‘A Thousand Shepherds’ dance review

Published in Cape Times, 28 March 2016

AT about the same time that Debbie Turner formed what is arguably South Africa’s most formidable company in the neoclassical genre, I was a fledgling journalist based in Durban.
State support for performing arts councils then meant that companies such as Napac Dance Company could afford to commission and/or stage work by world-class choreographers – whether local or international – two of the most memorable introductions for me were to the French-born Jean-Paul Comelin and our own Alfred Hinkel.

Since then, and a subsequent move to Cape Town, I have been able to immerse myself most often in the work of luminary contemporary choreographers commissioned fairly regularly by Cape Dance Company (CDC) during the past decade of their 21-year existence.

Founder and artistic director Debbie Turner has made it her mission to expose South African audiences to some of the best work she’s discovered on her travels and to give her dancers the opportunity to stretch themselves artistically and physically. For some, it’s a test. Those who pass will (and do) make it professionally.

In this anniversary season of A Thousand Shepherds, the CDC exceeded even the highest expectations. Audiences were treated to some signature pieces by the American Christopher L. Huggins, the US-based South African Bradley Shelver and the Spaniard José Agudo – work that has been taken into the CDC repertory for us to appreciate and celebrate time and again.

Huggins’ work featured twice, beginning with In The Mirror of Her Mind, a quartet with a woman as the central figure who reflects on the loves of her life. The performance I saw featured Elzanne Crause partnered by Lwando Dutyulwa, long-standing company member James Bradley and Odwa Makanda, who together instilled such a quiet confidence in Crause that she delivered one of her best performances yet.

Had Huggins been in the audience, he would have been bursting with pride watching his spectacular Enemy Behind the Gates produced at this scale. The piece is about the enemies in one’s midst, and premiered four days before 9/11. In fact, the prospect of seeing 45 dancers execute his level of military precision, technical prowess and artistic endurance on the full expanse of the Artscape Theatre stage had the audience whooping even before it began. Their standing ovation at the end could certainly have lasted a few more curtain calls. Huggins, who is a former member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre won the Alvin Ailey Award for Best Choreography from the Black Theater Alliance in Chicago for this work in 2002.

In Shelver’s pas de deux from Scenes, Dutyulwa took centre stage again to partner company stalwart Louisa Ann Talbot who has now exceeded 300 performances with the company. Always a pleasure to watch, Dutyulwa comes into his own when he dances to a lyrical musical score (in this instance Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played live by Michaela Simpson on piano), seeming to lose himself in the moment as he puts all his focus on his partner. Talbot duly shone!

I returned to a second performance to watch Agudo’s title piece, A Thousand Shepherds. One viewing is simply not enough to absorb all the nuances of the work. It is described as a spiritual journey inspired by Agudo’s sabbatical at an ashram in India and is, in turn, a reflection of the pilgrimage that CDC has been on in the past 21 years. It’s also about discipline, which is practically Turner’s mantra.

Rooted in ritual and tradition, Agudo slowly transformed the piece into the contemporary idiom by developing the dance language on his own body first before transferring it onto those of his cast. With theatrical guidance from dramaturge Lou Cope, the work was further enhanced by an original composition by Vinz “the Artist” (featuring Agudo himself on vocals) and professional lighting design by Wilhelm Disbergen.

A Thousand Shepherds is all about the quality of the movement, the dancers’ ability to draw an audience in, and the emotions that they have to carry throughout the work. Nathan Baartman, Ciara Baldwin, Marlin Zoutman and Makanda were particularly noticeable for their ability to project the intense passion of the choreographer’s story through every fibre of their being.

Exceptionally moving, physically demanding and powerfully artistic, drawing on Agudo’s flamenco heritage and the contemporary and kathak inspiration, he has been exposed to through his work with the Akram Khan Company, A Thousand Shepherds was a fitting tribute to the memory of Carolyn Holden.

Dancers can be some of the most critical of audience members, but one Facebook post summed it up perfectly: “Thank you for your brilliant, soul-feeding, breath-stopping, painfully beautiful performances. Wow! Congratulations! Debbie Turner, you must be so proud!” Enough said. CDC is at KKNK until tomorrow and Grahamstown Festival from July 1-3 July.

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