(photo by John Hogg)
By Joshua Windsor
“What am I saying?” Gregory Maqoma stops and asks the audience at one point during his performance of “Beautiful Me.”
This is nestled somewhere in the last half of the piece, and comes at a point that audience has formulated a multitude other questions about what they are seeing. At this point in the evening, Maqoma has skillfully guided his observers through a philosophical examination of space, a reflection on personal identity, and problems of reconciling history in post-colonial Africa. Did I mention he has done this through dance?
I am actually having a difficult time writing about “Beautiful Me.” I just don’t know where to start. The work is engaging and deeply textured. It covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. To give a quick overview—the piece is structured as a collage of dance and spoken word set to live music of sitar, cello, violin, and percussion. At the post-performance Q&A, it was revealed that the music was set to the dancing and relied heavily on improvisation. It is a moot point, however. The two are so intertwined, this becomes a chicken-or-the-egg kind of question. The dance is a seamless blend of a variety of styles: modern techniques, traditional African dance, and the classical Indian form Kathak. The spoken word was created as a series of conversations Maqoma had with fellow African choreographers Akram Khan, Faustin Linyekula, and Vincent Mantsoe. Although the audience only hears Maqoma’s side of the conversation, the three microphones he uses on stage symbolically represent the other artists. Often it is unclear whether he is addressing his artistic colleagues, the audience, or some other conjuration (at one point he invites F.D.R. to sit and listen to him describe his boyhood obsession with Michael Jackson).
Throughout the work, Maqoma masterfully introduces ideas that get expanded and contracted and recontextualized as the piece progresses. At the beginning of performance, Maqoma dances for an extended period of time in small section at the front of the stage. The movement is mesmerizing and it introduces great deal of the dance vocabulary that will be used throughout the work: a representation of a peacock, the shaking of fear, the images of running and displacement, and a myriad of others. He stops (although I would have been perfectly content if this had continued for the entire performance) and states, “We talked a lot about space”—an odd conclusion for a piece that occupied probably 2% of the stage. The dancing then expands across the stage as Maqoma recounts many of the difficult periods of Africa’s past: August Tilken’s governorship of the Belgian Congo, Daniel Malan’s ministry of South Africa, Mobutu Sésé Seko’s rule of Zaire. As the space expands, the meaning behind the dance vocabulary expands as well. Running is no longer simply traversing space: at one point it is the diaspora of African artists. At another point it becomes an image of Africans running from history. In this way, all of the movement grew with time.
Vuyani Dance Theatre will present this piece one last time in Seattle on Saturday, November 14. I highly recommend you take this opportunity to see this engaging and masterful piece.