Boléro, Maqoma will also incorporate Isicathamiya singing. ‘When I was listening to Ravel’s Boléro, I felt I had to bring the music home and allow it to grow new energy, to strip away the classical instrumentation and allow voices, chanting, church hymns and the circular motion of music structure to drive the choreography.’
Using the repetitive sounds of this piece as a backdrop, Maqoma explores the character of a professional mourning, using Zakes Mda’s Toloki of Ways of Dying, and later Cion, as a starting point. ‘I am always drawn to Zakes Mda’s work,’ says Maqoma. ‘As a choreographer, I am fascinated by the images he communicates in his works and more that he is drawn to the issues of black culture, tradition, urban and political shaping. In this case, Toloki discovers an unconventional profession of mourning; hence in my approach to the work, I made a choice to focus on the character to tackle the idea of death in our modern context. Death is a universal rite of passage. To choose the theme of death in my approach is inspired by the universal events that lead to death, not as a natural phenomenon but by decisions of others over the other. We mourn the death by creating death, the universe of greed, power and religion has led us to be professional mourners who transform the horror of death and the pain of mourning into a narrative without feeling for life, and we are doomed and lost without any sense of taste, touch or even sight. I am concerned and terrified by the thought of how it has become easy for a person to die, and we die in masses. I am disturbed by how we have normalised death. I am creating this work as a lament, a requiem required to awaken a part of us, the connection to the departed souls. I decided on artists who embody the ideals of chant as a driving force in our negotiation of space, confinements, fall and recovery.
‘What attracted me to the character is how we have been turned into professional mourners, the developing events in our country, with the political dynamics developing around the world we are forced into mourning, mourning for the country, mourning for those fleeing their homes to seek protection in other countries where they are clearly not welcomed, as others mourn, others are like the runaway slaves always searching for a place they can call home or at the least to feel safe.’
In Mda’s Cion, Toloki, the professional mourner introduced in Ways of Dying, takes the opportunity to travel the world in search of new ways of mourning. He finds himself abandoned in Athens Ohio, but a chance meeting with a Halloween reveller leads him to the poor hamlet of Kilvert, home to descendants of fugitive slaves. A community of traditional quiltmakers, the people of Kilvert, and notably the Quigley family, offer Toloki hospitality while never completely coming to terms with what they regard as his shamanistic attributes. From them, he learns the stories told by the quilts and the secrets held by the sycamores – ghost trees that are the carriers of memories – and he becomes aware that this is a community which strives to keep alive their past in order to validate the present. They cannot let go, for the past is all they have. And it is through the quilts and the sycamores and the messages they carry that the old story is told of the slaves in the plantations of the south and their eternal quest to escape and find their freedom, interwoven with the story of life in present-day Kilvert. It is also a time of growth for Toloki, bringing about a softening of his former austerity and enabling him to determine the path his future will take.
To bring this piece to life, Maqoma has enlisted the help of legendary lighting designer and co-founder of the Market Theatre, Mannie Manim; set designer, Oliver Hauser; composer and saxophonist, Nhlanhla Mahlangu; dancer and composer Xolisile Bongwana; and fashion designer Jacques van der Watt of Black Coffee. This team will play an integral part in ensuring that Maqoma’s vision is brought to life in a way that is appealing and which will draw in the audience. The stage holds the world of the play or dance performance. It provides time and context and automatically transports the audience to a destination. Design for live performance can often do much more than representing time and place, providing an emotional context and visual interest, as well as giving the audience something to think about. Even when the chosen aesthetic is to recreate as closely and completely as possible a very particular world, there are choices open to the design team which will allow their work to convey more than simply time and place to the audience. A great set balances functionality and aesthetics while expressing the director or choreographer’s vision.
Design for performance exists to support the performers, which means that there will always be some practical constraints on performance design. For dance productions, there needs to be room for the performers to move, and lighting positions to provide good modelling of their forms when they move. ‘My favourite lighting designer of all time, Jean Rosenthal, wrote a wonderful book called The magic of light,’ says Mannie Manim. ‘She used to say that great lighting is when you get the air right. When you light the air so that the performers can move through that space.’ Most important to Manim is creating lighting design that is in line with Maqoma’s vision. ‘I know the theatre, I know the theatre relatively well,’ he laughs. ‘It’s a slightly different shape to what it was at the start, it’s still more-or-less the same. It’s a question of if I can find a way that is totally apt for this piece, each piece has its own requirements, its own demands, its own kind of logic and I have to try and create that logic with Greg. What’s vital for me is that I’m doing it in the way that Greg would like it done, that’s the most important thing for me. That I’m creating a vision in terms of lighting… What Greg has in his mind, in his deepest thoughts when he first started thinking about this.
‘This is our first time working together, which is even more exciting, I like that.’
The costumes too need to reflect Maqoma’s vision for the piece, as well as being functional and, as one has come to expect from Black Coffee, beautiful. Black Coffee have created costumes for numerous Vuyani Dance Theatre performances, including the memorable white, flowing pieces for Full Moon. For Cion: A Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro, ‘Gregory briefed me about the mood and movement of the piece. He was looking for something very sombre and he wanted the idea of a funeral procession to come across, says van der Watt. That the costumes are created for dancers and movement, ‘is always something to keep in mind,’ he says. ‘Either the cut of the garment of the fabric has to allow for a lot of movement. The Black Coffee style of cutting often uses a lot of volume so it isn’t usually a challenge for us… In this particular case we want to bring in elements of menswear cloth, but use it in combination with other fabrics and in a very unconventional way.
‘The influence isn’t very obviously traditional but it will still have an underlying African element.’
To book to see this fascinating new production, visit www.markettheatre.co.za.
Meet the creative team.