By BRUCE DENNILL
Terra Cha (Flatland) / Choreographed by Nelia Pinheiro / UJ Arts Centre, Johannesburg
Nelia Pinheiro’s contribution to this year’s Dance Umbrella begins with multi-storey projections of groups of Portuguese peasants in neckerchiefs and, er, chaps, singing traditional Cante Alentejano music – the very heart of artful despondency. That sets the mood for Terra Cha, but doesn’t, like pretty much everything to follow, provide much of a clue as to the plot – or indeed, given that it’s contemporary dance and narratives aren’t necessarily stipulated – the point.
All of the dancing takes place on a rectangular patch of beach sand, which adds an interesting element to proceedings, as the substrate moves with the dancers, and they can interact with it, flinging it around, skidding on it, somersaulting onto it and all manner of other activities.
Olafur Arnalds’ score is a disconnected, whispered thing without a constant rhythm, which makes it difficult to feel as a listener, and thus tough to click with in terms of watching dancers move to it. The only bit of the synopsis that makes sense (it goes on about “the density of the air, the void, the silence…” among much else) is a phrase that states that “the choreography builds concrete and abstract paths in both the voice and the environment of Alentejo”. That’s resolutely vague, but so is that action, which involves six dancers, including Pinheiro herself, being alternately angry and threatening and glum and moody – or sometimes a mixture of all of those in one sequence; one anguished melange.
In a long, unbroken piece – Terra Cha lasts over an hour – there are very few ensemble pieces, with far more of the choreography involving individuals leaping and twirling than the cast in coordinated dance. As a result, and because of the clear industry with which the dancers apply themselves – energy is never in short supply; they’re incredibly fit – it’s sometimes difficult to know if every move has been choreographed, or if there are marks to hit and much of what happens in between is improvised.
The sand, some water that is introduced about two-thirds of the way through and a watermelon that makes its way onto the stage, is ignored for 20 minutes and then destroyed – first by being lobbed into the air to explode in the sand and then to be crushed and minced against a dancer’s chest – make a hell of a mess. And the way the dancers commit to getting involved in that mess, showing impressive control and strength and never once holding back as their clothes, hair, eyes and mouths get filled with sand, mud and fruit pulp, shows them to be commendably committed.
But to what?
Music and movement for its own sake: fine, but not compelling.