Review – Apartheid as erotic Disneyland

2012-07-03 11:58

One of the more eagerly anticipated openings at Grahamstown this year was Moffie, a provocatively-marketed production (naked hottie with eightpack holding a rifle covering his privates) by the newest Standard Bank Young Artist winner for dance, Bailey Snyman.

An adaptation of the novel of the same name by Andre Carl van der Merwe about being gay in the army during apartheid by a lauded choreographer and academic that promised a relevant revision of a painful history that I myself had to confront as a young gay man ...

What’s not to love?

Everything, as it turns out. Opening to a packed auditorium of delighted queers, I seem to have been one of the few people left feeling politically offended and aesthetically queasy.

What I saw was a glorified cabaret of commercial dance moves with glitzy sequences of uniformed men in high heels, Disneyfied fantasy sex scenes, hip thrusts set to Die Stem and butterfly motifs. Moffie failed spectacularly to treat its characters with psychological truth.

When the protagonist is bullied and beaten and eventually dies and his corpse is draped in the old South African flag, I felt nothing for him.

Snyman chose to employ audio narratives as well as ask his dancers to act in the piece.

With those conventions in place and a literary memoir to exploit I expected to be given character insights that I would buy into and be moved by.

I wanted to know about the agonised protagonist’s parents and his Calvanist upbringing and his liberation and traps.

I wanted to know about the brutal pseudo-scientific experiments conducted in the army by apartheid doctors that tried to correct gay behaviour. I wanted to feel his inner process and his shame and his desire.

All I got was the desire. Moffie spectacularly plays into the hands of the cliché that all gay men think about is sex.


If critics felt it timely to discuss the representation of pathologies around the black male penis and The Spear, I hope that they will take time to consider similar pathologies around gay male sexuality and Moffie.

The history of conscripted gay white pacifists sent to the border to wage a war against communist cadres saw many admitted to the army’s mental hospitals. The memories of those times have trapped many lives, to this day.

It’s a clear theme at the festival this year – calling up personal histories like this and airing them out, exposing the full complexity of our past.

There are many works in Grahamstown that are trying to do what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission never achieved – meaningful discussion about the brutality we lived through so that we can achieve reconciliation in the future.

On a political level though, Moffie, the dance version, has been curiously opted to rather address America’s issues with gays in the army.

Despite a clip of Verwoerd at the start and the odd reading from the book, we got multiple clips from American media.

Instead of Voëlvry we got American folk songs. Instead of our past we got America’s present.

Perhaps this was an attempt to make the work relevant. But what it says is that the pain of our collective past is irrelevant by comparison. It simply locks us back up in that prison.

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