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Exit/Exist

Gregory Maqoma/Vuyani Dance Theatre, REDCAT November 7-10, 2013 —

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The theatre’s house lights fade to black and audience chatter quickly subsides. Music begins—a trance beat, the brisk playing of a guitar and a quiet electronic pulse; the sound is Indian, African and middle-eastern in flavor.  Small spotlights direct our eyes downstage, center, where a black man wearing a gold sharkskin suit stands with his back to us. He is barefoot. In a moment, he begins to move in sync with the music and his joyous energy soon makes us believe he will never stop moving.

The dancer is Gregory Maqoma and he is astonishing. In the first several minutes of his performance piece, Exit/Exist, we never really see his face. His movements begin slowly with arms shooting left and right as if shocked by electricity. Fingers on his outstretched hands trill, his bare feet tap and slide, his legs kick sideways. Then he propels himself forward, backward and across the stage like a marionette whose strings are controlled by a mad puppeteer. During the 70-minute duration of the show, it’s difficult to take your eyes off its star.

Gregory Maqoma is responsible for the concept and choreography in this presentation by his company, the Vuyani Dance Theatre, which he founded in 1999. Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, Maqoma has worked all over the world during the past 25 years and has received scores of international awards for his creations. He has worked with such diverse artists as choreographer Akram Khan and the London Symphonietta, playwright Brett Bailey and has a longstanding collaboration with theatre director and actor James Ngcobo (Master Harold and the Boys).

Exit/Exist, to quote from the program notes, “reveals the history of a 19th  century Xhosa warrior who fought to maintain cultural traditions in the face of colonial dispossession”. Gregory Maqoma puts it another way: his story looks back “to the days when the tapestry of South Africa was about the collision of biographies…a renowned chief of the Xhosa nation is at odds with the English over the possession of cattle”  but, eventually, “cleared the path to an emancipation that he spent his whole life yearning for”.

The simple action on stage, almost always centered on Gregory Maqoma’s fluid dancing, is abetted by a quartet of singers known as “Complete” who combine gospel, South African popular song and other influences into a seamless backdrop of sound. These singers sit on an upstage bench and interact with Maqoma at various times. The guitar heard in the opening moments is played by Giuliano Modarelli who, together with Simphiwe Dana, composed and arranged the eclectic score for “Exit/Exist”.

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Maqoma himself is the reason to see this performance. After the stunning segment that begins the evening, there is a costume change. Maqoma dons the animal skins with leather strips of a Xhosa warrior and his body  movements suggest battle. Later, he interacts with a mound of grain, perhaps signifying a rich harvest on his land. Program notes and historical narratives appear sporadically on the wall behind the action guiding the audience along. A white, sheet-like “robe” is worn by Maqoma during a triumphant dance and, in the final portion of the performance, it becomes a kind of altar. Kneeling on it, wearing only a loin cloth, he anoints his body with oil from head to toe.  Maqoma’s sinuous movements at this point highlight how fit and beautiful his body is, with every muscle in his strong, almost feminine legs, glistening.

In the performance’s last moments, Maqoma stands on the warrior’s robe while the chorus intones a religious-sounding passage. Two of the singers carefully lift the robe and pull it upstage with Gregory Maqoma standing on it, looking straight ahead at the audience in a “reverse shot” of how the evening began. Our journey into South Africa’s dark past ends on an emotional note both proud and sad:  the Xhosa warrior depicted, whose name is Chief Maqoma, is an ancestor of the dancer portraying him.  After bravely challenging the British over his tribe’s cattle rights, the elder Maqoma was imprisoned and died on the notorious Robben Island, (where Nelson Mandela would be jailed a century later).

Exit/Exist is really an hour-long dance solo by its creator, Gregory Maqoma. His proud body is tuned like a rare musical instrument. Every step he takes is exhilarating to see and one feels the totality of emotion he brings to his story. His powerful presence leaves an indelible impression.

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