The best of the swarm at the National Arts Festival
From themes of isolation to those of integration, the festival is a mirror of the extremes of the human experience
“In theatre, the process of it is the experience. It doesn’t last — only in people’s memories and in their hearts. That’s the beauty and sadness of it. But that’s life — beauty and the sadness. And that is why theatre is life.” Sherie Rene Scott
Navigating your way through the many dimensions of a multi-textured festival such as the National Arts Festival (NAF) means you become your own curator of experiences. Every offering you go towards in some way reflects something in yourself which drew you towards it.
But it’s difficult to describe an experience you’ve gone through. The very act of trying to express what has passed is also an experience in itself, and trying to capture the moment of a performance event is like trying to contain the wind.
My festival started off with my first encounter with one-on-one theatre in the form of DEURnis/Uzwelo. (The title means “compassion,” but its Afrikaans spelling also invokes the act of stepping through a door.) In this production you walk into a small room as the only audience member and face a single actor. The performer engages you as part of their 15-minute monologue, maintaining relentless eye contact while addressing you directly in English, isiXhosa, Setswana or Afrikaans. The 12 different stories available are intense, involving the crossroads of an extreme emotional situation, including death, birth, marriage, poverty, abortion and sex trafficking. Each short scene involves an insight into the individual life of a character, who sometimes requires your assistance in reaching an important decision.
In this way, you become part of their story. Sometimes you represent somebody they like, and you feel flattered; other times they turn on you and you want to crawl away in shame. The production was an excellent demonstration of the power of projection and shows how we are all part of other people’s stories and so often we’re unable to control the narrative in which we’ve been framed.
This was also a lesson in listening, in fully engaging another human being and staying present with them, even if we were not always able to alter the trajectory of their story.
DEURnis/Uzwelo set the tone for my festival. Wherever I went after that, during the many small conversations between shows and in my interviews with various artists, I kept feeling drawn in as an observer, pulled into the drama being played out around me.
I saw almost all of the main programme for theatre and most of the dance, as well as a large chunk of the digital arts festival Creativate. For the most part, the standard was exceptionally high this year and there were many extraordinary productions on offer. Highlights for me included Ersatz, a French production involving exquisitely baffling technology, as well as the innovative virtual reality show from Brisbane called Frogman.
Brett Bailey’s new piece, Samson, was an astonishing delight bringing together a stellar crew: choreography by Vincent Mantsoe and music by Shane Cooper. Standard Bank Young Artist Winner for Theatre Amy Jephta wrote a deeply satisfying text, All Who Pass, about a family returning to their home in District 6 many years after their forced removal. Carefully crafted, with subtle attention to characterisation and plot, the play came alive under the deft direction of Qanita Adams, captivating me from start to finish.
In G7: Okwe-Bokhwe, Mandla Mbothwe jammed together tragedy and celebration in an energetic re-appraisal of the Gugulethu 7. The production featured an astoundingly innovative design by Linda Mandela Sejosingoe which worked intelligently with an exceptional lighting grid by Themba Stewart.
Jemma Kahn’s work is always slyly clever and her new piece, Cellist with Rabies, continues a theme from last year’s Borrow Pit in exploring the devastating trajectory of a self-destructive obsession, created with her trademark dark humour. Two brilliant dance pieces also held a darker vision. Hannah Ma’s Wanderer and Bailey Snyman’s Gaslands both felt as if they were placed at the end the Anthropocene, delving into our species’ self-destructive tendencies, spiralling out simple skirmishes into devastating conflicts of monstrous proportions.
All of these productions conveyed a vitality, , but I was also curious about shows that didn’t quite work as well, and tried to figure out what made one production seem “fake” while another felt “true”. After all, art is artifice, and the title of my favourite show, Ersatz, means something like “pseudo,” a substitute in place of the real thing. So what distinguishes a production that seems “real” from one that comes across as “artificial”?
Many productions exhorted one to “be who you are”, even if the “true self” turns out to be a wildly camp, voguing celebration of self-image, as in the case of Steven Fales in his heart-warming Confessions of a Mormon Boy, and the feisty crew of jazz ensemble Too Many Zoos, and the Sirqus Alfon clowns in their techno dance extravaganza I am Somebody.
Flaunting the display of self can also be “keeping it real”, since it’s a demonstration of a sincere human desire for the connection of attention. Mafikizolo appeared in high style bling with Theo Kgosinkwe in his bright red suit and Nhlanhla Nciza in an extravagant multicoloured creation. This high camp display only endeared them even more to a capacity crowd at the fest’s largest venue.
At the start of the festival, DEURnis provided an initial through line for me; but the other marker towards the end of the festival was the idea of the “swarm”. Well Worn Theatre, an environmental company with many different shows on offer, created a fascinating daily public art event called Swarm Theory. In these “shows”, a group of 17 performers spontaneously begin to interact as one organism with their environment. It’s a simple acting game, exploring the places from which impulses arise, and working towards establishing a “group mind” without fixed roles. It’s about learning to listen and respond with sensitivity and care to an environment we share.
According to Dr Louis Rosenberg, “when people think together as swarms, they can amplify their intelligence by 20%”. Co-creator Kyla Davis told Sarah Robeson that the work was about exploring ways of thinking about our many environmental challenges: “We’re at this point where we all have to come together … Swarm Theory is an exploration of our human experience, right here, right now”.
Synchronistically, a number of other shows also inadvertently referenced ideas of the swarm. Bees became a central motif in Samson, which juxtaposed the rise and fall of hives with a lone eagle in a cosmic dance; a single bee and its solitary drop of honey providing the orgasmic climax. Movements in Hannah Ma’s Sylphides were also based, she said, on “swarm movements of fishes and birds”.
Other improvisatory pieces worked with the idea of staying open to the presence of the moment. Going Back to the Truth of Space by Young Artist Winner for Dance Kitty Phetla created a space for nurturing awareness, as she moved with jazz improvisations played by Nduduzo Makhathini. The show had no overarching narrative but used the ebb and flow of Phetla’s reflections on dreams and memories to coax us into a state of presence.
Similarly, in the Yorùbá piece Spirit Child, Qudus Onikeku quietened us into an intensely personal ritual rhythm, a spontaneous pattern which brought our awareness back to ourselves as observers, as participants in a shared experience.
The hive of the festival itself creates a kind of intelligence to which all performers and audiences contribute. Swarms also have ebbs and flow, and there’s as much beauty as sadness in things passing. As another festival comes to an end and performers pack up, as much as one has gained there is also a loss at letting go.
DEURnis/Uzwelo explored a tender place where an inner world of subjective experience meets an outer world of performance; where reception meets expression. It took me deep into a close dyad with another human being, while Swarm Theory connected me to a larger group, showing how we are also part of powerful flows over which we have no control. Trying to resist and work against the group can, contrarily, disrupt not only our own awareness but also that of the world in which we live.
We are never entirely solitary, never completely cut off from the world; but nor are we ever entirely overrun by it. We always have some agency, no matter how small. There is always a choice. We live always somewhere in the dance between aloneness and belonging.
Gauging the frequency of specific words used in the arts festival programme
I was curious about undercurrents playing out at the festival, so I tried an experiment by finding out how many times certain words appear in the official programme. Of course, each person’s taxonomy will depend on which words they choose to search for, and how they contrast them with other words. I realise that this isn’t any kind of conclusive scientific study, but it might gauge how the festival organisers and curators (as well as the groups and performers) chose to represent themselves and their productions.
Here are some of the word counts I discovered:
- In terms of genre: Theatre – 342 / Dance – 166 / Performance – 158 / Film – 116 / Visual art – 46
- The frequency of words relating to languages were: English – 78 / Xhosa – 31 / Afrikaans – 15
- I also looked up other designations: Black – 60 / White – 26 / Africa – 405 / Europe – 6
- In trying to see which themes were emerging: family – 75 / culture – 58 / history – 53 / politic – 51 / power – 36 / land – 32 / freedom – 22 / environment – 14 / experiment – 10 / trauma – 5 / beauty - 4
- group – 157 / individual 7
- other – 71 / self – 54
- together – 50 / apart – 3
- past – 48 / future – 38
- hope - 36 / fear – 11
- comedy – 64 / tragedy – 2
- love – 100 / hate – 5
- art – 1,084 / genius - 1