‘The theatre’s house lights fade to black and audience chatter quickly subsides. Music begins – a trance beat, the brisk playing of a guitar and a quiet electronic pulse; the sound is Indian, African and Middle Eastern in flavour. Small spotlights direct our eyes downstage, centre, where a black man wearing a gold sharkskin suit stands with his back to us. He is barefoot. In a moment, he begins to move in sync with the music and his joyous energy soon makes us believe he will never stop moving.
‘The dancer is Gregory Maqoma and he is astonishing. In the first several minutes of his performance piece, Exit/Exist, we never really see his face. His movements begin slowly with arms shooting left and right as if shocked by electricity. Fingers on his outstretched hands trill, his bare feet tap and slide, his legs kick sideways. Then he propels himself forward, backward and across the stage like a marionette whose strings are controlled by a mad puppeteer. During the 70-minute duration of the show, it’s difficult to take your eyes off its star.’
This is how Sean Hughes started his Los Angeles review of this extraordinary work all the way back in 2013 and it could have been a review now of the same work some six years later. Director James Ngcobo brought it back to his Market Theatre in Johannesburg for Africa Month 2019, and the audience was simply spellbound – storytelling at its very best blended with powerful dance vocabulary.
Exit/Exist reveals the memory of Maqoma’s ancestor, Chief Jongumsobomvu Maqoma, one of the most renowned Xhosa leaders, who was born in 1798, arrested when he ordered the English colonisers to liberate Xhosa land and died on Robben Island in 1873. The 19th-century Xhosa warrior had fought to maintain cultural traditions in the face of colonial dispossession. Maqoma was quoted as saying that his story looks back ‘to the days when the tapestry of South Africa was about the collision of biographies… a renowned chief of the Xhosa nation is at odds with the English over the possession of cattle’ but, eventually, ‘cleared the path to an emancipation that he spent his whole life yearning for.’
The simple action on stage, almost always centred on Maqoma’s fluid dancing, is abetted by a quartet of South African singers and guitarist Giuliano Modarelli who combine gospel, South African popular song and other influences into a seamless backdrop of sound that Simphiwe Dana, the Xhosa singer and songwriter, composed and arranged. The singers interact with Maqoma at various times. London-based Modarelli, originally from Italy, is an accomplished performer, a prolific composer and producer for dance, theatre and cinema. He regularly collaborates across disciplines with artists such as Maqoma.
To quote from Olitta O’Garro’s London-based review: ‘Maqoma places a plate on top of his head in a very chiefly way, and dances with it, filling in the rest of the music with the percussion of his feet, rocking his shoulders, pounding his feet against the floor and swaying his hips in the delight of the music. He explores each part of the stage whilst carrying the plate on his head then he stands and dances in the sand being released above his head.
‘As he undulates his spine into high kicks and deep lunges, he gives the audience a real sense of the polyrhythmic that enters and exits his body whilst showcasing his identity as a South African, a task that can be difficult to execute, Maqoma was able to do so with the greatest of ease. As we continuously hear the unique vocal ability of the singers weaving through the performance, the clear articulation of Maqoma’s movement language has the audience bobbing their heads with enjoyment; it’s what makes the difference between an artist that dances to the music and an artist that dances in the music. Both the singers and Gregory were in harmony with each other.
‘As Maqoma continued to tell the profound story of his ancestor he kneels at the front of the stage on a white cloth facing the audience, he pours oil onto his bare skin, at this point one of the ensemble singer’s stood at the front of the stage, to Maqoma’s right, and he sings a very heart-wrenching song in a capella. Both the singer and Maqoma embody the pain and anguish that Chief Maqoma went through in his time of defeat; the creation of an eerie atmosphere was chilling to watch; as Maqoma then stands, two of the other singers grip onto the cloth and drag him back, as he struggles to stay standing on the cloth there was an image in the mind’s eye of Chief Maqoma being taken away on a boat, you could see the fear through Maqoma’s eyes, it is as if he became his ancestor. We gain the understanding of Chief Maqoma’s fate; being arrested and being held captive on Robben Island.’
Exit/Exist’s greatest strength lies in its powerful dreamlike essence. It manages to make an impact without being overtly political; its universal appeal has moved audiences around the world, seeing it receive standing ovations again and again.
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