Under the umbrella: Learning to run again
"Imagine that you're like a fish that's been pulled out of the water and every muscle in your body is moving," says Gregory Maqoma.
The lank choreographer is standing in front of a line of dancers in the Dance Space, in Newtown, where they're rehearsing Ketima.
They are twitching and writhing with the idea that they are fish in mind, each translating Maqoma's instructions in different ways. They are swimming in a new stream of sorts, a revival of Maqoma's 2003 work Ketima (run).
The work initially started as a solo performance by Maqoma before it grew into a larger production, featuring others. This sets a slightly intimidating precedent for the group of Vuyani Dance Theatre dancers, not only because of the legacy of the work, but also because it's been performed by their director and choreographer.
It is hard to top Maqoma. He is one of the most well-known contemporary dancers and choreographers in South Africa. This is partly due to his unique gestures and form - his fluid vocabulary is seductive to watch - but also because he has created populist works, like Full Moon, which got a run at the Joburg Theatre a few years ago.
"I care about my audience. I always have the audience's eye in mind," he says.
This new version of Ketima, which debuted at the Dance Umbrella this week, is not a huge visual spectacle in the vein of Full Moon. Viewers were compelled to attend on both evenings; on the first night it was performed by a male cast and on the second by a female one. Maqoma was keen to explore the androgynous potential of the work, which in the early noughties articulated the state of a new democratic nation that was, as its title suggests learning to "run" - instead of walk.
Perhaps Maqoma viewed the country then as a ''baby" forced to live up to demands beyond the capacity or knowledge of its figurative ''body".
The metaphor was inspired by Maqoma's grandmother who, because of her old-age , regressed to a childlike state. It was a bitter-sweet event, recalled Maqoma.
"Our childhood is a great place to escape to. It is a better place, one of safety and lightness."
As the dance work relies on translating this state, Maqoma had to encourage the dancers to regress to a childlike state.
"We spend the first 20 minutes of rehearsal playing games. Crashing, slipping as if they are in kindergarten."
This has been part of a process of unlearning dance itself.
Says Maqoma: "They need to find out how they feel inside rather than be focused on what they look like from the outside [as a performer]."
InKetima, Maqoma is also striving to dissect sexuality.
During a rehearsal he attempts to take the dancers back to their adolescent years, to a time when their bodies and their identities were changing. But they don't seem like fumbling teenagers - there's no clumsiness or awkwardness in their gestures. Instead, they're like adults reliving their moment of change in an attempt to find the confidence that was once beyond their grasp.
"Who are you? Claim your freedom," demands Maqoma as they stroke their limbs.
- The Dance Umbrella runs at various venues in Johannesburg until March 6. Book at computicket.co.za