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Behind the scenes with the Cion team

Siyandiswa Dokoda, production and marketing manager for Vuyani Dance Theatre, spoke to Gregory Maqoma, Oliver Hauser and Nhlanhla Mahlangu about the upcoming amplified season of Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro at The Mandela at Joburg Theatre.

Vuyani Dance Theatre Cion Requiem Ravel's Bolero Gregory Maqoma
Gregory Maqoma in Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro PHOTO John Hogg

Siyandiswa Dokoda: Can you shed some light on the relationship between Zakes Mda’s book Cion and your dance production Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro?
Gregory Maqoma: I first read Ways of Dying by the same author and was intrigued by the character of Toloki, the professional mourner. And how the author manages to take the character in the complex world of slavery in Cion inspired me to create the work, weaving the two stories of contemporary South Africa and American slavery (with a knowledge that these were Africans who were captured and sold as slaves to work on various plantations in America). In Cion, I was fascinated by the story of the runaway slaves, how motherly love pushed her children to find freedom in spite of the risk of death should they be caught. 

SD: How did Zakes Mda react to you drawing inspiration from a character in his book? 
GM: When I first shared my thoughts with Prof Mda and asked for his permission and blessing to tackle the story and use the title of the same book, Cion, his response was of a writer who writes for his work to find inspiration for others – and it was exactly that, his writing, vision and storytelling inspire visual theatrical experiences and films, so why not dance? I also think what made it a bit easier for our communication is that we are both fans and supporters of each other’s works. At one time he drove with his family across states from Ohio, where he is based, to come to see my work Exit/Exist in North Carolina. He always comments that he first saw my work as a student and was impressed by my take on complex subjects and the empathy that I carried at that young age – this must have been perhaps 25 years ago. 

SD: Tell us about the main character of the production and why you chose that character to drive the narrative of what you wanted to share in this production?
GM: Toloki is a professional mourner – an unconventional career – and I feel mourning and death are very much part of rites of passage, but so many atrocities in the world have led to many people dying senselessly and I wonder what happened to their spirits, their decency, and the family grief. Toloki takes us on a journey to find healing and to mourn the death of those who died not as a natural phenomenon but by the actions of others. We have all been turned into professional mourners each day we lose someone we love, each day somewhere in the world, through religion, power and greed, many people die – often running. 

Vuyani Dance Theatre Cion Requiem Ravel's Bolero Gregory Maqoma
Gregory Maqoma in Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro

SD: What skills are necessary for a person in your position? 
Oliver Hauser: The technical director (TD) is usually responsible for the overall organisation of the technical production process. The TD’s duties include generating necessary working drawings for construction; budget estimations; materials research and purchasing; scheduling and supervising the crew and coordinating load-ins and load-outs. In venues that host touring productions, the TD is usually responsible for distributing the production’s technical rider, co-ordinating local crew, renting additional equipment and liaising between the tour manager and the local crew.
     To start as a set designer, you must have creative and imaginative ideas. Expressing these ideas through technical drawing and model-making all while working under pressure to meet deadlines is essential. Always remember to research, research, research. Inspiration is key.

SD: What are the design elements that are stand-out features in this production? 
OH: The textured plastic bag backdrop plays a large role in setting the landscape of the production. The idea was to transport the audience to a magically realistic realm. Zakes Mda’s book Cion doesn’t clearly state where the story takes place, I wanted to create a cemetery with a surreal landscape that could help stimulate the audience’s imagination.

SD: What was it like working with Mannie Mannim who designed the original lighting plan for this show? 
OH: ​Mannie is, in my opinion, one of the greatest theatrical lighting directors in South Africa, I have always looked up to him. I filled in as his lighting programmer for the premiere of Cion at the Market Theatre. What stood out most was his attention to detail, his ability to time moments perfectly and create an atmosphere without unhinging the performance.

SD: Why do you think theatre productions like Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro are important? 
OH: They help teach a new generation of theatre-goers about the possibilities of storytelling through dance.

SD: How are you feeling about reimagining the show on a bigger stage with more musicians and dancers on stage? Can you share some of the ideas you already have to amplify the production? ​
OH: The idea is to create a larger visual environment without compromising the intimacy of the production. There are some incredibly tender moments that I don’t want to lose on this massive stage, this is the true challenge.

Vuyani Dance Theatre Cion Requiem Ravel's Bolero Gregory Maqoma
Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro PHOTO Siphosihle Mkhwanazi

SD: What’s challenging about bringing this music to life?
Nhlanhla Mahlangu: The challenge I had as a composer was to understand Ravel’s Boléro, respect what the music stands for, and create a South African interpretation using vocals only. 

SD: Why did you want to be involved in this production?
NM: This is an ongoing journey that I have been walking with Gregory Maqoma for the past 20 years. We continue to discover and rediscover our purpose as artists, and who wants to say ‘no’ to Gregory Maqoma?

SD: Can you share about the process of creating the unique music for this production and what your inspirations were?
NM: Isicathamiya, clap and tap, traditional Zulu amahubo songs and Zion church music – these are my tools and as an experienced dance practitioner, I also use movement as inspiration for sound.

SD: What has the reception been to the music as the production has been to numerous European festivals?
NM: The response has been overwhelming. Cion recently won the Audience Choice Award at the Holland Festival. 

SD: What will the audience be thinking about in the car as they drive home after this show?
NM: I think they will be astonished like I was when I saw it for the first time, but we can’t dictate how people must feel.

SD: How will the added voices from Soweto Gospel Choir amplify and bring something new to this story?
NM: I know that I have to reimagine the whole thing and I am waiting to be surprised myself, I don’t dictate the process.

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