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JOMBA! @ 20! Memorable Legacy
- Dr.Ketu H Katrak

September 23, 2018

(This review was first posted on Jomba! Khuluma 2018)

Jomba! 2018 offered a characteristically remarkable range of Contemporary Dance Experience--from the very young, five to six-year old's, along with the youth who danced with focus, skill, and gusto at Jomba! Youth Fringe (at the Open-Air Theater, UKZN Howard College Campus, on September 2), to the mature, professional dancers who were all part of the historic "Legacy", the 20th anniversary of Jomba! in its Durban home from August 28-September 9, 2018.

The historic Elizabeth Sneddon Theater was the site of JOMBA! 2018's opening on August 28, 2018. As Lliane Loots, veteran Artistic Director of JOMBA! for the past twenty years, stepped up to the spotlighted stage podium, she was greeted with thunderous applause indicating the audience's deep appreciation of her creative and courageous work in keeping JOMBA! alive in the face of massive funding cuts and other challenges.

Loots' remarks served as a Keynote address presenting significant goals of building community, of breaking barriers in a world undergoing what she called "seismic" shifts, spiraling downward into building walls of divisions (a la Trump), or the UK brexiting the European Union.The ripple effects of such political-economic events are devastating for ordinary people whose voices are not heard. In this fragmented global environment, "losing community" remarked Loots wisely, "is the death of art." However, Loots asserts the "feeling of community" and of hope provided by the generosity of all who continue to struggle to make art, who assert the need for art and for democracy as basic human rights. Loots and her team, in making JOMBA! 2018 possible, are the keepers of hope for artists in South Africa and beyond.

Loots introduced a significant Islamic word, namely, "jihad" that has been unfairly maligned to create hatred and fear against all Muslims. Usually translated only as taking up arms in a "holy war", what Loots gained from working with this year's collaborative project between Cape Town's Unmute Dance Company and Durban's Flatfoot Dance Company, is the wisdom of choreographer Yaseen Manuel and Sufi philosophy that interprets "jihad" as "the daily war inside our souls," remarks Loots, "inner battles that are never easy in our political and cultural landscape." How do we face these psychic and emotional conflicts in the midst of scenarios of violence and rape; how do we not "lose our jihad", namely our own internal battles to create art and be part of making a peaceful world? She asks astutely with a poignant ring to her tone: where, in the South African context today, are "the principles of our Freedom Charter?"

Loots remarks that endeavors on the artistic front are up against a socio-economic climate that supports only artistic productions that promote "national cohesion." This is a strange mandate, posits Loots astutely, given South Africa's diverse population. Art cannot be measured only in terms of capital gains, or the GDP of South Africa's economy. Rather, Loots notes that there is "another type of cultural process" - art for education, for inner growth, for shifting consciousness and for celebrating a revolution of beauty, not for "market value". The profound significance of art, Loots remarks with perspicacity, "is self-realized people." Further, she asserts that "Art is a manifestation of hope, a jihad for us" that enables us to defy borders, and to take on decolonizing education in our society. Such values were realized by the artists and dance-makers of JOMBA! 2018, evident especially in the faces and smiles of the Jomba! Youth Fringe participants from local areas, mentored skillfully and sensitively by dance professionals.

Loots indicated some highlights of Jomba!'s remarkable "Legacy" program, celebrated with the return in 2018 of the Johannesburg-based Moving into Dance Mophatong (MIDM) that had performed at Jomba!'s first showcase of Contemporary Dance in 1998. MIDM is also celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2018, begun by the visionary Sylvia Glasser who laid the foundation for a non-racial dance companyduring apartheid in 1978. From South Africa to India, Loots noted the participation of India-based Contemporary Indian dancer, Anita Ratnam and her feminist voice, transcending borders of traditional representations of women in her work, A Million Sitas. Jomba! continues to support new works, as well as partnering with the Durban Art Gallery. Jomba! Fringe and Youth Fringe are crucial in building the next generation of dancers. Workshops and community classes offer training in techniques such as lighting by Chicago based Julie Ballard, and writing residencies under veteran journalist Adrienne Sichel who has been part of Jomba! since its inception. At Jomba! 2018, Sichel's book entitled Body Politics: Fingerprinting South African Contemporary Dance was launched on September 4. This text is a landmark contribution for dancers, choreographers, festival organizers; it includes a treasure-trove of Sichel's own witnessing of the evolution of Contemporary South African Dance since the 1970s.

Loots thanked maestro photographer of dance, Val Adamson, who gives her time and expertise "to be the eyes of the festival" in her superb visual work. With all such supporters of Jomba! Loots appreciates this community that is willing to speak truth to power. In closing, she quoted from Paulo Freire who asserts "the imperative to maintain hope, to always begin anew, to refuse to live life as a process." Loots' own incredibly hopeful spirit, and her determination to keep spaces like Jomba! alive have been key for artists in Durban and beyond. She has served as "a guiding light" as was noted in the vote of thanks after her remarks at the Opening of Jomba! 2018.

Man Longing
Performances of the first day began with Moving into Dance Mophatong's work, "Man Longing", choreographed by Sunnyboy Mandla Motau. It begins in silence with a masked man entering and surveying the space. A black man with bent back pushing a luggage carrier comes in several times with large plastic bags that he offloads. They appear to be heavy. Several bags are strewn around the stage. We do not see their contents until we notice a human hand and a foot emerging. Finally, the full bodies leave their "plastic" homes and stand upright. They enter a world where they are treated inhumanely, and though alive, their bodies, soon to be used by men as they please, ironically mirror their plastic inanimate containers. This work about "the dark and sinister world of human trafficking" as noted in the program, "hopes to bring awareness to the dangers that lurk out there."

What unfolds is a grim scenario of sexual violations. One woman plays a prostitute, another, dressed tidily who appears to be going to work or simply walking down the street realizes that she is in danger and keeps pulling at her short skirt trying to cover as much of her body as possible. Another woman is carried off by male predators, stripped to her underwear and thrown around roughly. The musical score, harsh and disruptive, matches the sharp edges of the unfolding violence. The woman, who resists initially, cannot hold for long as the prostitute entices her into her line of work. The "proper" woman notes towards the end that her family does not know if she is dead or alive since she is now in this environment of selling her body. The humiliation of female bodies performing to male dictates continues relentlessly. The masked man who begins the show appears to be the pimp regulating women's bodies for profit.

Although "Man Longing" captures a scenario that is not uncommon in a dangerous city like Johannesburg where MIDM is based, the hard-hitting, naturalistic representation of the violence left the audience enervated. There was no redeeming male figure in the work as though all males are sexual predators; further such a concept is de-contextualized as if their sexual behavior is completely divorced from their socio-economic lives. This is not at all to excuse male violence, but to indicate that stereotyping an entire male population as predatory is reductive. Although "Man Longing" conveys a dark vision, the audience wonders about its overall purpose apart from the one stated in the program, namely "to raise awareness." With "awareness" comes caution, but also more damagingly, fear, hatred and misunderstanding. How are we in the audience to witness, indeed, become voyeurs of the unfolding sexual violence? Are there absolutely no ways out? The artist/choreographer is certainly free to leave the audience disturbed; however, in making such brutal reality into art, I missed some evocation of even an imagined, symbolic ending. After all, it is still within the purview of art to inspire hope, and to challenge stereotypes of male violence and female victimhood. I did appreciate the strong physical movements of all the dancers who executed the choreography with skill and vigor.

MIDM's second work entitled, "The Women who fell from the Moon" had a completely different tone from the first work, "Man Longing." This abstract work, with a repeating water-sound motif, begins with loud thunder and rain. The set was other-worldly, imagining something like the surface of the moon that was also visible on the set in all its waxing and waning stages. The women wore creative costumes with red flaps that initially covered their faces, and then the flaps were lowered. Again, as in "Man Longing", the female cast of this work performed vigorous physical movements as strong women with confidence and aplomb.

JOMBA! 2018 featured a very different and vibrant world full of color, live drumming, live singing in the South Indian classical style of Carnatic music, with powerful recorded percussion, and a single female performer, the remarkable Anita Ratnam, Contemporary Indian dancer. This version of A Million Sitas based on the Indian epic, The Ramayana, had its world premiere in Durban with a new set, new props, new musical inputs including an incredible South African drummer, Mandla who opens the show, indicating powerfully that we are in South Africa as we witness an ancient-modern epic story from India.

Ratnam developed her script from multiple rewritings of The Ramayana that have emerged in the past twenty years. As she opens the show, she notes that although the epic bears Rama's name, without Sita "there is no story." As a skilled story-teller, Ratnam wove magic on stage with her words, interspersed with the melodious and enchanting vocalist of Carnatic music, Sharanya Krishnan. Ratnam excavated and retold Sita's story from an evocative feminist perspective, tuning into Sita's consciousness, the many challenges she faced in her young life, along with stories of other wronged women in the same epic, all of whom Ratnam effectively embodied in voice and physical movement based in her Bharatanatyam training skillfully executing nrtta technique, and most memorably, her expressive face and eyes showcasing a range of emotions from Sita's full-hearted love for Rama, to Ahalya's sadness, to Manthara's wily ways.

A Million Sitas

The women treated unjustly include the Princess of the Forest, Surpanaka's violent disfigurement (by Rama's brother Lakshmana), Manthara's conniving (though she was also abused by the gods), to Mandodari's origins from a frog, and the most moving, for me, the peerless Ahalya. The latter is cursed to live like a stone since a lust-driven god, Indra disguised himself as Ahalya's husband and aroused her passion. The poignant lines that Ratnam repeats are: "Did Ahalya know? Was she tricked?" Ratnam wants to make the audience think about why a woman cannot have agency in making her own decisions.

Ratnam's story-telling is filled with appealing affect in costume, use of fabric draping her body as she "becomes" different female characters from the epic. Ratnam notes that her "visual design impulses and costumes, props are all part of her choreography."A Million Sitas has a rich visual design with Ratnam's aesthetically pleasing use of Issey Miyake fabrics, and many luscious props such as lotus flowers, mangoes, an elaborate crown for a princess, a translucent gold veil for Sita as wife among others - these items also function as metaphors, similar to the use of mudras (hand-gestures) in Bharatanatyam that can convey multiple meanings.

In the closing narrative, Ratnam, tellingly has the singer cut short the happy song of Sita and Rama's wedding since Sita's marriage was hardly auspicious or joyous. Rather, after she is kidnapped by Ravana, and after Rama fights a bloody battle to bring her back to Ayodhya, he demands that she prove her chastity. Sita did cross the line of control that was meant to protect her. Ratnam wants us to ponder why she did this; maybe she was curious? Just as she fought to accompany Rama into the forest in exile, she as forcefully refused to be rescued by Rama's devotee, the god Hanuman. She insisted that Rama must come himself for her. After the battle and bloodshed, there is only dust and heartbreak for Sita when her beloved sends for her, and humiliates her in public declaring his distrust of her purity. Although Sita is shocked and distraught - rendered tearfully, and with deep emotion by Ratnam - she refuses firmly to undergo any test demanded by a patriarchal lord and master. Nonetheless, Ratnam's powerful evocation of Sita's voice is rendered intelligently, skillfully, and without any overt negative aspersions cast on Rama. His actions speak for themselves in terms of his unjust treatment of his wife.

In Ratnam's retelling, Sita declares that she will be present for any woman who faces such trials as she has, and who stands up for what she believes in. Indeed, in Ratnam's recitation of the many names of ordinary women at the end, she powerfully includes "a million Sitas" in this story - ordinary women with courage and resilience in facing life's many challenges, and who deserve recognition.

Also, highly commendable was the set design by Johannesburg-based Reshma Chhiba who created the epic world in three long drapes of shwe-shwe vivid red, hessian sack cloth in off-white in the middle, with threads hanging at the bottom, and a sheer-white fabric drape with the shape of black eyes on it. The three colored drapes provided a wonderful defining frame within which Ratnam danced and spoke; at times going behind the drapes, at other times, entering from the hanging hessian fabric threads. "Team Sita" also included highly efficient Production Manager and lighting executor, L. Subhasri. The talk-back with Ratnam and Gerard Samuel of the University of Cape Town, usefully discussed the use of the epic, The Ramayana of which there are 3000 versions in existence. What stays with spectators is Ratnam's feminist retelling of the story, her incorporation of a resonant South African drummer, a gifted South African set designer, a lush world of color, fabric, jewelry, and the voice of a powerful story-teller.

Jomba! Fringe, a mixed fare, provided a significant opportunity to new choreographers to present their work in a professional theater setting with technical support. The creative choreography and performance of "Space (Zero)" by PMB of the University of KwaZulu Natal, and of "Sesila/we are here!" by Flatfoot Dance's Junior Company were noteworthy. The three adjudicators astutely selected "Ithemba" by Thulisile Binda of Johannesburg's Vuyani Dance Theater Company as the winner of the evening's offerings for her highly moving, and technically virtuosic performance with affective memory renderings. The dance skillfully wove in a political thread of mourning and loss of loved ones evoked via photo frames on stage. Binda notes in the program: "Losses become permanent, deepened scars that come back to haunt us. This is my journey."

The "studio showing" of Flatfoot Dance Company's collaboration with Cape Town's Unmute Dance Company was revelatory and deeply poignant. Lliane Loots' choreography with Andile Vellem in The Longitude of Silence unfolded in silence for this showing though a solo violinist accompanied the formal performance. The work included dancers with mixed abilities who worked together in mind-blowing synergy and fluid movements ranging from the quick circling of a young woman in a wheelchair, to dancers lifting her out of the chair and onto the ground where she mirrored undulating movements of other dancers. Loots' and Vellem's choreography touched our hearts especially in one movement motif, namely, that of covering the mouth with both hands, holding that position for the audience to take it in, then opening the palms, hands, and arms, as bodies leaned forward towards the audience as if appealing to the ones blessed with hearing and speech to see and hear those who cannot, and include them in their social world.

Another "studio showing" that I witnessed was Yaseen Manuel's choreography, assisted by Sifiso Khumalo in Aslama, hard-hitting and poignant where Muslim identity was explored in the face of brutality and devastation faced by people in Syria. The work begins with the Muslim call to prayer, Allah-u-Akbar. A trinity of hand-gestures repeat in the piece - the crescent moon shown by thumb and forefinger held up by a diagonally raised hand, then the gesture of the moon transmuted into a gun to the forehead conveyed with the index and third fingers, and finally the same two fingers opened up, raised high in the peace sign. The Muslim faith indicated by the moon has devolved tragically into warring factions, shown by bodies being carried, news bulletins blaring jarring statistics like "5000 to 15000 hanged." How can one even fathom the gap between 5 and 15 thousand when every single life is precious? How does one reconcile the teachings of Islam within a battleground of bloodshed, and ordinary people throwing rocks at guns?

The choreography was edgy, conveying the tension of living in war-torn zones like Syria and other parts of the world like Palestine where Israeli occupied land draws lines of control similar to what many South African Blacks face, dispossessed of their land, rendered homeless in the land of their birth.

Aslama included a deeply poignant sequence with an injured man played by choreographer Yaseen Manuel who is a rivetting dancer, being cared for by a woman who lovingly washes his face with real water that drips onto the stage. Next, his hands and arms are dipped into the pail of water, then the feet. Quiet moments of recovery breathe in the midst of battles that surround ordinary people of faith in the world. Even in the midst of gunfire and blood, there is nurturing, even a return to childhood as the injured man nestles close into the woman's lap.

Jomba! 2018 offered a rich, evocative, even provocative showcasing of Contemporary Dance by local and regional South Africans, and by international artists who made Durban their destination to share their work before a discerning audience. Congratulations and Happy 20th Birthday to Jomba! and to its visionary Artistic Director Lliane Loots, and the entire team. May you continue to fight the good fight for art and artists and bring us many more Jomba!s in the years to come.

Dr.Ketu H. Katrak is Professor, Department of Drama, University of California, Irvine. She is the author of 'Contemporary Indian Dance: New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora' (Palgrave Macmillan 2011)