By BRUCE DENNILL
Exit/Exist / Directed by James Ngcobo / John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg
Gregory Maqoma’s elegantly staged musing on the life and struggles of his ancestor, Xhosa leader Chief Jongumsobomvu Maqoma, has been performed a number of times around the world over many years, with this run being the final stop before the production is archived (for the time being, anyway).
The narrative plays out in a progression of separate but linked scenes, in which aspects of Chief Maqoma’s life are alluded to – the battles he fought, the importance of cattle in his life and culture, and the impact of his being imprisoned by the British (he was sent to Robben Island for protesting against colonial rule, and died there in 1873). Maqoma is the only dancer, and costumes are changed onstage, adding a couple of different layers of intimacy.
He is not alone on stage, however, even if it seems that way to begin with. A black screen suspended at the back of the stage becomes, when lit from the back, transparent enough that the presence of first a classical guitarist – Italian Giuliano Modarelli – and then a quartet of a capella singers is revealed.
In many dance pieces, the music serves mostly to provide the rhythm and to signal the general mood of the choreography. Here, by virtue of there being different voices – vocal and instrumental – from different traditions (much of the backing soundtrack is composed by fellow Xhosa artist Simphiwe Dana), there are other stories going on even as Maqoma remains the focus of the unfolding chronicle.
Along with the expert performers, clever innovative staging and lighting provides intrigue and drama. Piles of what looks like grain provide reference points and at one point, a stream of sand falls from the flies, creating a shimmering cascade that is beautiful in its own right and somehow more important once Maqoma’s choreography brings him into contact with it. A bowl of ground meal and a cup of oil sit front and centre for much of the piece, and projections on the black screen fill in other details, with the appearance of the Robben Island lighthouse particularly poignant.
This is all framework for the action, though, and it is the performances that lift Exit/Exist from an imaginative to a profound and stirring emotional scenario. The singers all have clean, clear voices, from cavernous bass to pristine counter-tenor, all beautifully blended. And Modarelli and Maqoma are clearly connected, responding to each other’s signals almost unconsciously.
Maqoma is mesmerising, from the moment he begins, clad in a shiny suit, to twitch and shake in response to the stuttering electronic bars of the first part of the soundtrack. It takes some time before he turns to face the audience, but it feels like it is his character’s intensity that separates him from those watching, not a lack of eye contact. He later changes into a short cowhide tunic that also functions in helping him transform into one of the Chief’s cattle, and later still sheds that skin to remain in nothing more than a pair of dark briefs.
His choreography mixes traditional and contemporary dance movements and includes sequences requiring combinations of incredible strength and balance. Overall, the performance is a demanding athletic feat and it is testament to Maqoma’s dedication to his craft that he is fit enough to maintain his pace, focus and passion for the duration of the work, which lasts just over an hour.
It’s an intensity that is felt, experienced and reciprocated by the audience. During a sequence in which he anoints himself with oil and literally quivers with the fervour of the experience, supported by a pure, high, keening vocal line, it’s possible to feel the bulk of the crowd holding its collective breath, unwilling to disturb this meditative moment with so much as an exhalation.
Exit/Exist is exhilarating and almost overwhelmingly emotive – fascinating for the insight it gives into the past and sensational for its standalone beauty in purely artistic terms. A triumph.