After months of strenuous rehearsals Cape Town’s Underground Dance Theatre is finally packed-up and ready to embark on their annual trip to the Eastern Cape. Split between three vehicles – containing 10 dancers, their costumes and props – are two dance pieces the company is presenting at this year’s National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown.
Titled LoveZero the programme is made up of Steven van Wyk and Thalia Laric’s Mode, which first premiered as the Baxter Dance Festival’s commissioned piece last year; and Cipher, a brand new piece featuring dancers Julia de Rosenwerth, Odille de Villiers and Nicola van Straaten.
“Cipher is a numbers game,” explains Cilna Katzke, who choreographed the piece along with Kristina Johnstone. “Numbers seem rational, logical and impersonal, yet we seem to be deeply attuned to how numbers ‘feel’. There are favourite numbers, lucky numbers, mystical numbers…the list goes on.
“Cipher explores the human inclination to ascribe emotion to that which seems obscenely rational. The dance navigates the tension between order and disorder, harmony and anarchy, the logical and the absurd.”
Referring to the inspiration behind the production, Katzke explains that, during her time as a student at UCT, she had to do a project generally referred to as the “In-the-style-of project”. As part of it she had to choose a choreographer whose work she found interesting, before presenting her own piece in a similar style.
“The piece I chose was Shutters Shut, originally choreographed by Nederlands Dans Theater’s (NDT) artistic director Paul Lightfoot and artistic advisor Sol León. In it they used a repetitive Gertrude Stein poem (“If I Had Told Him a Completed Portrait of Picasso”) as the soundtrack, with each word having a specific movement or gesture to go with it.
“While I chose a different Stein poem (“Matisse”), I still had to work with the external formula/structure (choreography) that the piece required. A certain amount of artistic decisions where therefore taken away from me. It is an aesthetic that I liked so much that, several years after graduating, I wanted to revisit its mechanics when it came to Cipher.
What she enjoys most about this process, Katzke explains, is that she does not have to stop all the time and “worry whether or not a choreographic decision I am busy making is right or wrong.” Instead, she continues, all she has to do is “lose myself in the process of creating.”
Wanting to create a piece using a similar pre-defined structure, combined with listening to a podcast on numbers by chance at the same time, led to the idea of approaching Cipher’s creation as a kind of game of numbers.
“Initially Kristina and I spoke a lot about our favourite numbers; why they meant, important dates and birthdays in our lives, family dynamics, how many people in each family, how many children, and so on.
“From that we assigned words to each number from one to nine and, bringing in a games element, we then used a Sudoku puzzle to fill in the words/numbers that we’ve selected. This ‘game’ led to the birth of the dance moves associated with each word.”
Arranged by Heno Janse van Rensburg, the production’s choreography plays out to songs such as Max Richter’s “A Sudden Manhattan Of The Mind” and “When The Northern Lights/Jasper And Louise”, The Andrews Sisters’ “Rum and Coca Cola” as well as Meredith Monk’s “Masks.”
“When you have an abstract movement and you add a piece of music to it, suddenly that movement becomes imbued with emotion. The music we chose capture the mood and intentions of the piece, and were an integral part in helping us create our movements.
“Because each song is also from a different style and/or era, it constantly shifts the emotion on stage. The audience therefore will find themselves responding accordingly with each new track.”
Simple, understated cues will be used when lighting the dancers on stage from above, combined with brights from the side to make them appear more sculptural.
“They’ll be wearing long dresses that come to about mid-calf. Being this covered adds a different sphere, a kind of old-world feel to the piece. They look like women from a Jane Austen novel. It’s an interesting contrast, having movements that are quite athletic and relentless seen executed through the shape and weight of the material.”
Since debuting at the Baxter last year, Katzke goes on to say, Mode has undergone several tweaks in preparation for the festival. Directly following NAF, both productions will also travel to the Free State Arts Festival in Bloemfontein (July 13 – 18).
“The biggest change to Mode was that they’ve incorporated more dancers. There are now six – Julia de Rosenwerth, Odille de Villiers, Kopano Maroga, Henk Opperman, Natasha Rhoda en Sherwin Rhode – alongside opera singer Robin Botha.
“The costumes have changed slightly as well. They’re still wearing kilt-like skirts, however, the cast’s not wearing those turtleneck jerseys anymore. Instead they now wear vests, but also in different colours.
“Because Mode is a dance about dancing, Steve and Thalia have this time around approached the ending in a bit of a tongue and cheek way. Bringing in more types of dances to end things off on a slightly different way than before, they’re also commenting on the way we as a society end our dances.”
– Steyn du Toit