“The Inkomati (dis)cord”
New York Live Arts Theatre, September 25, 26, 2013

“The Inkomati (dis)cord”—a world-travelling collaboration between dance-theatre artists Boyzie Cekwana of Soweto and Panaibra Canda of Maputo, Mozambique—ends on a bright, sardonic note, with a multilingual game of “Telephone.” The words travel down a bench of performers—from Portuguese, Mozambique’s official language, to Sena, one of its native languages, back to Portuguese, and finally to South African English, all of which, including the English, appears in English surtitles on a screen behind the action. As for the story, a woman’s dangerous border-crossing becomes, by the end of the line, a bid for a boob job and a bucket of KFC.

Translation stands in here for a transfer of power, mistranslation for stodgy intransigence. The Mozambican woman speaks to redress a political situation that prevents her from crossing a border, which we assume divides Mozambique from South Africa, given this woman’s nationality and that of the man at the other end of the bench, and the reference in the show’s title to the catastrophic 1984 accord between the two countries. If the Mozambican had made it across, she would not have needed to speak. She spoke to improve her situation and he spoke to trivialize her concerns and maintain the status quo.

Translation as power leakage ends up pointing in this episodic dance-theatre piece not only to the Nkomati Accord, in which two incomparable ethical systems were presumed equal—the more humane one consequently debased—but also to this very production, transplanted from its context. Cekwana and Canda may not have created “The Inkomati (dis)cord” with an international audience in mind, but it has found one, on the postmodern performance circuit that extends from Western Europe to New York, where the show appeared in late September at New York Live Arts, co-presented with Alliance Francaise’s Crossing the Line festival. If the Nkomati Accord counts as old news for southern Africans (however much the damage continues), just imagine how little it means to your average Crossing the Line aficionado. And “(dis)cord”—variously grave, biting, oblique, and frisky—knows it. Those subtitles in English of English give it away: ‘You won’t understand what you’re hearing,’ they say, ‘even if you do speak the language.’ But Cekwana and Canda still try to make their simmering history intelligible, anchoring it in all its tragic absurdity to the Faustian accord itself.

In 1984, a newly independent Mozambique, long under Portuguese rule, agreed to stop harboring members of the African National Congress (ANC), banned from South Africa since 1960, if South Africa would cease funding insurgents set against the new Mozambique. This seemingly straightforward reinforcement of national unity—‘I won’t house your enemy if you don’t fund mine’— depended on the pretense that the apartheid regime and an independent democracy stood level, equal trading partners on the diplomatic exchange. The Accord imagined it was even possible for Mozambique to choose between its own newfound democracy and South Africans’ forbidden hope for one. But Mozambique did choose, and lost everything in the bargain. According to “The Inkomati (dis)cord”, Mozambique’s signing of the Accord set it at war with itself—a struggle of principles that complemented its already-raging civil war.

In the show’s one extended dance episode, Canda is outfitted in bushwhacker khaki, with its pale shades of colonialism. Moments earlier he was saluting his countrymen in Portuguese, as if in an official capacity. ‘Comrades,’ he began again and again, a Marxist revolutionary stuck at introductions. Maria Tembe, the Mozambican whose account will later get mangled, has mainly kept to a wheelchair until now. She has no legs. This fact has everything to do with how the Accord played out. As recently as 2008, Mozambique numbered ninth in the world in amputees—between Somalia and Bosnia-Herzevogina—because Mozambique’s civil war, which dragged on from 1977 until 1994, left 3 million landmines in its wake. The anti-government guerillas had planted the bulk of the explosives, even after the Nkomati Accord was signed, because the apartheid regime defied the interdiction against supporting them.

The duet begins with Canda throwing Tembe on to her back like a sack of flour. The audience gasps. But she proves unbreakable, buoyant even, as if her loss of limb had merely consolidated power in her torso. Indeed, power keeps shifting between the two Mozambicans. Persistent, unflinching, unreadable, Tembe—the most exceptional of the four fine performers—clamps on to Canda’s stomach and back like a baby primate. She perches beside him on one hip as if they were lovers in silent communion at a picnic on the grass. She hangs from his neck like a burden to bear. She cannot be easily peeled off.

He doesn’t always want her off. She fits perfectly along his torso: none of the usual dangle of legs that gets in the way of plane molding to plane. He reneges the vertical to offer her surfaces to climb upon, flattening out like a crab or a four-legged creature on a lope. It is she who distances herself from him most often, her long arms propelling her forward on her butt with alarming speed.

Though Tembe’s leglessness evokes Mozambique’s civil war, the duet conjures a more intimate, more internal struggle. Whether as baby or lover or a lodestone Canda is eager to offload, Tembe belongs to him. She is part of him, the casualty in his, in Mozambique’s, bid for freedom, including the moment he forgot what he was fighting for.

Dance usually leaves the political to more voluble idioms, such as theatre, literature or film. In its muteness it lends itself less to crisp conceptual distinctions that benefit from words than to messy psychological and emotional truths that language risks oversimplifying in its yen for parsing and its eagerness to clarify. But politics can be multivalent too—certainly at the point that it materializes in people’s lives and bodies. And “(dis)cord”’s creators understand that what starts as a purely physical puzzle, such as how to fashion a duet between a dancer with legs and another without, can achieve vast allegorical and analogical reach. They appreciate that though dance may not be able to untie the knottier points of politics it excels at anatomizing power and embodying ideals: the balancing and toppling, the pushing and pulling and felling; the dependency, interdependency, codependency, and independence. If the Accord began with paper documents and devolved into massive bodily damage, the duet in “(dis)cord,” like so much dance, reverses the process. From the body, a vision of a nation’s catastrophic catch-22 emerges.

Cekwana and Canda have said they are intent on creating an idiom adequate to the tragedies and aspirations of their native land; among “(dis)cord”’s various experiments in theatre this duet comes closest to that goal. Otherwise, “The Inkomati (dis)cord” only drops hints. But the hints are ripe.

The piece begins with Cekwana pacing back and forth as he ruminates about “retrieving a truth” from a past “under siege” by falsehood. The vague lament gains traction from his status as a Sowetan. The path that South Africa forged to democracy consisted precisely in retrieving truths about the crimes against humanity (in the persons of the black majority) that the apartheid regime committed both out in the open and in the dark. The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to build a definitive, collective account of those atrocities. With the truth out, the reasoning went, South Africa could reconcile itself to its past and move forward. Truth, in the form of public confession, would amount to justice. Further, public revelation might lead to national catharsis, as in Greek tragedy.

Each Sunday from April 1996 until June 1998 the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators appeared on nationwide television.

In his introduction to Ubu and the Truth Commission, Jane Taylor’s 1997 adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Père Ubu, South African artist William Kentridge, the renowned play’s director, observed: ‘The Commission is . . . a kind of ur-theatre . . . . One by one witnesses come and have their half hour to tell their story, pause, weep, be comforted by professional comforters who sit at the table with them. The stories are harrowing, spellbinding. The audience sit at the edge of their seats listening to every word. This is exemplary civic theatre, a public hearing of private griefs which are absorbed into the body politic as a part of a deeper understanding of how the society arrived at its present position.’

 Still, the two kinds of confessor—the innocent and the guilty—are no more equal than Mozambique and South Africa at the signing of the Nkomati Accord. They no more resemble each other than a civilian whose legs are blown off and the terrorist who blew them off. Kentridge again: ‘A full confession [by the guilty] can bring amnesty and immunity from prosecution or civil procedures for the crimes committed. Therein lies the central irony of the Commission. As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done, they get closer and closer to amnesty and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty.’

Both parties may be telling the truth, but only one has to reconcile itself to injustice, and it is not the side we would want. The villains are rewarded for their confessions; the innocent must accept virtue as its own reward. The TRC may amount to a species of public theatre, but I can think of no precedent in actual theatre for such a lopsided exercise of justice, with victims forced, as if by Moses’s zealous God, to turn the other cheek.

Canda and Cekwana need to invent a theatre of inequality to represent such a state of affairs. “The Inkomati (dis)cord” needs it, as it only gets half way there. Except for the duet at its center and the translation game at the end, “(dis)cord” blurs distinctions it ought to emphasize.

Tape demarcates the stage from the wings. The performers (Amelia Socovinho of Mozambique completes the quartet) change costume, personas and wigs (wigs, wigs, everywhere lately) on the exposed sidelines. The shift between ruminative poetry and political role-playing, between dancing and scattering the white paper of masks and government documents, is equally fluid and unremarked. A flat line substitutes for the dramatic arc. As in collage, “(dis)cord” levels mediums, idioms, offstage and onstage, illusion and the invisible mechanisms that drive it, and leaves it to juxtaposition to reinstate distinctions. Juxtaposition is too weak for the job.

‘Where do they learn this stuff?’ a friend exclaimed about this now-ubiquitous species of alterna-theatre. I’d say wherever people have the luxury to not notice that the line between the visible and the invisible, the hidden and the exposed, can be as formidable as the border the Mozambican woman in “The Inkomati (dis)cord” never makes it across.

But in the ground-dwelling duet, half cut off at the knees, and the “Telephone” game that mangles an already muffled tale, “The Inkomati (dis)cord” breaks free of an imported model and gives reason to hope that Canda and Cekwana will finish what they have begun—a dance-theatre alive to the fraught history of their own time and place.

 

About The Author

Apollinaire Scherr is the New York-based dance critic for the Financial Times. She has written regularly for the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Newsday, and contributed to Salon, New York magazine, the Village Voice, Elle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Barnard magazine, and Flash Art International. She gave the 2010 keynote address for the Dance Critics Association. As a graduate student at Cornell University, she was funded by a five-year Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities. She currently teaches undergraduate seminars on writing on the arts at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan.

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