Dance interview: Louise Coetzer talks about Darkroom Contemporary’s Memoryhouse at Kucheza Afrika Festival, April 2021

What: Memoryhouse- new work by Louise Coetzer, created for Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre, Cape Town. Premiering at the hybrid Kucheza Afrika Festival On stage: April 6 and 7, 2021, at the Baxter Theatre, 7.30pm. Tickets R80 and R120. Book at Webtickets   Streaming: Online premiere of the work is on April 24, 2021, via the SAST [South African State Theatre] YouTube Channel. Tickets R30   Featuring: Darkroom Contemporary’s Farnel Smart and Tania Mteto   Choreography and concept: Louise Coetzer   Original score: Matthijs Van Dijk      

With Covid rates stable and lockdown measures which allow audience attendance, Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre is grateful that it can go back on stage, with Memoryhouse, as part of the hybrid Kucheza Afrika Festival. Memoryhouse is a new work, created by Darkroom’s Louise Coetzer. There will be two performances at the Baxter (April 6, 7). A recording, filmed at the Baxter, will be streamed on the SAST [South African State Theatre] YouTube Channel. The last time that Darkroom performed on stage, in a theatre, in front of an audience was in March 2020, at Woordfees – shortly before the pandemic brought live performance to a halt. In April 2021, here is the company with a piece which hinges around a memory house/container; a “house where the past loops and repeats”, reflects Louise Coetzer.

TheCapeRobyn:  How did Memoryhouse come about? Was there a call to submit for the Kucheza Afrika Festival?

Louise Coetzer: Memoryhouse was commissioned for the Kucheza Afrika Festival, following an application process in response its open call in 2019.The commission was confirmed late in 2019, with the view on staging the work in April 2020 at the SA State Theatre. Sadly, this was one of the earliest events to be affected by the pandemic, and ended up being postponed by a year. The initial development took place pre-Covid in March 2019- in a studio process over two weeks, at the Dance For All Studios in Athlone where Darkroom Contemporary works as resident company. Memoryhouse is now premiering as part of the Kucheza Afrika Festival 2021- one year later than originally intended. As always, after its premiere, we will endeavour to seek out further performance and touring opportunities for the work. This season of Memoryhouse is supported by the National Lotteries Commission and the Kucheza Afrika Festival. The festival has partnered with the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, to allow the Cape Town companies programmed on the festival to also have live performances. The Gauteng based companies are staging their works at the SAST [South African State Theatre], also with an online audience.

TheCapeRobyn: In addition to two performances of Memoryhouse on stage at the Baxter, the piece will be streamed online?

Louise Coetzer: The online premiere of Memoryhouse is on April 24, as part of Kucheza Afrika Festival’s streaming option via the SAST YouTube Channel. The work will be filmed in front of an audience at the Baxter Theatre.

TheCapeRobyn: What led you to explore memory in Memoryhouse? Can you tell us about the genesis of the work – the journey?

Louise Coetzer: I find the inner workings of the subconscious fascinating, and felt there was a lot to uncover around this theme. The way memory can be deceptive, remembering things being better than they actually were – or worse… our current situation affects the way we perceive our histories to some extent. And there is a looping quality to remembering, certain memories ‘playing’ like a video over and over. The tension between light versus the shadows of memory seemed like an interesting visual starting point to explore.

TheCapeRobyn. Memory has become heightened during the pandemic – how we remember ‘before’ the pandemic when everything changed. Has Memoryhouse shifted significantly from start-up in late 2019- through year one of the pandemic to now- April 2021?

Louise Coetzer: I think there is a sense of comfort to memory for some people, but of course memory can be equally troubling and traumatic. This is reflected in the strong focus on light and shade in the work – the characters alternate between living in the shadow of their memory, or in the clear light of day. I think this tension between being ‘stuck’ in the past vs living in the present is very interesting and to some extent reflective of our current situation, so that definitely became more prominent as the work developed now. Memoryhouse expresses this but simultaneously draws focus to the fact that time passes regardless. 

TheCapeRobyn: Has Memoryhouse been influenced by lockdown in terms about the design and lighting – and the way we are processing memory in this strange time?

Louise Coetzer: The stage design reflects the tension between the past and the present, visually represented as light versus dark. The use of video emphasises this and illustrates the passing of time. There is also a feeling of haziness to the staging, cordoning the dancers off in a literal ‘house’ where the past loops and repeats.

TheCapeRobyn: What is like going from working on the digital stage and telematic performance such as deus::ex::machina [October 2020], to back-on-stage – in a theatre- April 2021?

Louise Coetzer: The differences between stage and digital imaging are vast, but I do believe the two are equally exciting and that there exists an audience for both. I think some have really enjoyed online offerings this past year. I’ve enjoyed the challenges and experimental nature of the digital projects I’ve presented. Digital vs stage are two very different experiences, but both offer something to different audiences. For me, site specific performance and experimental digital projects such as deus::ex::machina are exciting because of the experimental nature, and also because of the accessibility it allows by placing dance in public space. Memoryhouse is perhaps more ‘conventional’ in its presentation. On this project, the experimental nature comes across through the design and sound score approaches. It is not a participatory experience, but theatre does allow for immersive-ness in another sense. It has been interesting working on these very different projects in a close-space of time. Of course, having the opportunity to work with a stage and its design again is also very exciting for the possibilities it offers.

TheCapeRobyn: How does it feel to be back-on-stage, in tenuous, uncertain times?

Louise Coetzer: We are very fortunate to be returning to the stage. It has been a wonderful experience developing the stage design and other live elements for this work. Typically, Darkroom Contemporary doesn’t perform on stage all that often. When we do it is usually via festival participation and we are grateful for this opportunity to connect with audiences in this direct, visceral form. It is certainly exciting to see festivals such as Kucheza taking the steps to return to live performance while we are still in an uncertain time. Uncertainty seems to be party of our new normal for now. While it has been a challenging time in terms of planning and executing projects, I am excited about the experimental focus that has been placed to the foreground during this time – this allowed truly innovative projects and approaches to be developed, and also really opened up access to digital works across the world. I do feel like the ‘connectedness’ and access to diverse digital works has been a positive. It is impossible to predict where things will head in the next few months, but we remain positive that we’ll continue finding ways to move forward regardless of the challenges we all face.

Darkroom Contemporary’s Tania Mteto (left) and Farnel Smart (right), rehearsing for Memoryhouse, which premieres on-satge, at the Baxter Theatre, April 2021, as part of the Kucheza Afrika Festival. Pic by Darkroom Contemporary’s Oscar O’Ryan.

Related coverage of Memoryhouse, at the Kucheza Festival 2021-

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