Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Connecting the lines: Mamaza

Mamaza's Cover Up pic by John Hogg
The performers are choking on the white fluffy carpet that delineates the stage. This is the price for burying their heads in its dense pile. They immerse themselves in it as they motor their bodies around it, hungry to feed on its smell or texture, until their mouths are full of it and they are forced to spit out the whispy fibres.
The carpet is ever present;  the acrid aroma of synthetic fibres pervades the theatre. It facilitates an imaginative performance space where they can exist anywhere, though at times they can’t get past its physical dimensions, characteristics.

When they are not ensnared by its alluring fluffiness, it’s as if they are revelling in middle-class suburban bliss. Clad in beige chinos, Ionnis Mandafounis, Fabrice Mazliah and May Zarhy (who are collectively known as Mamaza) glide across the fluffy white carpet in their white socks with childlike enthusiasm. You can almost imagine the plush leather lounge suite and glass table that should serve as props. Yet, in Cover Up, the carpet opens up an imaginative space beyond the everyday, allowing the performers to follow their every whim, switching between modes of performance as they stretch the boundaries of this banal, cheesy, retrogressive and affluent setting that this white surface evokes, permits.

At times they are trapped by it, such as when their heads are glued to the surface. At other times, they are upright, stiff and act out choreographed scenes with disco-inspired moves that recall those by John Travolta in the cult disco film Saturday Night Fever. Fluffy carpets are of course über Seventies, so this reference is not a surprise. Their gestures are not as loose or seductive as Travolta’s, they’re rendered stiffly, like a wallflower at a party who wants to fit in, highlighting their awkward form of mimicry.

In stark juxtaposition, they become animalistic – bleating like goats, or emitting guttural screams. Once again it’s the fluffy white carpet that brings goat pelts to mind, giving rise to the association.

Cover Up is a performance-performance in the sense that it is about contrivance and theatrics, playing with them quite self-reflexively. This makes it difficult to initially reconcile this production with Asingleline, the other work they have brought to South Africa. For starters, Asingleline doesn’t take place in a theatre and the conventions attached to a show such a setting are dispensed with; there is no starting time, or an audience per se. Perhaps it is not even a performance. In fact, it probably couldn’t even be thought of as a dance work, which is why this work wasn’t included in the Dance Umbrella. Not that the absence of actual dancing precludes a work from being incorporated into this annual dance event – Robyn Orlin, Steven Cohen and Sello Pesa have often presented works on this platform that didn’t encompass any movements considered “dancerly”.

This is probably why Asingleline is more radical than Cover Up. There are no scenes in this work – the trio, dubbed Mamaza, a European-based dance collective, exist in it as themselves, though as dancers their heightened interest in spatial politics and how to physically and psychologically negotiate them inform the piece.
Making the line outside the Turbine Hall
pic by Masimba Sasa

Zarhy seems like a retiring personality, she is concealed behind sunglasses, a hat and layers of clothing, when I meet them outside the Dance Factory, before we head to the first destination for this, their second day making Asingleline. As the title of the work suggests, it is|centred around making “a single line” through a city, connecting a cultural centre to its economic, business or transport hub. It’s a simple idea, though less easy in practice, for there are buildings in the way of this line and so the work requires entering buildings, moving over structures and furniture in order to put down the temporary red line – a strip of red masking tape that they lift up almost immediately after putting it down.

Ironically, it is not about a “line” or a permanent one, they are more interested in what is required to be able to do so; negotiating with shop owners, house dwellers, security guards, all the gatekeepers to the diverse spaces they must enter in the unknown cities where they make “lines”. Because the line is determined in advance, drawn on a map, their missions are to some degree unknown, though they use locals to help start negotiations in advance – is this a compromise?

Pesa and dancer Humphrey Maleka have done some groundwork for them, yet gaining access to the Turbine Hall is delayed and we stand outside this Newtown landmark shooting the breeze for almost an hour. There is a government conference in full swing inside and the collective have arrived a day in advance, so the building’s manager is reticent and possibly a little bemused why these foreigners want to gain entry simply to lay a red line down temporarily. If they are refused entry, they will plot the line as close to the building as possible so as not to deviate from the route. Part of this work’s attraction is that there is no pressure to succeed, there is no predetermined outcome, they say, though when they made the first line in Antwerp and were refused entry into a jail, they felt defeated.

Yet their desire to interact with people along the line, who would ordinarily perhaps not ever see their work, and make them aware of their end destination, a cultural centre or theatre, where they will perform a more conventional work, does seem to drive it and give it a measurable objective. It’s about breaking barriers between the dancers and people who may not be familiar with contemporary dance. It has also become a tool for them to come to grips with all the foreign destinations their peripatetic practice takes them to. However, what initially began as sort of process of embedding themselves in a place and making connections with people outside of the cultural centres they would normally be limited to, has grown into a “work” that is more in demand than their more conventional pieces.

“Programmers are really keen on works that take place outside of theatres these days,” says Mazliah.
When they eventually emerge from the back end of the Turbine, having laid their line down, they continue plotting it across a backyard where catering staff and waiters are preparing to serve lunch. The trio decide this would provide a great opportunity to take some snapshots of conference attendees standing on the line, around the line – this may even present an opportunity to interact with the people inside this building. And so they wait and the line reaches an abrupt halt, though with Maleka’s assistance it now cuts across the pavement on the other side of the fence. This is in contrast to the previous day’s line-making, which moved swiftly, cutting through the taxi rank in the centre of town and a shopping centre. At one point, Zarhy had to climb on the top of a fridge in a supermarket to complete the line.

“I ended up having a long conversation with the owner about mango oil,” recalls Zarhy, laughing.
In Cover Up she is sealed off from the audience, even in one moment when she puts on a jacket and sits down in the front row. Her performer mask is quite firmly in place, though she plays with it by pulling faces and exaggerating expressions until they seem absurd. In this way the “line” between her real life and stage personas doesn’t seem straight, or even connected. Even though they face the audience, the performers’ gaze here is inward, on themselves and the work they are performing. They can’t seem to get beyond the performance itself; they repeat scenes, and attempt to alter the tone and visual appearance by placing different coloured filters over a spotlight fixed at the corner of their fluffy white universe.
But there is a point where the lines between this work and Asingleline do meet; both works are about exploring space and the possibilities it may offer. In Cover Up the work is the response to this white synthetic pile, teasing out its literal associations.

It’s the approach and methodology of coming to grips with these different spaces in these divergent works that differs. In the street they create an artificial device to stimulate interaction and to understand what kind of relations impact on the ownership of the spaces they traverse, the boundaries are real, while in Cover Up, the carpet on the stage is the artificial device to bring the unseen qualities into focus. Or maybe there is no line connecting the two works? Problem is, it’s hard to resist drawing one.

Dance Umbrella runs across venues until September 14.

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