Review: Wondrous – hypnotic incandescent interactions- fireside- Into the Woods at Constellations 2021- Spier, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Constellations 2021– Into the Woods

What: Fireside encounters presented by Spier, in association with Brett Bailey’s Third World Bunfight
Where: Spier Wine Estate, Stellenbosch
When: November 25 to December 18, 2021 ❌ Season has sold out
Tickets: R180 – includes a glass of Spier wine on arrival. Picnic tickets cost from R500 to R850 per couple
Booking link
Time: Starts at 8pm. Arrival time – 7.30pm –essential
Picnics: Picnics served from 6pm for mini picnics and 6.30pm for sunset picnics
Info: and  

Here we are December 2021 and everything feels rather dark as we navigate through Rona, year two and the freaky Omicron variant. We are glued to our electronic devices- waiting for the ping of updates. In the context of these very tenuous times, it is absolute bliss to be invited into the forest at Constellations at Spier– to literally go Into The Woods. That is the theme for Constellations 2021, ignited by Brett Bailey and his company, Third World Bunfight, in association with Spier. The request is put out to switch off phones, to relinquish chit-chat; to listen to the sounds in the forest and be open to what one may encounter in the forest, on the farmlands at Spier Wine Estate. It is a wondrous evening and most nights have been sold out. Tickets for the final week – sold out on Wednesday [Dec 15], Thursday [December 16- public holiday] and Saturday [December 18]. As of writing, there are some tickets available for Friday [December 17]. There are only 81 tickets available for each evening. Word has got around that this is a remarkable experience. It is. The logistics of presenting performances in an outdoor setting are challenging at the best of times and in Covid, it is extraordinary that Brett Bailey and Third World Bunfight, have put Constellations together- seamlessly – with incredible attention to the comfort of those in attendance – welcome drinks of Spier wine at the gathering point [wine tasting precinct], bottled water [recycled containers] and cushions to sit on.  Picnics are available to order, before the start, on the lawns at Spier. There is a sense of stepping into an alternative universe – releasing one’s breath – ‘ahhh- wonderful- deep breaths – inhale the woody and leafy air’. I loved the experience.

Crossing the river- surrendering to the woods

At the start of Constellations, walking across the bridge on the Eerste River, it feels like one is leaving the turbulence behind- letting go – surrendering to the forest. It is enchanting and hypnotic as one soon gets lulled into the smells, sounds and textures of the vegetation. Guides lead one along to fireside performances. Twenty seven creatives are participating at 2021 Constellations. Click here to read about the line-up: The forest is a protagonist, an entity in its own right. It is a body and we become immersed in the chirping of the crickets [noisy] and creatures – we can hear them – not necessarily see them in the dark in the woods.

Format of Constellations- the unknown is part of the journey

On each night, there are three routes- with 27 people on each route. That adds up to 81 tickets on each night. When collecting tickets, one is issued with a cushion tagged with a colour. Assembling at 7.30pm, Brett Bailey, invites each ticket holder to follow guides along the assigned route [corresponding to the colour tag on cushion], where one interact with three creatives. Each performance is about 20 minutes – some are longer.  For 2021 Constellations, there are nine places (tickets) for each route. When one embarks on the route, one does not know the line-up. You get what you get. Afterwards, walking back, as we swarmed together, I heard people asking – “who did you get’, ‘was it good’?” For me, this is not the point of Constellations. There is a sense of communal interactions – with creatives – which include theatre makers, poets and musicians. The woods is a character in its own right. It is not about dissecting the performances as one might do in a formal theatre context, where one would might consider design and production elements. In one sense, Constellations may be considered as immersive outdoor theatre but the range of presenters, do not necessarily create “theatre” in a narrow sense of the terminology of what theatre may signify.  Brett Bailey has worked extensively on public art projects such as Infecting the City. He has worked with site responsive and specific performance; across disciplines, which bridge divides between theatre and other modes of expression. The three creatives on my route at Constellations, presented intensely personal performances: Odidi Mfenya, Nico Athene and Freeman LoTs. I don’t want to reveal what they share. Each artist was captivating – at times beguiling and also unsettling. There was a mix of verbal, non-verbal, movement and music. Two performances took place around blazing fires [Odidi Mfenya and Freeman LoTs] and one around a sandy pit – sans fire [Nico Athene]. The flames of the fires in the two performances, almost had me hypnotized, in a trance-like state.

Silence and ‘noise’ of the woods

Key to Constellations 2021 is to let go of chit-chat; to embrace the opportunity to not talk and enjoy “silence”. It’s not really silence as there is noise in nature – branches being walked on- snapping, insects buzzing. The traffic from the highway adds to the soundtrack. The guides beat drums to signal when performances being and end. There are bells tinkling. So there is stuff happening but the idea is to not zip one’s lips- unless asked by the performer to talk. It is not easy to keep quiet. In our group, one of the onlookers could not take a period of silence, after Nico Athene’s performance, she began plying the guide with questions and kept saying “oh cool”. The guide was very discreet and answered succinctly. Then there was silence. It was a sizzling moment of tension and yes, the audience becomes part of the experience. It is cool that the person had the need to ask questions and was given answers. I loved that – the overlaying of chatter – on top of a non-verbal performance and how the guide responded. It was also interesting to see people shifting on their tree stumps, squirming in the non-verbal performance set; uncomfortable with no talk. Meanwhile, there was noise in the forest and the distant thumping and thrumming of other groups, guides, and sounds in the distance. Fascinating.

After Constellations – the walk back – under the stars

After Constellations wrapped up, we walked back, crossing over the bridge, over the river onto the manicured lawns of Spier. I enjoyed seeing the mosaic kraal lit up in the night. . []. It looks very different to the day. I inhaled the smell of the flowers and plants and contemplated what I call the Mandela mosaic sculpture. The title is The Dying Slave. The artist is Marco Cianfanelli. The installation features nine columns -4.1 metres in height, which form the image of Mandela’s face – when viewed from a distance. Illuminated at night, it is magical to see Mandela’s face come into focus in monochrome– very different to daytime with the colourful mosaics [] Spier has a superb art collection and in the dark of the night, one gets a different perspective. The beauty of staying over at the hotel is that there is time to linger, look and contemplate.

Picnics- get into the vibe of Constellations

Before the start of Constellations, picnics are available (pre-order).   Picnics served from 6pm for mini picnics and 6.30pm for sunset picnics. Picnic tickets cost from R500 to R850 per couple- and include a bottle of Spier wine. Our vegetarian basket includes delicious falafel balls and tahini, amazing hummus, potato salad, fabulous, very crusty focaccia loaves, sweet treats and cheese. The basket is packed with glasses (not plastic). A picnic blanket is supplied. There are tables, if one doesn’t want to lie on the grass. When we were there, there was live music. It felt like an event – and ‘normal’.

Dress advisory- good to know

There are insects in the Spier woods so it is advisable to wear pants, socks and closed shoes- and socks- and long sleeves. Insect repellent is available when collecting tickets in the wine tasting area. Scarves advisable and of course, during Covid, don’t forget your mask and wear comfy shoes. There are thorns in forest and you need to feel grounded.

Staying over at the Spier hotel

We were hosted by Spier and spent the night in a lovely room at the Spier Hotel with an amazingly comfortable bed. I have had sleep issues, since lockdown clicked in. I have no idea about the brand of mattress in the room but I know that I haven’t had such a brilliant night of un-interrupted sleep – in a long time. Maybe, its was a combination of the country air, the scent of the fires and an evening of no electronic devices and space to breathe and think. It was great to sleep over and wake up on the beautiful property, sit on the terrace and enjoy a buffet breakfast. After breakfast, I went to do a wine tasting and had the pleasure of enjoying a range of wines and the Spier bubbly – which is sublime. The wine tasting area is where one gathers to collect Constellation tickets and is the start point for the routes. The hotel – beautifully furnished with exquisite heritage furniture and artwork – has been fully booked – during the Constellations season and in December with many South Africans holidaying on the estate which offers cycling, walking trails and other diversions. I recommend combining next year’s Constellations with a sleep-over. Hotel discounts apply for Constellation ticket holders- good to know for next year.

Hypnotic incandescent interactions- fireside

Constellations 2021 is a transcendent experience- numinous and luminous- hypnotic. I look forward to the 2022 gathering around fires. For the record, we were schedules to go on November 27, 2021 but that evening was cancelled because of rain.  Hopefully by 2022 Constellations, the pandemic will be on the wane and more tickets will be available on each night. I recommend booking as soon as dates are announced. Reserve a room at the hotel. International tourists –put Constellations on your itinerary when visiting the Cape for summer of 2022.  

Leading the way through the woods: Guides at Constellations 2021, Into The Woods at Spier Wine Estate. Pic: Allison Foat.

✳ Featured image – Malika Ndlovu at Constellations 2021. Image courtesy of Spier. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: and