By BRUCE DENNILL
Workers’ Chant / Choreographed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu / Workers’ Museum, Newtown, Johannesburg
A work examining, through dance, the harshness of the lives of the migrant workers who worked – under terrible conditions – in the mines and other labour fields of Johannesburg, could scarcely take place in a more evocative setting than Newtown’s Workers’ Museum, one of the stark, original compounds in which these labourers were housed (and abused).
That it rained throughout the performance of Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Workers’ Chant that marked the opening of the 2017 edition of the annual Dance Umbrella festival was not the choreographer’s fauly, and indeed, in the early stages of the work, it added a level of unsympathetic reality to the piece as the audience suffered the extremely mild indignity of standing in the rain while considering the scenarios the building’s original inhabitants would have had to endure.
The inherent pathos of this situation would likely have been sufficient to drive home the message of the work and the lessons that should be learned from a shameful part of South African history. But there are elements to the piece that push it past the initial, meaningful feeling of discomfort that those following the performers around the central quad of the museum experience and into a space that is first just merely strange and then, occasionally, annoying.
Firstly, there is the use of the surroundings – often not particularly well-suited to the narrative of the piece. The dancers and performers – Liyabuya Gongo, Siphumeze Khundayi and the traditional dance and song ensemble Phuphuma Love Minus – are often partially or wholly out of sight and hearing of at least part of the audience as they operate in the compound’s smaller rooms and passageways. The rain added to the challenges here, as audience members who may have been willing and able to crowd into certain gaps were it dry, but who preferred to take up stations out of the wet in this instance. Better planning in terms of the space required for the audience to be able to enjoy maximum involvement (and to not have to worry about their phones, tablets or computers getting damaged in the rain) might have made the experience less confusing for those not able to stay in touch with the storyline,
Secondly, there is the genuine aggression of the lead characters, played by Gongo and Khuyandi. In the context of their roles as overseers of the workers they must bend to their will – in this case, a part often unwittingly played by the audience – their over-the-top postulations make sense and help to underline the dehumanising aspect of the the practices Workers’ Chant dramatizes.
But far too often, there are exclamations and movements that are just awkwardly (as opposed to dramatically) invasive, with audience members pushed out of the way as dancers move between scenes and supporters of the performance and the festival at as they’re trying to situate themselves appropriately in an unconventional space (it’s not a theatre, where the stage and seating are obviously demarcated). It feels forced – wilfully rather than organically avant-garde – and unnecessarily so when given the already dramatic impact of the surroundings and the weather.
Gongo deserves praise for the intensity of her performance, but ironically, that passion only highlights the fragmented and incoherent narrative thread, which has its visually powerful moments but is ultimately unsatisfying. The heartbreak of the historical background comes through loud and clear, but whether some moments of the performance help or hinder that delivery is debatable.