Friday the 11th of November 2022 saw me shuttling myself off to the UCT School of Dance in Rondebosch, with little time left before the 6 PM commencement of Cebolenkosi Zuma’s offering, Ibuzwa Kwabaphambili. Calling himself The Dancing Herbalist, this dancer, choreographer and movement pedagogue’s work caught my eye a few years ago, given how he views dancing as the truest expression of his spiritual calling. It was the curiosity sparked by the poster, exhibiting Zuma clad in a long, flowing black skirt that hinted at a contemporary interpretation of the traditional Xhosa umbhaco and a plain white Chinese-collared shirt, that spurred my last minute decision to rush to the show.
I never did get an answer to the question I asked myself as to whether there was any specificity implied in this sartorial choice and its derivative cultures. I did however marvel at the idea of a black man, bearing the last name of one of South Africa’s staunch patriarchs and former president, negotiating his masculinity and subverting the expectations incumbent in his aesthetic presentation of the self. Were I a stern traditionalist, this would be food for thought, if not a challenge to interrogate these material attachments and how dismissive they are of the concept of duality. Can religious society afford to continue to subjugate alternate masculinities while still claiming to be the vestibule of ‘God’s love’ and maintaining the maxim that we are made in God’s image? Alas, the same Genesis 1:27 used to affirm mankind’s divinity, is often used to subjugate those who fall in between the cracks of gender identity, with much emphasis on the ‘male and female’ part…I digress.
Zuma’s is the first body we see in the space, spotlighted and situated upstage centre, flanked by a drummer as he bellows out the imploration “Shukumani Mathambo, Sihambele Kuni!” – an entreaty to the bones of the ancestors. (The dancers appear dressed in white school shirts and long, black skirts, while the musicians and drummer are adorned in white church robes.)
This divinatory reference immediately alerts us that the performance exists in the intersection between religious orthodoxy and animism.
Centered on the idea of our ancestors as the interlocutors between their living descendants and the Creator, UMvelingqangi ( He Who Precedes All Life ), the concept of straddling both culture and religion is one that is at the core of such church movements as the African Independent Churches of South Africa, the Zionist Church, the Nazareth Baptist Church and the Apostolic Church. Joined by the troop of six dancers and three singers, the song reaches its pitch and dissolves into another. The transitional movements are not seamless but resemble a natural procession from ‘idresi‘, with the dancers whirling, clapping and tapping like congregants in the grips of Spirit.
The next offering is preceded by Zuma blowing a bamboo panpipe, the accompanying drum providing the slow, thumping heartbeat of the song, and regulating the war-like stomping movements of the troop. It’s refreshing to observe how these different bodies and personalities take on ukusina, some aggressive and braggadocious in the way they erect their posture and pummel the floor with their feet, others dainty and concentrated in their movements. One of the female dancers’ footwork reminds me of the dainty movements of The Kingdom of ESwatini’s Inkosikati laFogiyane‘s graceful routine at Buganu Ceremony, her feet so lithe as to imply someone who doesn’t want to disturb the ground, her face and demeanor so intense and reverent, they leave no doubt as to the sacredness of the ritual.
In a conversation with Zuma, I discovered this particular movement sequence to have been in fact influenced by imigidi of the Nazareth Baptist Church.
It is this same sense of sacredness that threads its way through subsequent song offerings and their embodiment. Scenes such as one where some of the dancers appear to be possessed by uMoya, convulsing violently and thrashing about on the floor while the rest of the ensemble sing and utter prayerful chants, further imbue this sense of catharsis. One symbolic moment sees a priest lay hands on a troubled female congregant, who suspends backwards and is caught by two others before she reaches the floor. We’ve all seen those scenes where the prophet drops bodies ‘ngegama like Jesu’, often inspiring incredulity in skeptics like me. My mind went into the vulnerability of people seeking hope and enlightenment in the hands of pastors, often exalted into demigods by (themselves and) their parishioners. Much endangerment has arisen from these unbalanced hierarchies of power, evidenced by the likes of Bushiri et al. Given that this was a fleeting scene, I couldn’t deduce the maker’s statement in this regard, nor am I implying that my projections are in line with his intent. This is my take away. I do feel that this could be further amplified, if it was intentional.
Having known him to collaborate with Indigenous Instrumentalist, scholar and music-maker, Nkosenathi Ernie Koela, – also featured on vocals in the ensamble – it was a delightful surprise to find our man with the moves equally capable of holding a decent note. Imagine my glee at him leading ‘Sabel’ Uyabizwa’ by playing uhadi—Thokoza Mngoma!
Of course I’m gonna find the inclusion of poetry in this already jam-packed offering endearing… chill please! ‘Moya wami ungakhathali, ungadikibali…ngisho ngihamba ethunzini lokufa..’ petitions Zuma in a sincere tone that speaks to an appeal to have one’s resolve, faith and irresolution galvanised in the face of tribulations. The vocal work proves up to standard and the writing emotive, with its deceptive simplicity belying the accuracy of its iambic pentameter. Totally my kinda church!
Admittedly, I’ve come to expect this dancer to tax himself more physically in his performances, but had to relent in the realisation that ensamble work is about balance and integration instead of a singularity of focus.
The bodies incorporated into the piece all carried the story uniquely and efficiently, signifying the sense of fellowship synonymous with worship groups, where the fluidity between participant and observer is a constantly traversed path.
In this way, there were moments of glory for almost each one of the dancers, similar to how, at different moments during a service, abazalwane bangenwa nguMoya. The sense of synergy and support created a space where they could all function in unison, even when their movements were not rigidly synchronised. The immaculate turns, the prostrations and the extensions formed their own Holy Trinity and we loved to see it!
All in all, this twenty minute presentation was an honest exploration of a space which allows for much more delicious play and assertive commentary. Granted, the compression of such complex physical text into so little time was not without its challenges when it comes to the overall story.
But this is what theatre does – it puts its body on the line in the service of making meaning.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Cebolenkosi Zuma’s instincts are leading him in an exciting direction. We look forward to the extended piece, Nxamalala!