Shift

By Boyzie Cekwana

Off the beaten path
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He is one of the outstanding young talents to emerge on the African choreography scene in recent years. Boyzie Cekwana performed his latest creation ‘Shift’ in Paris in early March. This unsettling piece particularly questions the role of women in the new South Africa.

Boyzie Cekwana is never doing what you would expect. In 1999, he won first prize at the Rencontres de la création chorégraphique d’Afrique et de l’Océan indien with ‘Rona’. This spiritual, lunar creation was extremely uncluttered. The slowness and interiority of the piece played a blow to stereotypes. It took us on a surprising journey to the limits of body and soul. Visually, it was also reminiscent of the butoh.
A year later, Cekwana performed his new creation, ‘Shift’, which discusses the ambivalent relationship between masculine and feminine and speaks out against the oppression of women, in his hometown of Durban, South Africa, and later in Johannesburg. This piece is visually opposed to ‘Rona’, the latest version of which was performed at the French national Ferme du Buisson theatre near Paris as part of the impressive « Samedi Danses » series.
A man who dares to feminise himself
‘Shift’ opens to a clap of thunder that is like a blow to the stomach and then an electric techno beat takes over. In the half dark, we can make out a few items such as a chair and a rectangular table lit by a wan light. Above the table hangs a little glowing globe of the world that is like a child’s toy. At the rear of the stage parpents are spaced out evenly like markers.
A glowing torch pierces the darkness. As if feeling his way around it, the man carrying the torch illuminates various parts of an immobile standing body – a hand, a foot, etc. Is it a man? Or a woman? It is impossible to say. The bodies are ghostly. The man moves forward, holding the torch up to the audience every so often, as if he were searching for a sign of some sort.
‘Shift’ delves into an oppressive modernity symbolised by a third very disturbing character incarnated by dancer Thabiani Sibisi. A man is squeezed into a plastic suit with his face hidden by a gas mask. As light invades the stage, the two ghosts become a man (Boyzie Cekwana) and a woman (Désiré Davids). They are the image of the modern couple and are both dressed soberly in a shirt and grey trousers. As the piece evolves, a game of mirrors is established between them, blurring the distinction between feminine and masculine forever. This ambiguity culminates in the most powerful scene of the piece when the man is totally fascinated by a blood-red satin gown and ends up getting undressed, putting the dress on and walking around in a daze.
Fiery mix
From both a visual and a chorographical point of view, ‘Shift’ breaks strongly with ‘Rona’. It is as if Cekwana did not want to be trapped into the clean visuals in his previous choreography. In ‘Rona’, the dance was essentially very slow and uncluttered but in ‘Shift’ it is fast, nervous, theatrical and sometimes extremely violent. Far from the original time in the first piece, ‘Shift’ talks about the constant change and anxiety omnipresent in today’s world, especially in the new South Africa.
The man and woman move towards each other to an electronic beat. They interact and seduce each other in an intensely fluid duo. The acting is magnificent and a sensual complicity emanates from Boyzie Cekwana and Désiré Davids – their presence truly illuminates the stage. These two exceptional dancers set up their company, The Floating Outfit Project, together several years ago.
‘Shift’ is a fiery mix of poetry and violence. Cekwana superposes tension, symbols and contradictions within each character, and between each character, before they eventually transcend it all. The piece is oppressive, tormented and violent but it also features the spiritual dimension that was already so breathtaking in ‘Rona’.
Political dance?
The inhumane man in the gas mask uses smoke to kill the man who dared to dress himself in his own femininity but he is helpless against the sand that starts streaming onto the stage at the end of the performance. Struggle as he might, punching the sand all over the place, exhausting himself with all that kicking and punching, he ends up being culled by the sand that continues to fall imperturbably. In the same way that he mixes styles, Cekwana superposes various levels of interpretation in which politics and spirituality are interwoven.
« You can turn away if you like/You can walk away without turning back if that’s what you want/You can think what you like about her/You can fight her/You can spit on her, rape her, humiliate her/ (…) She is no longer afraid of you/Her deafness and blindness are healed/she has broken her silence/and now she is crying out with all her force/ (…) She stands and frees you from the colonial web you are trapped by/And, maybe one day, like her, you will inherit from the sun/Because you shall be free, but not before her. »
Sitting on the chair in his bright red satin grown, the man who dared to slip himself into a feminine envelope recites this text to the audience in a condemnation of men’s oppression of women. Cekwana was born in Soweto. He is questioning the new South Africa – beyond the proclaimed changes, has anything really evolved? Do the same problems not exist still? Crime, rape, the oppression of women, prejudiced views on Blacks being guilty, etc.
« Shift raises question about the changes that the country is going through. South Africa is struggling with its contradictions, » explains Cekwana. The piece was given an enthusiastic reception in South Africa, particularly by feminists. While Cekwana talks openly about the choreography’s political dimension, he refuses to be drawn out further. « When I look within myself and make observations », he says, « I don’t tell a story to ‘preach a conscience’. On the contrary, I use images to pass subliminal messages. I am more lateral than linear. My creative processes are constantly evolving. Now I’m interested in image. It’s a new medium that I’m experimenting with. It’s interesting to use sound, text and image together. »
‘Shift’ is a vibrant tribute to women, to the feminine side in each being. The piece is full (or overfull?) of symbols and references, and questions us about the other side of the changes – sexuality, violence, the issue of race and roots, tradition. Although ‘Shift’ feels slightly unfinished, especially in its rhythm, it nevertheless demonstrates a powerful artistic dance that takes risks and moves off the beaten path in order to develop its own singular style. « I don’t care about my image, » states Cekwana, « My work is constantly evolving, constantly changing. I am tired of hearing about so-called African dance. It’s just dance. » Within the framework of the « Samedi Danses » series at the Ferme du Buisson, Cekwana featured alongside other great choreographers such as Maguy Marin. They had in common their desire to achieve universal relevance.

‘Rona’, in three European venues in April and May 2001 :
– 20 and 21 April in Cologne (Germany)
– 24 and 25 April at the Springdance festival in Utrecht (Holland)
– 12 and 13 May at the KunstenFestival of Arts in Brussels (Belgium). ///Article N° : 5548

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