Mandla Mbothwe, Jackie Manyaapelo, Mzo Gasa and Ina Wichterich
Jazzart Dance Theatre
Inspired by the life and ideas of Steve Biko and a photographic exhibition presented by the Steve Biko Foundation, this is a dance work created by three choreographers and director Manla Mbothwe, former Artistic Director of the Steve Biko Centre in Williamstown.
It opens with each of the performers, who have been in a stationary tableau as the audience take their places, quoting a phrase personally chosen from the writings of the anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement who died of multiple injuries soon after police had transported him naked to Pretoria prison in 1977.
This isn’t a piece of biographical narrative so much as a passionate expression of what Biko stood for and the terrible treatment black Africans were subjected to during the apartheid era.
Biko’s Quest is performed to a highly emotional mix of dramatic music, with a sequence in silence that becomes even more moving, and is danced with passion and fervour. Happy jive dancing presents an expression of love and freedom but this is followed by graphic presentations of violence and ritualised expressions of mourning.
These dancers move through the air with an energy that is explosive yet exert a control that allows them to do dangerously fantastic leaps and landings in intricate patterns. This is dancing that generates an electric charge of excitement that carries an equal expression of feeling. They are amazing!
Of course, the effect is not just due to their performance but the emotion that the subject inescapably carries for anyone who knows anything about apartheid and Biko’s story but that should not detract from the talent on display and the imagination of choreographers and director.
With an all-black African cast, there are moments when they seem to take on white roles, though in the violence there is also a reminder that black members of the police force or prison service were carrying out white orders.
Biko’s own quest for freedom and equality is not completed. These young performers are still pursuing it and they give a chilling remind of how much still has to be achieved in a calling our a catalogue of deaths at police hands or in custody that continues well into the 21st century.
At this venue, Biko’s Quest made its impact despite most of the audience not being able to see a large part of it. Bodies thrown rolling across the ground or being tortured at floor level, even sequences where dancers were seated, were probably not visible to anyone other than those in the first two rows unless they were of giant proportions.
Even at the rear of a centre aisle with no one directly in front of me, I had the same problem. Fortunately there was often something going on elsewhere, a beating with heavy chains for instance, that suggested what I was missing.
This was an unfortunate choice of venue for this work, made worse because the gallery appeared not to be open to the public. I do hope that audiences will be better served at the other dates it is playing across the country as part of the Afrovibes Festival. It really is worth seeing.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton