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Rebellion & Johannesburg gives us life

Our president would find this work rather unnerving with its multiple “Zuma” references.

Rebellion & Johannesburg is Jessica Nupen’s most recent work with Moving into Dance Maphatong; assisted by Sunnyboy Motau. This animated work fuses traditional culture and contemporary culture to depict the landscape of the young individual wrestling with the convoluted South Africa we have come to know as well as that of star-crossed lovers; Romeo & Juliet. The work opens with a high energy; kwaito/street dance battle which immediately urges us to sit up; the audience. The lively bodies are dressed in colourful urban wear; each uniquely embellished. This gaudy attire and spewing “Ultra Mel” custard footage on the back screen acquaints us with the world of the “Skhothane”.  This pop culture phenomenon identifies itself through its excessive nature, the display of rejecting tradition and current circumstances through ostentatiously discarding of one’s expensive belongings. The dancers engage well with this material as we see their faces being stretched into comical shapes.

Throughout the work we begin to discover that it is made up of various scenes which all seem to aid the entire theme of young individuals living in a chaotic land. It is when Shakespeare’s age old tale is introduced that we may get startled. The performers introduce Romeo & Juliet in a traditional South African context where a wild “Sangoma” replaces the concerned “Friar” and pink paint the deadly poison. This context shift is an intriguing one and the love story speaks back to the youth conflicted by culture and circumstance. Romeo & Juliet portrayed by Sunnyboy Motau and Thenjiwe Soxokoshe possess a connection which is so beautifully crafted. They perform both a courting dancing; an exploration of each other’s bodies and a dance to death; their fate. Romeo is gentle and enjoyably indulgent on his feet and Juliet radiates confidence and vigour. Eugene Mashiane who performs the role of Mercutio is unbelievably comfortable in this sexually liberated personality.

Throughout this work we see these eight individuals dancing in and out of the boarders of dance, incorporating various dance styles amongst the breath-taking presentation of sleek lines and virtuoso. It is pleasing to see that these dancers have each found their own interpretation of the work; this gives it life and meaning.

In a discussion with Nupen and the cast she mentioned that Robyn Orlin has played the role of her “unofficial mentor”. It is fascinating to see remnants of Orlin’s work in this piece, in its robust, in-your-face, culturally rich, at times presentational but still structured form. It was almost like the passing of a baton and watching how it gets re-approached.

The current affair scenes such as the “Parliament” scene are clever and ask of us as viewers to keep up to date. The constant reinforcement of it in the video footage may become overstated and unnecessary, however I keep questioning whether the reference may have added to the humour, relevance and excessiveness of the subject matter? The “Taxi” scene in the beginning which speaks of the crime ridden Johannesburg holds some of Jacques Lecoq’s ensemble storytelling techniques. This is lovely to see in a dance piece, however the text became a bit didactic and brought the momentum down.

The work is complex and one may not grasp all the subtext in one go, however this charming and talented collective create a playful celebration a certain festivity which comes with us as South African’s regardless of what our situation may be. We carry on.

Rebellion & Johannesburg may not be suitable to everyone’s palate, but I can guarantee that you will be positively startled and the intense soundtrack by Spoek Mathambo will get everyone’s heads bobbing.

By Francesca Matthys

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