Notions of identity, memory and history abound in South African choreographer/dancer Gregory Maqoma’s compelling Exit/Exist. The piece – a dance solo, accompanied by four singers and Giuliano Modarelli on guitar – tells the story of its creator’s real-life 19th century ancestor Chief Maqoma, a Xhosa leader who struggled against encroaching British colonial forces that threatened his land and cattle. Eventually captured, he was imprisoned on Robben Island, where he died in 1873.
Costumes, a few simple props (including some piles of grain and a cow’s horn) and sections of text projected onto a screen help to delineate the narrative. The dancer begins with his back to the audience, decked out in a shiny suit. To a soundscape that fizzes with staccato crackles, his arms venture out and his fingers seem to search and tickle the air. As the music intensifies, so too does the movement – the spine and shoulders ripple, propelling him into deft sideways shuffles and high steps. At the side of the stage, Maqoma then strips off the suit, slips into a cowhide costume and takes on the persona of his ancestor. The following sequences meld African movement with contemporary accents – there are raging pirouettes as well as percussive feet and a moment of stillness with the arms held lyrically aloft.
Onstage throughout, the four male singers (the Complete Quartet) create an amazing sound, sometimes reminiscent of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with rousing gospel harmonies, touches of R&B and moving laments. It’s a complete joy to watch the music course through Maqoma’s body, especially when the driving power of his shimmying shoulders, pumping elbows and rotating hips are punctuated by an extremely delicate, isolated use of the foot and ankle. There’s also an incredible sequence in which Maqoma dances with a dish balanced on his head. Moving outwards from the centre of a circle of grain, again with flickering footwork and undulating arms, he proceeds to spin underneath a stream of sand that falls from above the stage. The dish remains on its perch. It’s all done with a brilliant, desultory grace.
Unfortunately, there are a few weak points. Some of the projected text is clumsy and misspelt, while a recurring clipart-esque image of a clock with its hands spinning backwards seems slightly unnecessary. After hypnotic displays of dance, certain sequences of stage business involving the singers and some wooden boxes come across as aimless; the narrative slumps. Finally, there’s the issue of Maqoma’s gold pants. He strips down to these snazzy briefs towards the end of the piece and the result is somewhat odd. It’s hard to imagine that these particular pants were in regular use on 19th century Robben Island, but perhaps they too make a visual comment on the continual intermingling of past and present in the formation of personal identity… perhaps. Underwear aside, Exit/Exist’s combination of music and movement is, on the whole, excellent.