Complex Historical Themes Reflected in Exit/Exist

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South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma belongs to a culture of people whose history is riddled with oppression and resistance. In Exit/ Exist, his recent performance at On the Boards, Maqoma uses the story of his warrior ancestor, Chief Maqoma, to explore cultural memory and how history contributes to personal identity in the present. Exit/ Exist opened Thursday, October 24, 2013 to a full audience rippling with anticipation of the highly praised work from a choreographer who has received distinguished international accolades.

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Gregory Maqoma in Exit/Exist
Photo by John Hogg

At the core of Exit/Exist is the story of Chief Maqoma, a military commander who played a central role in the cattle wars of the mid 19th century in South Africa and who inspired generations of the Xhosa people to fight for their independence from the English. The piece followed Chief Maqoma through his adult life, focusing most intently on his final battle and subsequent surrender, loss, and capture at English hands. This narrative was bookended by a modern image of Maqoma. The show opened with Maqoma emerging from the dark in a white suit, his fingers and hand twitching in a single dim beam of light. These tiny frenetic movements mimicked the effects of strobe lighting as he slowly shifted and pulled his way upstage and then grooved back, oddly joyful and simultaneously desperate, always facing away from the audience as though confronting a common enemy. The identity of this character and his place in the story remained unclear until his reappearance after the historical account of Chief Maqoma. Only then did his strangely nostalgic body language connect to the experience of reliving the legends of his ancestors and examining the impact they have had on the quality and direction of his life. The presence of this modern character illuminated a broader theme of how historical figures and familial predecessors shape the world today and how people identify their places within it.

 

The narrative itself was both vague and vividly wrought. The facts of the tale were projected in chunks on the backdrop, filling the wall with words before each new scene. The written narration had great potential to augment and clarify the action onstage, but it often distracted from the dance. Key information was conveyed only through that medium, but it materialized too densely and with too many unfamiliar grammar and spelling usages for it to be digested in a meaningful way. Though parts of the narrative were unclear, the images were potent and memorable. As the dancer in the suit faces off with an imaginary enemy, sinister figures wearing stark white masks slip across the stage. The chief and a diplomat meet at an ever-shifting table; as they reach to shake hands, each veers away and the dance becomes a whirlwind of avoidance and broken communication. A stream of cornmeal bursts from above, raining and wasting life-giving food as the chief watches in disgusted fear and rage. Immediately after, he gathers a plate of corn and pours it in a protective circle around himself, placing the plate on his head and dancing in manic defiance. The visual design of the piece lucidly incorporated corn to symbolize the livelihood of the people, the blood of men and cattle spilled in conflict, the rule of the oppressors. Finally, the chief, captured and surrounded by men singing of victory and defeat, shrinks in old age and exhaustion as his hand flutters at his chest, depicting his heart pounding then stopping.

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Gregory Maqoma in Exit/Exist
Photo by John Hogg

 

Exit/Exist interwove dance and music to the point of inseparable unity. Composed by Simphiwe Dana, the music reflected the movement on stage as precisely as the movement echoed the soundscape. Rich layers of both recorded and live music became part of the dance; they encompassed the space when Maqoma stood still and the rhythms seemed to fill the stage with invisible bodies. From the first moments of the piece, the recorded music reflected the activity onstage with footsteps and heartbeats. Frenzies of percussion and guitar overlaid on a three note theme were also repeated throughout the performance at times of conflict and hope. Complete, a South African vocal quartet, and guitarist Giuliano Modarelli added soul and complexity with their pure, luscious live performances. Although five of the six performers were more musician than dancers, they still participated actively in the choreography and landscape. This intersection of sound design and choreography inarguably established both the essential core of the storytelling and the emotive quality of the work.

 

Though it has already left the Seattle area, Exit/Exist is a production to see, preferably more than once. It is a work of complexity, not only in thematic quality, but also in its multidisciplinary approach to storytelling. To find out more about Gregory Maqoma and Vuyani Dance Theatre, visit www.mappinternational.org. For information about upcoming performances at On the Boards, see www.onthboards.org.