Karatara- dance- drama Johannesburg – November 2023 season  

When and where: Barney Simon at the Market Theatre – November 9-26, 2023
Tickets: Through Webtickets, or via The Market Theatre’s website (www.markettheatre.co.za)

Writers: Shaun Oelf and Grant van Ster
Direction: Gideon Lombard, with Dean John Smith, Grant van Ster, Shaun Oelf
Choreography: Cast in collaboration with Figure of 8 Dance Collective
Sound design: Gideon Lombard
Lighting design: Gideon Lombard
Set design: Gideon Lombard
Stage manager and assistant lighting designer: Andi Colombo
Producer and production manager:  Marie Vogts   

Karatara- the acclaimed dance-drama from Cape Town, added another accolade last night (November 13, 2023), when it was awarded Best Achievement: Dance at Woorfees 2023. The intensely moving production was sparked by the devastating 2018 fires in Knysna. There is dialogue – mostly in Afrikaans – but the physical language of dance – transfigures text beyond words and even if one is not conversant with Afrikaans and Cape Afrikaans, through the poignant images and soundscape, the viewer becomes immersed in the visceral experience of Karatara. For the first time, Karatara is being staged outside the Cape. The production is on at the newly renovated Barney Simon Theatre at the Market from November 9-26. Team Karatra give insights: Marie Vogts (producer and production manager), Gideon Lombard (director and designer) and Shaun Oelf (co-writer, involved in direction and choreography):

TCR: Congrats on winning Best Achievement: Dance at Woorfees 2023 and here you are the launch production of the newly renovated, Barney Simon Theatre at The Market. So exciting. Your thoughts on winning another award and in being the opening production at the iconic Barney Simon?

Marie Vogts: We are truly blessed with the life of this production. Each opportunity we get to perform is special. Theatrical work does not always have a long lifespan, so we are very grateful for the wonderful opportunities Karatara continues to have. Dance does not always get recognised as a category at award ceremonies, so this award is extra special. Thank you to Woordfees for carving out a place where dance can sit proudly amongst the other awards of the evening. Other than the joy of winning something, we are also see this award as a means to propel the work even further. It helps with facilitating future opportunities, like the present run at the Market theatre. Reopening the iconic Barney Simon theatre is a great privilege and honour.

TCR: Can you talk about the venue and staging your show? I saw it at the Baxter and I can imagine that each venue presents challenges? The set installation was almost wrapped around the Baxter Studio – so wondering about the logistics of setting up in the Barney Simon?

Gideon Lombard: Each venue brings its own magic and challengesThe newly renovated Barney Simon is an absolute pleasure to perform in. It’s not every day that you are able to perform in a brand new space with brand new lights and sound. Karatara relies heavily on a completely dark space, and this has often proven to be the biggest challenge – to get every nook and cranny sealed for absolute darkness. We have a “Karatara black-out kit” that travels with us, consisting of plastic drop sheets and meters of black tape. 

TCR: Is this the first time that Karatara is being staged, out of the Cape? First time in Gauteng? How did this season of Karatara come about in Joburg at the Market?

MV: This is indeed Karatara’s first time outside of the Western Cape. It is a great privilege to be able to bring this story to a wider audience. Thank you to the Market Theatre Foundation for taking the plunge in making all of this possible.

TCR:  Are there surtitles – from Afrikaans – to English? Quite a bit of the Afrikaans is Kaapse Afrikaans/Afrikaans whatever you want to call it, so wondering if there are surtitles and/or if you have shifted the dialogue in any way?

GL: Karatara positions dance as the primary language, and therefore the spoken word becomes a complimentary means of communicating. We have found that the material transcends language, which was always the idea. We also wanted to retain the authenticity of the language of the area, and for these reasons we have not changed any of the spoken text. If the context absolutely necessitates some form of translation, we do have surtitles and a pamphlet contextualising the story.

TCR: Karatara is an intense evocation of the devastating 2018 fires in Knysna- and grief, loss and helplessness. Joburg has experienced so much grief in its CBD – fires in abandoned buildings – so will be interesting to see the response?

GL: Even though the Karatara story stems from a specific tragedy, the intention was always to see if we can speak to a more universal theme of loss. The non-prescriptive nature of dance also facilitates this. Each audience member can see and experience their own version of what loss might look like or feel like. It is not for us to say what Joburg audiences will take from this, but perhaps there is some association with the fires in the CBD.

TCR: Regarding the venue- this is a logistical question- many people are anxious about going to the Market Theatre and the precinct. Can you talk about whether there is secure parking and security in the area?

Greg Homann, artistic director of The Market Theatre: The Market Theatre has recently had over 4400 audience members in 3 weeks safely visit the precinct for The Promise, with over 13000 having attended performances in the last quarter of the year. The secure and convenient parking at the Newtown Junction and our excellent security staff should reassure patrons that any visit to The Market is a pleasant and hassle free one.

TCR: Anything else to add – about the trajectory – the genesis of Karatara- its extraordinary journey of winning awards in the Cape – a story about a small town – and now -on in Joburg?

MV: A few weeks ago we had the privilege of taking KARATARA back to Karatara. Back to the tragedy of a community that inspired this piece. It was an absolute out of body experience. We knew there were people in the audience who were actually there when the fires hit. For the communities of George and Karatara it provided an opportunity where they could “see themselves” on stage. When the process started the goal has always been to take it back to the community. To us it was an incredibly moving and once in a lifetime experience, for which we will be forever grateful. 

TCR: Can we finish with more about “dance as a language” – transcending language and how this manifests in Karatara – which as evidenced by the many awards, including the latest Woordfees 2023 win, has touched so many people who might not watch “dance”?

Shaun Oelf: Karatara has always aimed to bridge the gap between dance and theatre. Dance is the only tool that one can use to communicate clearly and comfortably. Everything you see is real, and there is literally no place to hide. With dance as a language, you get the opportunity to be yourself, to find peace, to laugh without shame and also to be vulnerable.

Imaging grief through dance-theatre: Shaun Oelf speaking about the dance as a language: “Karatara has always aimed to bridge the gap between dance and theatre. Dance is the only tool that one can use to communicate clearly and comfortably. Everything you see is real, and there is literally no place to hide. With dance as a language, you get the opportunity to be yourself, to find peace, to laugh without shame and also to be vulnerable.”

✳ Image of Karatara, by AB Jantjies supplied. Related coverage on the TRC: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/review-karatara-who-by-fire-and-who-should-we-say-is-calling/