Published January 27, 2006 in The Seattle Times
“The idea of following one line got a bit boring for me,” says South African choreographer Boyzie Cekwana. He’s explaining why in 1997 he abandoned the rigidity of the ballet companies in his home country and formed his own dance collective, The Floating Outfit Project.
“Your potential isn’t really tapped in one line,” he says.
The first African choreographer to be appointed resident choreographer in the history of South Africa’s Performing Arts Council, Cekwana is known for stepping outside the lines. His powerfully charged work addresses the issues that plague post-apartheid South Africa, including AIDS, rape, violence and child abuse.
A black South African artist making work about injustice may come as no surprise. But Cekwana tries to take a deeper look at the ramifications of apartheid and its demise.
“In the last 10 years, a large part of the political consciousness has been about re-addressing imbalances,” he says. Not all imbalances, though. “This has been outside of the gender question,” he explains. In a society intensely focused on racial equality, black maleness — as it pertains to black women rather than white men — gets forgotten.
So how does one illustrate such weighty topics through dance? “One tool is exaggeration,” Cekwana says. “To highlight and enforce it with a visual presence.”
The piece “Ja’née” (“yes/no”), for example, features seven men and one woman, because Cekwana seeks to accentuate the gender imbalance that persists beyond post-apartheid reforms.
“In these changing political times, there are still things we haven’t dealt with, such as the culturally accepted attitude of male dominance. That paradigm has not shifted. I wanted to push this to the front so that it was uncomfortable.”
Making people uncomfortable with the status quo is a tried-and-true activist strategy, and given the context, this could render Cekwana a radical. But the choreographer says his medium offers him a privilege: “As an artist, I can say these things without risk of sanction.”
Another way to say things without risk is to express them in a language your audience is unlikely to understand. Case in point: the section of “Ja’née” in which the dancers speak and sing in Zulu.
Will the audience get the message? “The words are important,” Cekwana answers, “but what’s more important is how it’s being said. It could be spoken in Chinese — because in the context of the work and what’s happening on stage, it doesn’t need translating. The words support the movement but to a far greater extent in the reverse.”
Cekwana calls “Rona,” the other piece in his West Coast debut, “wildly different” from “Ja’née.” A work for three dancers that blends Butoh, classical dance and South African rock art, “Rona” traces the roots of African spirituality. “I like the combination,” Cekwana says. ” ‘Ja’née’ is not an easy work. I like tempering that with ‘Rona’ — it gives the audience a much fuller experience.”
PHOTO CREDIT: VAL ADAMSON