By BRUCE DENNILL
Eleven years after its debut, Gregory Maqoma’s Exit/Exist returns to the stage where it was first revealed as part of the final act of a storied performance career. Maqoma turns 50 in October and will retire from dancing, so these final runs (at the Market and then at the National Arts Festival) serve as a wonderful testament to much of what he has achieved as a dancer, a choreographer, and innovator, an administrator and an activist.
That last facet is a major part of this production, as it’s thematically built around paying tribute to the legacy of Xhosa leader Chief Jongumsobomvu Maqoma, an influential forebear of the dancer’s, who took on English colonisers in the Eastern Cape in the 19th Century and was jailed on Robben Island for his troubles. He later died there.
The choreography is designed to showcase, if not literally depict, the moods and emotions of different passages of the chief’s experience and their relation to a contemporary situation – where, perhaps, not much has changed in terms of respect for people or heritage.
Maqoma’s control and focus has a dancer has not dulled in the slightest with the passage of time – his retirement is a decision that has to do with succession and moving into other professional areas, rather than with any issue with physical challenges. He is on stage from start to finish – the running time is around an hour – even changing outfits in sight of the audience, and morphs from besuited contemporary character to cowhide (well, a David Tlale designer equivalent, at least)-wearing Xhosa chieftain and back again. Many of the taut, precise movements that make up the choreography are now Maqoma trademarks, seen in the work of others he’s influenced as well as in pieces he’s part of in some way. His style here creates both tension and pathos, resulting in a sort of positive anxiety that keeps onlookers thoroughly engaged.
Creative use of basic materials adds a fascination factor – rice poured in a perfect circle, sand falling from the flies for what feels like ages, a banged-up plate balanced on Maqoma’s head regardless of how much he quivers and shifts around the stage, and oil that transforms his appearance as he scoops it over his head and shoulders. These, the costumes and Maqoma himself create a whirling, dipping, falling, textured visual spectacle that’s difficult to look away from, but sight is not the only sense to be stimulated. Simphiwe Dana’s complex music is played on classical guitar by Guiliano Modarelli, who makes it look disarmingly easy when it is anything but. And the well-matched voices of four singers (the Complete Quartet) adds emotion and dynamics, with the four of them also wandering on to stage from time to time to add more interaction to parts of Maqoma’s otherwise solo choreography.
It’s a heady mix that has lost none of its power or relevance over the years and which offers profound meaning for those informed or interested enough to look for the layers and inspiration. It’s also, though, simply beautiful and moving enough to reach and exhilarate any audience; a piece of art that speaks several languages at once, whether they are written, spoken, sung or felt.