Review: The woods is a potent protagonist in Constellations 2022- riffing off land, storytelling, nature, connections- orbiting at this innovative and immersive event in the Cape Winelands

Constellations at Spier Wine Estate opened last weekend and is on until November 19, 2022. The 2022 Constellations is sold out but there may be tickets that pop up online – peopl-e unable to use their tickets – so keep a look-out and you may get lucky. If not, put Constellations on the live performance diary for 2023 – same time next year in the woods at Spier.

Constellations is an extraordinary experience which riffs and pings in many directions and spheres – land, space, gatherings, storytelling, nature, connections.  When people ask me “what is it about” and “are the performances good”, I cannot reply in a straight line. Constellations orbits around performances which take place in the woods at Spier. People go on routes, in a small groups. There are marshals (called Guardians) who guide the groups from performance to performance. Constellations starts off at dusk but it gets progressively dark and by the end, one is walking in the dark, with the light of torches to guide you along. The sounds of the woods become part of the experience- chirping of insects and the singing of frogs- a symphony of frogs.

For 2022 Constellations, Brett Bailey of Third World Bunfight, invited women creatives to share aspects of their work. He said: “‘It feels right to me to orientate the 2022 production around women in their power: it brings to mind the female revellers of Dionysian celebrations in ancient Greece, and the Yoruba priestess cults of the sacred groves of Nigeria. Collectively, this company of talented, diverse and interesting women, will give spectators something very special.”  Last weekend, at 2022 Constellations, I experienced the woods very much as a protagonist; a living body, from which the performances emanated. Last year [2021], the performances took place around fires. At 2022 Constellations, there are lanterns clustered around the performance spaces. This was done because of safety reasons as the site of 2022 Constellations would have not facilitated the access to medical and fire assistance vehicles. Safety is key to this event. I personally prefer the lanterns. I found the heat of the fires too intense. I love the glow of the lanterns and that some of the creatives pick up lanterns and use them in their performances. It brings in a wonderful sense of play and invokes rituals – candles/lights as beacons, memorial lights and so on.

As for the question: Are the performances ‘good’, Constellations is not meant to be about ‘shows’ as in a structured theatre context. One has encounters in the woods and these encounters spark off differently for each participant. The 2022 Constellations has a beautiful stillness; a measured sense of quietness (although the woods are noisy). All the artists make use of the woods in their performances. One performer sits in a tangle of branches, with a carpet on the ground and lamps lighting her lair, den. Another literally climbs the trees. Trees and branches are wrapped and tied. I love the way the site- the woods – has been incorporated in the works of Constellations 2022. It is land as art and art as land.

On my route, people did not talk in between each performance. There was a reverence for what we were experiencing and respect for quiet in the woods. On the walk back, people were chatting. One person went into raptures about a particular performance and another person disagreed and had issues with it, which I will not go into.  It was interesting to listen to the reflections and what became evident was that some artists change their performances so that each group, may have seen a different iteration.

There were two performances on my route which resonated with me deeply and which I will discuss briefly: Ncebakazi Mnukwana (musician and academic) and Ché Adams (Flamenco dancer). Mnukwana shared with us music on traditional instruments from the African continent. She is a gifted and humble artist and it was a privilege to be treated to her offering in the words.

Ché Adams’ piece is a highly considered performance which evoked a lot for me. She starts off barefoot. We see a pair of white dancing shoes, on a wooden plank. Using her body – hands – to create a percussion- she dances across wooden planks- circling and looping around the site, The shoes go on – one at a time and then off. Who is this being, in a long white dress, in the woods and what is she doing in this dance with shoes? For me, it conjured up shoes left at Nazi death camps; shoes discarded as refugees flee, shoes lost in the woods. In survivor memoirs, shoes figure prominently- without shoes, it is difficult to walk through terrain like woods, places strewn with debris. This stirring and powerful performance triggered me to think about woods/forests as places of refuge and spaces for escaping the horrors of the world and also place to dance and celebrate and appreciate nature.

Walking back, a person mused how wonderful it is to be able to walk at night in the woods and be safe and to do that in South Africa. Another person – with a foreign accent – countered that it is not easy to walk anywhere in the world- at night- in the deep woods. On our walk back, three of us lingered as we listened to the frogs, singing on a very balmy night. It was magical. We wanted to stay the night. I wanted a tree house to climb into, to be high up, above the ground. A person in our straggler group of three, is a South African living in Paris. She took out her phone and made a five minute recording of the singing frogs. I recorded a few seconds. I have played it on a loop, this week.

Constellations is destination, event, experience, performance, expressions, impressions – and a lot more. One walks a fair distance (about twenty minutes to get to the first performance for 2022). It is not for those with mobility challenges (although several people used walking sticks and managed). One sits on tree stumps and if there are knee and back issues, this is not for you as you may be uncomfortable. However, climbing Table Mountain is not do-able for those with mobility challenges, so yeah, that is just how it is. Experience Constellations with a plus-one who is open to the joy of encountering surprises – going along to the pace and beat in the woods. I look forward to the 2023 Constellations and what will be transfigured in the next orbiting at this innovative and immersive event in the Cape Winelands.  

Dancing with lamps: Ché Adams (Flamenco dancer), Constellations 2022, Spier. © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.
Sunset: Constellations 2022, Spier.
© TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.
Walking in the woods: Constellations 2022, Spier. © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

✳Featured image: Ché Adams (Flamenco dancer), Constellations 2022, Spier. © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: