Mamela Nyamza's dance between spectacle and spectator

2015-03-15 11:25

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“Wena?” she asks, looking at the back of the theatre. “Wena!” she exclaims, looking down at her feet. “Wena,” she sighs as her limbs move slowly and then, speeding up, take flight as she shouts “Wenaaaaah!” jumping up and across the stage.

At last, we think, after a hard 20 minutes, could this performance actually make some sense?

The confusion begins at the start of dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza’s performance, when we’re literally led down the garden path to Mamela’s lush back yard in the middle of the stage. From two central wings Mamela (pictured) creates her garden from about 40 potted plants. She brings them out, one by one, to the podium in the centre of the stage and arranges them in a lush plot of foliage. She does this dressed in leotard, gold stilettos and yellow construction hat. The audience swerves intermittently between tense giggles and impatient chatter.

The banality of this monotonous action highlights a problem with the theatre experience – and one the Dance Umbrella continues to remedy – in that we have become accustomed to a certain level of showmanship. We assume a dance performance must be a certain way – we sit down, watch, clap where necessary, and then leave and mingle over drinks. Wena Mamela allows none of these things.

From the moment you enter the theatre, Nyamza is on stage, dancing for you with the house lights on. For 20 minutes, she dances while people take their seats and wait for the lights to turn off.

Without the lights off and the drama of the classic curtain opening, there is little anyone can do to feign interest in the dancer. But she continues. The show has begun, you are part of it and the weirdness you’re feeling has been choreographed as precisely as the dance moves.

The feeling is literally embodied as a puppet attached to her back, a second Nyamza that does everything her performance cannot – it becomes her shadow partner. Nyamza dances among the reeds and then turns around. Her puppet partner takes over and dances for you differently – stiff and staggered. At one point she flips back around after a bewildering puppet dance and does a roll on the floor. She lifts her bum high and again the back of her becomes the front – the puppet the performer. In an instant, the conceptual front of the stage becomes the back of the stage. The audience becomes the performer – and when she asks “Wena?”, you understand the word, in all its diverse uses, really only means one thing: you.

In Wena Mamela, Nyamza does a dance for two, but shows wena as you and her, and them and us. But in between, when the dance is danced, we finally see ourselves dancing in the reeds between Nyamza and her potted garden.

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