First let me apologize for posting no visual imagery. I opted not to bring my camera as it was one too many things to carry. I will borrow some images from my pals to post soon.

We are into our second full day of dance going, fine dining and catching up on our sleep from the 14 to 38 hours of transit we collectively endured to get here.

The weather is warm, humid and hazy with bursts of thunder and rain at night mixing into the distant soundscape of the lively bar scene just two blocks away. Last night I swear I heard a mean djembe solo that went on and on playing familiar rhythms I knew from years of African dancing.

Seventh St. in Melville is a happening scene especially on weekends. Swanky bars and restaurants line the street with a used bookstore, grocery store, pharmacy and dress shop sprinkled in. One can play, eat, shop — even hear live music — and take care of practical needs. Our favorite spot for great food and wine is The Lucky Bean because its sits at the far end of the street where its quiet and they have lots of outdoor seating – and did I mention thoughtfully prepared and delicious food. Yes I am a foodie!

Last night we got down to business attending Neli Xaba’s new 30-minute video/performance at the Goodman Space – Arts on Main – a really cool space the Goethe Institute has developed downtown in an industrial neighborhood. This  complex houses William Kentridges studio, a print shop, high end fashion design workshop, a snazzy cafe (Canteen), and two or more raw performance spaces.

Neli Xaba Uncles & Angels

Neli came to BDF last summer along with choreographers Kettly Noel and Mamela Nyamza.  She was in the early stages of developing this work, “Uncles & Angels” that comments on the revival in South Africa of the Reed Dance. In 2011 more than 50,000 young girls participated in this massive ‘celebration’ of chastity and virginity that presumes to be an effective tool in curbing the spread of HIV!

“Uncles & Angels” is a solo work that pairs virtual imagery with live performance to question the enforced chastity of young girls. Neli is at once a woman and a girl, provocative and innocent, obedient and shamed. Her talent for effective, funny costuming is present in her white furry undergarments topped by a beaded hot pink mini skirt of sorts with a furry halter top that doubles as an animal skin headdress.  Her multipled images line up to mirror her antics and on obediently opens her legs for a virginity exam. There’s a stairway to ….hell (?)  littered with high heels, some funky hip shakin’ booty moves and a pretty powerful mirror cast on the absurdity of this pseudo symbolic ‘reed dance.”

From there we went directly to the historic Market Theatre for Dance Umbrella’s opening night performance of Gregory Maqoma’s new work, “Exit/Exist”.  Gregory has been an artist in residence at BDF on several occasions since 2005 and we presented his exceptional work, “Beautiful Me” in 2009. Tonight the house was full and what a fabulous post-apartheid mix of art lovers. Over its’ 24 years Dance Umbrella has succeeded in building a strong and diverse audience for contemporary dance and I am so glad they have found a way to continue hosting this important festival after their long time sponsor, Standard Bank pulled out two years ago.

“Exit/Exist features an absolutely extraordinary quartet of singers, all formerly with Hugh Masekela’s band, along with one of the most sublime guitarist, Guiliano Modarelli, I have ever had the privilege to hear.  Seated behind a scrim the singers also play supporting roles in the story of Maqoma, a renowned chief of the Xhosa nation who waged war with the English in the mid-1900 to liberate  land and cattle. A piece of old history known by but a few.

Gregory donning a gorgeous shimmering silver suit performs a subtle, detailed, mesmerizing dance delineating the stage all the while with his back to us. Never has a clothed back been so expressive. This abstract opening section is stunning. Still a work in progress, as the piece continues Maqoma’s plight and demise is told in quite literal terms through the text, props and imagery. The program notes say that “the core of the piece is about memory, rephrasing the notion of existence and the notion of simply existing in order to exist.”

A reception ensued after the performance and the crowd of happy opening nighters poured into the lobby devouring the buffet and spilling out into the square to socialize.

Serendipity is my favorite aspect of travel. Those delightful moments when one encounters the unexpected. Coming to a festival halfway around the world – or anywhere—part of the fun is who you see and reconnect with. Then there are all those new folks to meet. Now that we, the Africa Consortium, have been visiting the continent for over eight years, attending festivals and visiting with artists on their home turf, we know people. So last night we got to reconnect with some of our friends and get our festival groove on.

Continuing with the notion of serendipity, this morning we went to Wits Theatre for Stepping Stones, the annual festival showcase of young talent featuring 50 groups over two days. At the entrance to the theater was a large group of kids in a circle/crowd taking turns dancing to a single young drummer. They were practicing their moves for the show and having a blast. So many lit up, glowing faces and boy they were throwing down some pretty funky, nasty moves.  What a scene – it was for me almost the best part of the show.

Then it was off to another yummy lunch at Melon on 7th St with our colleagues Shay Wafer from 651 Arts and Vivian Philips of the Seattle Theatre Group.

Tonight I will revisit Gregory’s performance –always love the chance to see a piece more than once and dig deeper into the layers of information that make up any good work.

For another perspective on our time here in Joburg check out Marj Neset’s blog at: http://mneset.wordpress.com/

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