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15 shows to watch at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival

2017-04-30 22:00
Neo Muyanga

Grahamstown - The Grahamstown National Arts Festival is from Thursday, 29 June until Sunday, 9 July and clever patrons will be planning what to book already. The fest’s new executive producer, Ashraf Johaardien, helps you with your choices.

My first encounter with the National Arts Festival was as a student performer in my first year at university, more than two decades ago. The experience left such an indelible impression on me that I was back for a second year – and the year after that and the year after that. Twenty-five years later, I can honestly say it’s just as exhilarating to be looking forward to the festival now as it was that very first time.

While I’m now part of the festival team, I still make a point of looking at the programme with the eyes of a first-time festival goer. When navigating the labyrinth of everything on offer, it can all easily become a bit daunting, but then I remind myself that I know my way around here.

If you want to find me at #NAF17, here’s where I reckon you should go:

1. Neo Muyanga

Anything by, with or involving Neo Muyanga, the featured artist for this year’s festival, would have me in the booking queue (luckily, this is an armchair exercise thanks to the online booking portal opening on May 9). A composer, performer, musician, librettist, academic, philosopher, quiet revolutionary and cultural activist, Muyanga’s work has captivated me since I first encountered him when he was one half of Blk Sonshine.

His solo work Solid(T)ary is a musical contemplation of modes of resistance in a world hit by flux. I also highly recommend his Works for Trio, which includes material featured on the albums Blk Sonshine, The Listening Room, Dipalo and Toro Tse Sekete. Overall, the musical programme is robust and interesting this year.

Here's a video of Neo performing:

2. Womb of Fire

I am excited about the premiere of theatre piece Womb of Fire by the MotherTongue Project.

Created by a collective of female artists, activists, academics and practitioners committed to personal and social transformation through participatory theatre and integrated arts methodologies, Womb is a new solo work by co-founder Rehane Abrahams. It focuses on the female body in performance as a site for disruption and decolonisation.

3. Die Reuk van Appels

Also on top of my list for this year is a late addition to the programme that, incidentally, is also a solo work.

Gideon Lombard is one of my favourite South African performers – his performance in the stage adaptation of the late Mark Behr’s extraordinary and deeply moving South African novel Die Reuk van Appels is a knockout.

Artfully stripped back by director Lara Bye, Behr’s text is foregrounded and brought to life in an utterly compelling production by Theatrerocket.

4. The Crows Plucked Your Sinews

The Crows Plucked Your Sinews, written and directed by Hassan Mahamdallie and performed by Yusra Warsama, is a unique exploration of the violence of the British Empire and the poetry of resistance.

Mahamdallie’s deep respect and regard for a free-spirited Somali community in southeast London, who maintain grace under pressure, combines with untold and obscured histories in a powerful theatrical creation for the contemporary stage.

5. The Gruffalo

My daughter absolutely loves everything Julia Donaldson has written, so I’m not sure who’s more thrilled about the local version of the Tall Stories’ UK West End hit coming to Grahamstown. The Gruffalo set is stunning, the local cast is superb and Tara Notcutt’s direction shines.

6. When Lion Had Wings

I can’t wait to take the whole family to see When Lion Had Wings. This visual street-theatre piece uses daring stilt characterisations, animal masks, original music and the Nama language to tell an enchanting traditional Khoisan folktale.

7. Giselle

This year, we have two ballets and I can’t decide which one I’m more excited about. Over the first weekend, the inimitable Dada Masilo returns to the National Arts Festival after an absence of seven years with a uniquely African reinterpretation of an iconic dance work – Giselle. Choreographed by Masilo with drawings by William Kentridge, it’s a South African premiere of note that the festival is proud to present.

8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

On the second weekend, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, reimagined by Mark Hawkins for the Johannesburg Youth Ballet’s ruby anniversary, is set to Felix Mendelssohn’s score and moves from a contemporary world of taxis, car guards and unemployed actors to a fantasy world of psychedelic, neon-coloured fairies.

9. Neons and Vacuum

The performance art offering on this year’s programme is the strongest in several years. Thanks to Pro Helvetia (Swiss Arts Council) Johannesburg, which supports and disseminates Swiss art and culture in southern Africa, we have a phenomenal double bill of works that straddle contemporary dance and performance art.

Neons tells the story of two men about whom we know nothing, but who are going through a difficult time in their relationship. The action is refined, intense and, at times, full of contained violence.

Performed to a soundtrack featuring Maria Callas, the striking choreography thrives on contrasts: power and intimacy; distance and violence; commitment and irony.

Vacuum, in turn, explores the visual perception of movement. The result is lyrical and inspiring as it moves forwards through the history of art, from Renaissance paintings to photographic development.

10. Black

I’m also super excited about what the Arena has to offer, and my absolutely-do-not-miss is Black.

This stage adaptation of the multiple award-nominated debut novel The Blacks of Cape Town by CA Davids has been penned by Standard Bank Gold Ovation winner Penny Youngleson, and is directed by last year’s Standard Bank Young Artist, Jade Bowers.

11. Down to Earth

Down to Earth by Kieron Jina and Marc Philipp Gabriel is another Arena work on my radar.

This whirling dance of constructed identities shaped by increasingly complex constellations goes beyond the universal social interrogation of “where are you from?” and “what do you do?” to explore whether, in fact, we have any agency in rupturing our own identities.

12. All the art exhibitions

Absolutely everything on the exhibitions programme is a must-see.

September Jive, presented by Alliance Française, comprises a selection of 150 music sleeve covers with a special focus on truly South African designs. Andrew Tshabangu’s Footprints is an exhibition of photographs that have both contributed to and subverted Johannesburg’s iconography. The Mendi Centenary Project is a multidisciplinary art exhibition commemorating the remembrance of the sinking of the Mendi 100 years ago. Virtual Frontiers by Francois Knoetze is a new body of work that takes the form of an arrangement of virtual-reality panoramas and immersive sound pieces that tell stories of the past, present and imagined future of Grahamstown.

13. What’s Your Story?

A new Think!Fest pop-up series presented in partnership with UJ Arts & Culture for which we have invited some of the creators, makers, misfits, rebels and troublemakers featured on this year’s main programme (as well as noteworthy guests) to tell to us about the creative process behind what they have created for #NAF17. Creative teams and cast members from productions will also be on the couch in the Rhodes Theatre’s Red Cafe every day in sessions that aim to connect audiences with artists.

14. The film programme

This is always worth checking out. Adding to the international flavour are film selections presented in partnership with the embassies of Russia, Cuba, Italy and Korea. There is always a focus on South African cinema thanks to support from the National Film and Video Foundation and the Gauteng Film Commission. Screenings will be introduced by film makers and a range of seminars linked to the selected films have also been programmed.

15. Fringe

Then there’s The Fringe, which always has something for everyone. The show that first brought me to Grahamstown all those years ago was a Fringe show. That I’m here now doing what I do is a testament to its developmental and inspirational power.

This many-splendored platform is many things to many artists: a first-time outing; a laboratory for new work; and, quite possibly, one of the few creative gateways to the rest of South Africa or any number of international stages.

ON THE COVER: Mary Sibande is back

The National Arts Festival commissioned a new work for the cover of its programme this year from Sibande, the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist. Titled High Priestess, it marks a significant transition for Sibande from purple to red. “It also captures the essence of a festival reflecting on a world in turmoil, a country in flux, and times that are chaotic and unpredictable. The cards fly up into the air for the viewer to choose from. If left to fall, where will they land?” says festival spokesperson Sascha Polkey.

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