By BRUCE DENNILL
Dance Umbrella: Doll / Co-created by Owen Lonzar & Sylvaine Strike / Wits Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg 7
The final performance of Dance Umbrella 2018 – and of the festival in general, certainly in its current form – was a good one. It is another examination of relationships and how an external influence (in this case, selfie culture and its extrapolated effect via dating apps that highlight only the superficial) has changed the way they form and are conducted, and it provides plenty of food for thought.
The costumes and choreography place the piece somewhere between contemporary dance and cabaret, with the sexiness of the performers part of the challenge of taking the production’s message on board (after all, it’d be easier to look beyond skin-deep beauty if it wasn’t so clearly evident). Each dancer is more or less permanently attached to a cellphone – at first in a designed, strategised way, but later in a more natural sense that becomes thoroughly disturbing as it becomes easier to see yourself and your own technological or social media addictions in the unfolding narrative.
Theatre director Sylvaine Strike’s distinctively edgy style is detectible in some of the costumes and interactions between the dancers (not least the shiny thigh-high boots worn by the striking Donovan Yaards) and there are clever choreographic subtleties that include having some of the female “doll” dancers tweak their controlled movements to look more like the slightly stutter motion of a gif on a social media post than like a stiff-armed puppet or robot, which has become a cliché.
Also, while Doll is quite clearly a dance piece, with the occasional words included alongside the movement more markers for technological cues than any form of dialogue, it also has something of a play’s development of character, particularly during a scene when Ryan Dittmann depicts a man – an average young, horny male (in what is a poor advert for humans as a species, sadly) – swiping madly left and right on his phone in a desperate, dissolute quest to hook up with his next conquest. Each of the girls involved delight him for a while, but their appeal quickly fades, and he is left bored and purposeless again.
There is another telling scene in which Craig Morris and Nosiphiwo Samente play a couple in bed together, but battling to fall asleep. Morris’ character is distracted by his phone and, hiding the screen from his partner, wanders to the other side of the room. The sense of a fragile trust under threat is palpable, and there is a look on Samente’s face that perfectly conveys the pain and pathos of being in the same room as a loved one and yet being completely ignored.
Many dance pieces are delicate and lyrical in the allusions to the thought process or driving factors behind their creation. Doll is not, and is all the more effective for it. No sensible person needs to be told that social media and internet dating apps like Tinder have anti-social, corruptive elements to them, but being told so in so many words – again – doesn’t necessarily communicate the real damage done.
Doll is likely not yet at its best – it was created for this festival and will likely be developed further – but it hits hard because it is fun as well as stinging.