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Ballet, like history, is in new hands

Review: Cape Town City Ballet presents the South African premiere of
Mthuthuzeli November’s Olivier Award-winning Ingoma 

Every generation claims its history in its own way. London-based Mthuthuzeli November has reached across time and space to depict the story of the 1946 miner’s strike on the Witwatersrand. The distance robs us of nothing.

In this brutal and beautiful fusion of ballet and African song and dance the warriors are not just male.

The layering of the hyper masculine scenes of miners at work with a pair of lovers dancing love’s intimate dance has us catching our breath with excitement and then with heartache. We tap our feet as we wipe away a tear.

Photographs: Danie Coetzee

November is unapologetic in his originality as he revisits an important moment in South African history, as he is in creating dance that is brave, new and pure.

The scenes of the men shift from smashing of rock and gumboot dancing to protest and its violent crushing.

The intimate love scenes are replaced with all-female scenes of solidarity and desperation, then loss and mourning.

Incredible use of music and light and shadow turn up the heat and magnify the emotions. Design is by London-based Yann Seabra. South African Peter Johnson composed the music in his third collaboration with November (after Cape Dance Company’s Visceral and Sun). Asisipho Malunga completes the creative team as dramaturge and vocalist.

“As a young South African artist now working away from home, I feel a very strong pull to learn more about my people and myself,” November says.

The journey to Ingoma started when he saw Gerard Sekoto’s paintings, Blue Head (1961) and Song of the Pick (1947), and was struck by them “on a deep, emotional level”.

“I saw the internal struggles depicted in the work – a sense of sadness and loss. I knew I wanted to bring this to life.”

He began researching what was happening in South Africa in the 1940s (when Song of the Pick was created) and he became interested in the African mine workers’ strike of 1946, a week-long tragedy, which saw more than 1,200 miners injured, at least 9 of them fatally.

For November, the story brought to mind other protests and massacres – from Sharpeville to Marikana – and he decided to tell the story through dance.

Importantly, he didn’t want the work to be solely about the miners. He also “wanted to talk about the effect that the strikes had on the women and children, who lost their husbands and fathers … about struggle, death, loss and hope”.

Lêusson Muniz and Leané Theunissen. Photo Oscar O’Ryan

Ingoma is raw, thrilling and relevant, even more so after the romantic reverie of the first of the two ballets on the evening, Les Sylphides.

The latter is a classical ballet featuring imaginary spirits of the woods dancing in the moonlight with a poet to the dreamy tinkling of Frederic Chopin.

It felt strange as an opening act for something so real and so raw, but perhaps that is the point. Ballet, like history, is in new hands.

Ingoma/Les Sylphides will be presented on 19, 22, 27,28, May and 3, 4 and 5 June at 7. 30pm with matinees on 22 and 29 May at 3pm. The performances in the Artscape Opera House will be strictly limited to 250 seats due to social distancing and masks must be worn throughout. Bookings at Artscape Dial-a-seat 021 421 7695 or through Computicket.

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