For this choreographer, the traditional is contemporary

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For this choreographer, the traditional is contemporary
Gregory Maqoma, the South African choreographer whose “Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro” is touring North America, in New York, Jan. 13, 2020. Maqoma's work borrows from Western and South African cultures and doesn’t deconstruct traditional rituals and codes but uses them to tell contemporary stories. Karsten Moran/The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Someone is weeping. You hear sobs, sniffles, the usual noises. Soon, though, the whimpering grows more elaborate, lengthening into song. The sound is beautiful and strange, yet perhaps the oddest thing about it is how a few notes sound familiar, as does the rhythm of a drum that softly joins in. Is this wailing person quoting Ravel’s “Boléro”?

He is. Which is less surprising if you know the name of this production: “Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro.” Still, this is no ordinary “Boléro.” Ravel’s relentless orchestral crescendo has been rearranged in the South African style called isicathamiya, the a cappella song-and-dance form popularized by groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

The whole production is South African. It borrows the first part of its title, and the character of a professional mourner, from a South African novel (“Cion” by Zakes Mda). But rather than telling a story, it functions as a danced requiem, one of stylized violence and choppily articulated motion reminiscent of hip-hop popping and locking.

The show, in other words, is idiosyncratic: in its conception and form, in its borrowings from Western and South African culture. That very idiosyncrasy is what makes it typical for the artist who conceived it, choreographer Gregory Maqoma.

In South Africa, Maqoma has long been a leader in contemporary dance. His company, Vuyani Dance Theater, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and fills large venues. But apart from a 2013 performance of his solo “Exit/Exist,” his award-winning work hasn’t been seen much in New York.

Recently, that’s been changing. In 2018, Maqoma appeared in William Kentridge’s historical pageant “The Head and the Load,” which he choreographed; and Vuyani performed an excerpt from his “Rise” in last year’s Fall for Dance Festival. “Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro,” which has its U.S. premiere at the Joyce Theater, Wednesday through Saturday, as part of the Prototype Festival, is his first full-length ensemble work to tour here. (It heads next to the Kennedy Center in Washington and Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts.)

What is distinctive about Maqoma’s choreography? “He has coherently brought classical African dance into conversation with all that is contemporary,” said Jay Pather, an associate professor and curator at the University of Cape Town.

By “classical African dance,” Pather explained, he means what is often called “traditional”: long-established practices of Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho people, “rituals and codes that are highly complex and have been passed on in highly sophisticated ways.” Maqoma, who is of Xhosa descent, doesn’t deconstruct these rituals and codes. He uses them to tell contemporary stories.

That, in a sense, was his goal when he founded Vuyani Dance Theater. (Vuyani, his Xhosa name, means “joy.”) Born in Johannesburg in 1973, Maqoma was 9 or 10 when he was first exposed to traditional dance. In his segregated township, Soweto, he lived near a hostel for migrants who worked in factories and mines.

“I would watch them dance their traditional forms, fascinated by their bodies and sweat,” he recalled in a phone interview. “It was only later that I realized that movement was a survival mode for them, a way of dealing with their displacement and staying in touch with their old homes and the people they left behind.”

He also remembers seeing Michael Jackson on TV. “Everything else on television portrayed a black person as inferior,” he said, “but here was this man who was black like me, moving people of all colors to tears. I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want my dance to be like.’ ”

By the time he was 17, Maqoma was performing with an informal youth group coincidentally called the Joy Dancers. In a newspaper, he found an advertisement offering training to disadvantaged youth, an announcement of auditions for the trailblazing organization Moving Into Dance Mophatong.

“I was used to dancing in the backyard, in the dust,” he recalled. “This was my first time walking into a studio that had mirrors and a dance floor, the first time I was in the same room with people who were white and colored who were fighting for the same position.”

He had persuaded his friend Vincent Mantsoe to join him. “We saw all these white people stretching in leotards,” Mantsoe said over the phone from France, where he now lives. “And we were like, ‘Maybe we don’t belong here.’ But we saw a few other black people, so we stayed to try our luck.”

Both were accepted into the training program, and then into the professional company, which worked in an Afro-fusion style developed by its founder, Sylvia Glasser, combining African dance with Western contemporary forms. In a few years, Mantsoe became associate artistic director and a choreographer, winning awards in South Africa and France. Maqoma dropped out, thinking he might become an architect, but Mantsoe convinced him to rejoin for tours of Europe.

These tours, along with a 1997 scholarship to a choreographic workshop at DanceWeb in Vienna, opened his mind to new possibilities. He recalls choreographer Emio Greco encouraging him to “push more, go for more” and introducing him to improvisation. “That’s now my starting point for every creation,” he said. “When you work with what the body wants to release, then you are working with truth.”

But it was Rosas, the company of Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, that fascinated him the most. And it was in hopes of joining that troupe that he auditioned (successfully) to study at De Keersmaeker’s Performing Arts Research and Training Studios in Brussels.

Again, he had a friend with him, Shanell Winlock, a member of Moving Into Dance. And it was in Brussels, while choreographing a piece with her and another South African dancer, that he realized how much he missed home.

“I felt it was important for me to be part of the changing artistic and political landscape of the country” — post-Apartheid, he said. “It was important to create a space not just for myself but for other artists like me, coming together to reinvent, as Africans, a notion of what dance is in Africa.”

So instead of joining a company in Belgium, he founded one back home, roping in Winlock among others. “Gregory was true to his roots but also willing to accept all that he had absorbed in Europe,” Winlock said. “And that’s still what he’s doing, on a grander scale.”

“Cion,” made in 2017, has a cast of 13 dancers and musicians. It arose from Maqoma’s troubled awareness of killings in his country. “It’s happening so much that it does not shock us anymore when we hear of a child being killed and mutilated,” he said. He thought of the professional mourner character, and of “Boléro,” which sounds to him like a funeral procession — and also like African music.

“We want the music to reflect our languages, our traditions, our experiences of death,” he clarified. “It’s about how black bodies are treated cheaply, not only by the West but also in our own country, how we treat each other cheaply.”

Despite this rootedness in the South African context, Maqoma feels that “Cion” should resonate particularly in the United States. “I was thinking about the enslaved who were taken from our continent and never made it across the ocean,” he said. “I want to call those spirits to come back and find a place to rest.”

And there is another theme, another familiar sound. “There’s a message in it that I feel I have to keep making louder and bigger,” he said. “Black lives matter.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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