Adaptation of classic wows crowds, and the show will go on in 2010

2008-06-29 00:00

To arrive at the National Arts Festival and be blown away by the first show you see is a bonus — and a potential curse, as it raises the bar for the rest. Having got to Grahamstown on Thursday afternoon, we headed straight off to Dada Masilo’s dance piece, Romeo & Juliet, and hit the jackpot.

Masilo, who is still only 22, is this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for dance.

Two years ago, she created a stir when she danced classical ballet topless in protest against the rigid traditions of the genre, but in Romeo & Juliet she fuses the best parts of those traditions with contemporary dance techniques to superb effect, with unexpected music and clever lighting effects.

The show has been a complete sellout, with extra seats being squeezed in wherever possible, and people — me included — coming out wishing loudly that they could see it all over again. Four days into my festival, that is still my highlight.

But there is other good stuff here, and more to come, with South African stories predominating. Cissie, Nadia David’s play about Cissie Gool, has just finished its run. It is a fine piece of theatre, telling the story of the woman who, born to an Indian-Malay doctor and a Scottish mother at the end of the 19th Century, devoted her life to the people of District Six and their rights. The play uses innovative stage techniques, and plenty of humour. Points are made without hitting audiences over the head with worthy sentiments.

This festival says goodbye to Lynette Marais, after 20 years as executive director. She has seen the festival change enormously, and grow. It has had to weather all kinds of storms, and she can be proud of her achievements here, as she hands over to new festival director Ismail Mohamed and CEO Tony Lankester.

One of their biggest challenges will be 2010, as the Soccer World Cup is going to clash with the country’s arts showcase. Lankester said yesterday that various plans are being looked at, but at the moment his thinking is that the festival should extend to 17 days instead of its current 10, and the action should be concentrated into blocks that will avoid the big matches.

He would expect people — performers and audiences alike — to come for only part of the festival, and the challenge, or one of them, will be to make sure that each block offers plenty of choice. To put the festival on hold for a year is, mercifully, not an option. Without it, even for one year, the South African arts scene would be much diminished.

Cissie, Nadia David’s play about Cissie Gool, uses innovative stage techniques and plenty of humour..

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