Celebrating the pages of dance history

The Market theatre was spirited through the annals of history with a retrospective of the brilliant work of Adele Blank, the doyenne of South African contemporary dance, at the official opening night of the Dance Umbrella on Tuesday.

This year marks 25 years of the Dance Umbrella, a rich repository of South African contemporary dance history, and Blank is the ideal person for the festival to celebrate this milestone with.

The past is juxtaposed with the present, or present-day reinterpretations of dance works of their time in Blank Page, where filmed footage plays on large screens on the stage while dancers present new interpretations of those same works.

Blank is first presented to us through a video clip of one of her rehearsals for a piece she has choreographed. She seems unaware of the camera and the old-film aesthetic gives it an impressionistic, romantic appeal. It evokes a sense of nostalgia, but also amusement at how things have changed.

From the capricious feet of tap dancing to the cavorting and swinging of a dancer fit to be in a Cirque du Soleil production, Blank’s career trajectory is represented through an evening of great entertainment.

Dance is about transcending the limits of your body and that is the premise of Blank’s dance company, Free Flight. Her dancers leap, spin, jerk and glide through the air graciously.

Simon Rowe, a former member of her company, was the Master of Ceremonies, providing a narrative about Blank. She is the pioneer who took the bored suburbian teens to dance with the restless youngsters of the chaotic townships during apartheid, teaching them that they are not prisoners in their bodies.

Almost every cast member of each tributary piece is linked to Blank’s company Free Flight – Nelisiwe Xaba, Belinda Nusser and Mamela Nyamza all presented some of their best work, each exuding confidence and pride.

With a crinoline dress over her head, Xaba performed an excerpt from her acclaimed Venus production that showed at The Market theatre a few years ago, while footage showed her in traditional African garb performing the same piece. Dancers, like free spirits encased in blood and flesh, remind us of our capability to imagine and perform extraordinary feats.

Watching the archival footage makes it easy to imagine the excitement of the eras her work responded to – and Blank has been in dance for 50 years, a significant slice of history to have danced through. She threaded her international dance experience into the dance styles she found on the streets such as panstula, Zulu traditional dancing and even Michael Jackson imitations, to transform the South African dance aesthetic.

In the rehearsal space before the performance, Blank’s energy permeates the space – abruptly getting up mid-sentence to demonstrate what she means when she refers to grotesque, absurd and stoic movements. Certainly, Blank’s spirit isn’t trapped by her 70-something body. In one work she joins the dancers on stage during a performance and presents her best self, as a choreographer teaching people to be more than they think they are. Her choreography is a distinctly South African story that is about revelling in the freedom of being in free flight.

The event culminates with a bevy of dancers representing four generations who treat the audience to a vibrant Thriller-like routine that ushers in the vibrant energy of a future filled with experimental dance pieces, infused with hip-hop movement, break dancing and ballet that break boundaries – all the diverse languages that have informed Blank’s impressive body of work.

Blank plans to continue to add to her dance legacy with the launch of an Adele Blank Dance Trust for fledging dancers who will, after a workshop audition, receive two months of intensive training before being placed with a foreign school and a personal mentor.

The Dance Umbrella is on until September 14. You can see Blank Page on September 5 at 8.30pm at The Market theatre

Adele Blank joins the dancers on stage during Blank Page. Pictures: John Hogg
A sequence worthy of Cirque du Soleil during Blank Page.

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