Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nelisiwe Xaba: Dancing Across Disciplines

Nelisiwe Xaba and I are Facebook friends though we had not met before. Well, not officially. We exchanged observations outside a theatre after a performance once but we never introduced ourselves. Xaba doesn’t reveal much about herself on Facebook; her posts are usually dance related – video clips of works – and her profile picture is a photograph (of her) from the dance production Sakhozi says “non” to the Venus, where she wore a black ensemble woven from strips of tyres. It looked like a frayed basket that had been moulded to the body. In the photograph her face is made up so that it appears like a mask. The production was last staged in 2009 at the Market Theatre under the banner of The Venus.

Naturally, the title referred to the work, They look at me and that’s all that they think, which unpacked the politics surrounding the troubled life of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus”. Xaba is most famous for this dance work. Admittedly, it was extraordinary. She performed it in a large crinoline skirt, designed by Carlo Gibson from the StrangeLove fashion label. What was unusual was that the work centred on this exaggerated garment – at one point it transmogrified into a screen on which animations were projected. It is rare that a garment, the costume, is so integral to a dancer’s expression.
“It wasn’t planned that way,” admits Xaba when we meet. She is sitting in the sun on a balcony outside the Wits Theatre with Mocke J van Veuren, who is collaborating with her on Uncles and Angels, a new work which will premier during Dance Umbrella 2012.

Xaba explains that she commissioned a skirt that could simply open and close and could work as a screen. Gibson delivered what has probably become the most legendary skirt to have been introduced to the local dance world.
“He had created a monster.” Xaba laughs, but she embraced the costume: “It offered hundreds of possibilities.” Its scale presented limitations. She revels in physical restrictions – this is an intrinsic part of dance; it is an expression where spatial, bodily and social constraints intersect.
In Plasticisation, a work she performed in 2007 at Moving Africa 3 at the Barbican in London, Xaba danced her entire solo from inside a large checked plastic shopping bag, like the ones used by Zimbabweans when they travel across the border and back. The central role of dress in her work created the impression that clothing was an extension of her expression. It had always left me with a sense that through clothing she was expanding the vocabulary of contemporary dance.