Published on: 5:10pm 17 November 2015, by Olitta O'Garro and Monique Etienne
This was the imaginative story of Gregory Maqoma’s ancestor Chief Maqoma, losing his land and cattle to the British, then imprisoned on the infamous Robben Island where he later died.
Gregory Maqoma entered the stage wearing a shiny grey suit; he stood in the middle of the stage with his back turned to the audience. With his left arm raised above his head and right arm out to his side laterally he repeatedly performs a gesture with his hands, where he unceasingly shakes his extremities mimicking the sharpness and spikiness of the soundscape, he then has the ability to make a smooth transition of the movement into his spine, allowing the rest of his body to shift into a series of footwork, with his back still turned to the audience he was able to keep the audience gazing at his every movement.
Four South African singers and a guitarist Giuliano Modarelli accompanied him behind a sheer backdrop periodically making an appearance from behind this to engage with Maqoma; they facilitated the telling of the story through their harmonious vocals, and with the musical composition from Simphiwe Dana. In one of the sections, the singers start singing ‘Umaqoma’, Maqoma then places a plate on top of his head in a very chiefly way, and dances with it, filling in the rest of the music with the percussion of his feet, rocking his shoulders, pounding his feet against the floor and swaying his hips in the delight of the music. He explores each part of the stage whilst carrying the plate on his head then he stands and dances in the sand being released above his head. I’m sure all that were watching wanted to stand and dance with him too, as the music was so joyous.
As he undulates his spine into high kicks and deep lunges, he gives the audience a real sense of the polyrhythmic that enters and exits his body whilst showcasing his identity as a South African, a task that can be difficult to execute, Maqoma was able to do so with the greatest of ease. As we continuously hear the unique vocal ability of the singers weaving through the performance, the clear articulation of Maqoma’s movement language has the audience bobbing their heads with enjoyment; it’s what makes the difference between an artist that dances to the music and an artist that dances in the music. Both the singers and Gregory were in harmony with each other.
As Gregory Maqoma continued to tell the profound story of his ancestor he kneels at the front of the stage on a white cloth facing the audience, he pours oil onto his bare skin, at this point one of the ensemble singer’s stood at the front of the stage, to Maqoma’s right, and he sings a very heart wrenching song in a capella. Both the singer and Maqoma embody the pain and anguish that Chief Maqoma went through in his time of defeat; the creation of an eerie atmosphere was chilling to watch; as Maqoma then stands, two of the other singers grip onto the cloth and drag him back, as he struggles to stay standing on the cloth there was an image in the mind’s eye of Chief Maqoma being taken away on a boat, you could see the fear through Maqoma’s eyes, it is as if he became his ancestor. We gain the understanding of Chief Maqoma’s fate; being arrested and being held captive on Robben Island.
Exit/Exist was a transfixing performance to watch, the hour zipped by wanting me to watch more of Maqoma’s ancestral story. The standing ovation and the loud whistles from audience members received on both nights confirmed how much everyone enjoyed his performance. Gregory Maqoma, the singers and guitarist accepted the reception of the audience with great humbleness. I look forward to seeing what else he has to offer on his next visit to the UK, so watch this space!
Monique Etienne - City and Islington College
Think of a one-man dance show, and I couldn’t help but think of arrogant, unfulfilled showmanship that only touches the performer's ego and the not the hearts of the audience. Gregory Maqoma completely dispelled this notion from my mind. In his piece Exit/Exist, performed for Dance Umbrella at the Shaw Theatre, Maqoma explores not just his own history but the history of his people, the Xhosa, in a sensitive, spirited and magical way.
Exit/Exist tells the story of Maqoma’s great-grandfather, Chief Maqoma, a greatly respected warrior who did well to defend his clan for a time against British Colonialists. Despite his bravery, the British succeeded in damaging the Xhosa by slaughtering their livelihood, the cattle, and Maqoma was eventually captured and left to perish on Robben Island.
The first dance sequence is a conceptualisation of a man revisiting his history, which in a world where the lives of the suppressed are constantly being lost or rewritten, can be a difficult and emotional process. Maqoma miraculously manages to express these sentiments- at first only his hands move erratically, seemingly erasing the errors of his past, and as a crescendo builds Maqoma chases the unseen spirits of his ancestry about the stage.
Maqoma may be the only dancer on stage, but he is certainly not the only performer. A darkened screen lights up to reveal the talented Italian fusion guitarist Giuliano Modarelli and four incredible masked singers from the South African Ensemble, who create a sound that is eclectic as it is haunting- Modarelli plays a distinctive sound that is influenced with a traditional African sound, and the singers transition from traditional South African song to gospel with joyous ease. There is something of the Grecian theatre about the singers in their white masks, who sing a story that, unless you speak Xhosa, mostly leaves the audience in the dark about the meaning. The music complements the dance wonderfully well, and contemplates the many moods that Maqoma brings to the stage.
Exit/Exist is rich in imagery and symbology. Props include a cow horn and rains of golden grain that cascade from the roof. Maqoma performs one dance with a plate on his head, skilfully executing intricate steps while at one point the grain rains down onto the plate. Maqoma introduces many elements into this work, from traditional African dance, to contemporary ballet, to steps that are martial in essence and invoke images of his warrior ancestor. His face itself is dynamically expressive, his eyes telling a story of bravery and pain.
Surprisingly, one of the pieces greatest strengths lies in its softness and dreamlike essence. It manages to make an impact without being remotely political or reproaching- while this could be a negative for some pieces dealing with such a sensitive subject matter, it actually succeeds, somehow, in making it more universal and relatable. The audience was certainly moved- the crowd gave a standing ovation for Exit/Exist, and there was certainly a tangible elation in the auditorium. .