Review – Pulling spirits from the air

2012-06-29 08:09

“There is nothing to understand. Even I don’t understand the show,” said director Philippe Pelen Baldini with a twinkle in his eye.

He was talking to the audience ahead of the opening performance of Théâtre Taliipot’s latest ritual immersion, !Aïa at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

“Switch off your mind. It’s a spiritual journey. We love you.”

The real world is left behind the moment that Themba Mbuli – a cellphone glued to his ear, strung out and twitching to digital noise – strips off his black tracksuit and with it his modernity.

Painted in mud he joins Isaac Mahlodi Rakotsoane in a minimal, tranced-out, transsexual, twitching and often silly love song to the ancients.

Tapping into the near-extinct ritual, language and music of the San, they swim in a sea of myth and take the audience a hell of a way from shore.

Baldini’s Réunion partner Thierry Moucazambo joins the South African duo to demonstrate the basic magic of theatre and multi-disciplinary craftsmanship.

Like Khoisan Antony and the Johnsons they swirl falsetto voices, call the ancestors, emulate their animal guides, master traditional instruments, tell stories through pure physicality, and dance with twitching intensity.

They wrap themselves in towels and transform into spirits. They roll their eyes with a Spoek Mathambo hipness, and turn into tokoloshes.

“Do you remember? When we spoke to the trees, the stars, we called the rain?” asked Moucazambo, greying beard and atomic mushroom afro, in a white colonial suit that can read as a foil.

The work slips briefly into a European idiom, and the life drains from it. It traps itself, frantic and defeatist. Man has lost his connection to nature. Then it finds its way back again, through the placing of a stone on the head and a buck horn in the mouth.

The rich, absurd and compelling performance that is !Aïa is the result of an intensive research period spent by the cast and director with scientists, archaeologists and San tribesmen, learning healing dance, chanting and interpreting rock art, mostly at the Cradle of Humankind.

The investment has paid off.

You will be hard pressed to find more intense, committed and stretched performances in Grahamstown this year.

Rakotsoane, in particular, is a revelation, as is Phil Thurston’s sound design.

One of !Aïa’s more extraordinary achievements is that its meditation on nature plays off on a bare, white stage. It evokes natural order without showing any actual nature. What it says is that man is nature.

But we stopped seeing God in everything. We stopped talking to the trees and the rocks and we lost our way.

Strange behaviour is inverted. The man talking to the rock is natural in !Aïa. The man flouncing with Victorian affectation is the strange one.

!Aïa is theatre from nothing. Despite it being in entirely the wrong theatre space, sacrificing its intimacy, it still manages to pull spirits from the air and dazzle with the ability of the human body to make magic, just from the glee of being alive.

» !Aïa is at the Transnet Great Hall at 2pm and 6.30pm today
» Follow our coverage of the National Arts Festival:

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