National Arts Festival 2016: Sold!

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One of the dancers depicting a woman carrying her son away from German soldiers in Namibia. CuePix/Gemma Middleton National Arts Festival 2016
One of the dancers depicting a woman carrying her son away from German soldiers in Namibia. CuePix/Gemma Middleton National Arts Festival 2016

Standard Bank Young Artist Themba Mbuli, the director and choreographer of the dance piece Sold should be applauded for taking on such a mammoth task. Being able to observe sensitivity and take risks with a story as sensitive as the Namibian genocide and the 20 human skulls being returned to their home, takes a lot of bravery. Having seen the performance I can confirm that with the help of more than competent performers, he won.

Sold has a slow beginning with one of the dancers seeming to struggle to get to the southern tip of the African continent (I imagine the geographical area of Namibia) carrying a large bag later revealed to be human skulls. Behind a black screen we see shadows of the rest of the dancers with rising chatter consisting of overlaying chants and prayers.

A dancer handling one of the 20 human skulls returned to Namibia following the genocide there. CuePix/Gemma Middleton National Arts Festival 2016
A dancer handling one of the 20 human skulls returned to Namibia following the genocide there. CuePix/Gemma Middleton National Arts Festival 2016

Things begin when the cast comes to the fore and shares the skulls in the bag  among the themselves, two of whom are disabled (one on a wheel chair the other trudging the floor legless). The movements are strong and characterised by static gestures that betray fear and despair. Throughout there is a feeling of urgent desperation aided by the haunting background music that never overpowers the dancing.

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For anyone that finds it difficult to interpret the meaning of the movements, there are interposing monologues recited by some of the cast members to drive the message home. “Hallelujah sounds like black people burping justice” is one and it quickly moves to the next more tragic than the first where each seems to be peddling the skulls to what I conclude to be European tourists; they haggle over prices in foreign currencies and conclude “sold” with each one.

One of the disabled dancers lamenting the plundering of a land. CuePix/Gemma Middleton National Arts Festival 2016
One of the disabled dancers lamenting the plundering of a land. CuePix/Gemma Middleton National Arts Festival 2016

The only misstep comes as a result of the long lags between each impassioned routine; for instance the bit where the dancers sweep up sand (a metaphor for the scattered African soil/minerals/bodies) to bury the skulls under. It does however help that this is all accompanied by another disturbing yet powerful recital echoing the line “I don’t want to go home in a postcard, I don’t want to die with my hands up or my legs open” which shook everyone within earshot.

On the whole, Sold achieves what it sets out. It is uncomfortable to watch and induces a feeling of haplessness within one and calls to action the need for restoration. While it isn’t necessarily tear jerking, the plight of colonial remnants and civil war become a present ripple effect that is relentless in its insistence to be acknowledged.

Sonia Radebe, Teresa Mojela, Nadine Mckenzi and Koleka Putuma do a great job in bringing this to life with their strong physical performances. Sold ran its last show today 05/07/201 at the Alec Mullins Hall, NAF2016.

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