Dance review: Les Sylphides and Ingoma, presented by Cape Town City Ballet, May to June 2021

What: Cape Town City Ballet- double bill Mthuthuzeli November’s Ingoma and Les Sylphides, staged by Lynn Wallis When:  May 19, 22, 27, 28 and June 3, 4, 5 at 7.30pm. In addition to evening shows, there are 3pm slots on May 22 and 29 Tickets: R300 for evening shows and R250 for matinees Bookings: Computicket  

There are moments when attending dance theatre that one is overcome with the artistry, magnitude and sense of moment – of witnessing and experiencing dance which – is beyond expectation. Les Sylphides, staged by Lynn Wallis embodies a lyrical stillness which one doesn’t often see with this ballet. It is hypnotic to watch, magically danced with accompaniment by Gerhard Joubert on piano. Veteran ballet artiste, Wallis trained at The Royal Ballet School and graduated into its touring company and became ballet mistress in 1969 and stayed there until 1982. She brings her experience and eye to this exquisite rendering of this classic ballet. After a comfort break for set changes (no interval during Covid), Ingoma materialises on stage with chanting, voice and figures emerging from the depths of the smoky stage (lighting by the brilliant Wilhelm Disbergen).

As the figures in Ingoma emerge from the hazy depths of back stage, we see figures which are barely clad. Light bulbs are strapped to their foreheads- the type of torches that miners wear. The group is chanting. It is a lament, a protest, a prayer, It is urgent. They are being submitted to a drill master- a mine boss. They are stripped of their clothes and identity. Women appear onto the stage. The movement is agitated, frenzied. The men join them and they are now clothed. They have their identities intact- no longer stripped. We see crowd scenes and formation of protest, grouping and disintegration. Some fall down and die, others get up. The piece resonates with resistance and the refusal to submit and the power of the crowd; numbers in harnessing strength; breaking through and overcoming oppression. Ingoma pings for me in terms of Marikana – how can it not – in terms of the horrific stories we hear about minters being trapped underground. That remains an ongoing story – human beings who desperately need to work – labouring underground – to retrieve commodities like gold and coal– for others who hold power over them. Ingoma also resonates strongly for me in relation to #BlackLivesMatter movement in the USA, which was ignited by the murder of George Floyd and his cry of “I can’t breathe:”. I once went down a mine and I felt like I could not breathe.  The dark and lack of air is like nothing I have experienced and one can imagine what it is like to be trapped in a mine; gasping for breath. A few people said after the performance, that it resonates for them, now; not being able to breathe behind their masks, as they sat and watched, at Artscape because it is the time of Covid and we need to wear masks. That is hardly an example in relation to working underground with limited air supply but we relate according to our own experiences and art engages us on a journey of transcending beyond our own situations. On a metaphorical level, Ingoma is loaded with multiple references which are heightened by Peter Johnson’s score – the sound of picks, drumming, gum boots pounding, clanging of doors, squeaking, scraping of an electronic cello. The music is not simply a backdrop. Movement and music/sound feed off each other.  There is a lot to process.

It is not surprising that Mthuthuzeli November won an Oliver Award for Ingoma, following its 2019 debut in the UK. In the UK, Ingoma was staged with eight – four female and four male dancers. In 2021, lockdown, pandemic year 2, it is being staged by Cape Town City ballet with 27 dancers. Yes, we are seeing a bigger version of what was seen in the UK, prior to Covid. Cape Town Ballet’s CEO, Debbie Turner, saw the production in London and she felt that there was place to extend the staging, as it is a piece which is grounded in protest and in South Africa, an uprising evokes crowds – not eight people.  In conceptualising the piece, November was inspired by paintings by Gerard Sekoto: The Song of the Pick and Blue Head. Sekoto was imaging the Witwatersrand miners’ strike of 1946 and the struggle by Black miners to lobby for better wages and working conditions, through mass strike action.

The staging that Turner saw in the UK was intimate; she told me. In South Africa, the notion of an uprising with eight figures – well – it would be an abbreviation. By bringing 27 on stage, we get the full thrust and urgency of the miners as they group and re-group and are relentless in their quest to claim their territory. This is an epic staging of Ingoma. It is an important work –political./historical and in terms of Mthuthuzeli November’s choreography and conceptual visioning in bringing in Peter Jacobs on board, to work in tandem with him on the intense score. It is sit-on-the-edge of seat theatre.

This double bill premiered in South Africa, at Artscape on May 19, 2021. The theatre complex opened on May 19, 1970 as the Nico Malan Theatre Centre. That was bang in Apartheid days. The complex morphed into Artscape and under its steerage by its CEO Dr Marlene Le Roux, has become a theatre for all. The choice to celebrate its 50th birthday with Cape Town City Ballet’s double Ingoma/Les Sylphides takes my breath away. It is about acknowledging and celebrating our Eurocentric past by re-imaging the classic Les Sylphides and importantly by affirming our context and space now, on the African continent with an epic staging of one of internationally acclaimed Mthuthuzeli November. November is 27 years old. At this age, he has created a remarkable piece of dance theatre and our ballet company has brought Ingoma home, to his November’s home town – and expanded and staged it – with an urgency. It is unvarnished; brutal and jittery. Ingoma sits side by side with Les Sylphides. In year two of Covid, this is an inspired selection to herald Cape Town City Ballet’s autumn season. The ballets evoke beauty, dreams; the need to gather and band together to lobby for human rights and self-determination; to affirm identity – no matter who you are. It is a bill which speaks to me about humanity and above all the spirit of providing strength for each other. In both ballets, there is a vivid sense of the energy of a group- individuals harnessing energy together.

Lêusson Muniz in Ingoma. Image: Danie Coetzee.
Cape Town City Ballet dancers in Les Sylphides. Image: Danie Coetzee.

Image credits: Danie Coetzee.