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?