From the centuries of oppression that led to apartheid, to Stephen Biko’s slogan “black is beautiful,” South African “beauty” is a complex topic. Beauty remained for just a moment then returned gently to her starting position… is an interdisciplinary work by white South African choreographer Robyn Orlin that draws heavily on traditional black South African storytelling, song and dance. This sixty-minute piece featuring eight phenomenal black performers from the Johannesburg-based company Moving into Dance played to a sold-out house at the Monument-National.
At the start of the piece, the charismatic Julia Burnham warms up the crowd with instructions on how to make sounds with bottles of water that have been handed out. The crackle of 800 plastic bottles becomes a backdrop for an enchanting choral song that emerges, and suddenly it’s impossible to be in a bad mood. The positivity continues with Sonia Radebe’s elegant solo as she plays with drops and waves of her torso while wearing a skirt of Styrofoam cups that sway like abstract seashells with her every move.
Later on Burnham collects T-shirts from a few audience members. Back onstage with them wrapped around her waist she struts with pride, revealing some of the roots of hip-hop with her diagonal projections and isolations. She then attempts to sell the T-shirts to the shirtless men in the audience who donated them. It’s a hilarious moment.
A great joke often speaks to some kind of truth or fairness, ugly as it may be. However, in this piece, the jokes seem too often to be about packaging sophisticated African forms into simple caricatures — unfortunately, it diminishes their impact by doing so. Several times the material comes close to exoticising the black body and touristic cultural display — it’s as if the black African content is not participating in this discourse of beauty on its own terms.
Despite this, many pockets of vibrant beauty do emerge. One such moment is an exquisite solo by Muzi Shili. His lullaby and the shifts of his silhouette as he dances are hypnotizing. Oscar Buthelezi, Teboho Letele, Otto Nhlapo and Thandi Tshabalala also gave outstanding performances. Indeed the sheer force of the entire cast’s talent is undeniable. In another entertaining portion of the show that happens towards the end, a well-crafted dance section features all of the players. Their knees fly through the air in precise jagged lines as they sound off rhythmic song. It’s a great crescendo and effectively delivers a joyful exuberance.
While the work contains some great moments, overall the elaborate yet simplistic dramaturgy seems to squeeze the air out of much of the material with clunky transitions and a composition that lacks rhythm. As a result the piece is not able to breathe into any space more profound than light entertainment. The colonialist lens that makes ugly what was always beautiful has been too influential on concepts of black African beauty to ignore in this context.
The show closes with each performer addressing the audience while also appearing in a video on a large screen behind. Looking at an image of herself in which she is joyfully dancing, breasts exposed in a nonchalant and proud manner, Julia Burnham calmly says “Robyn finds this image problematic, but let’s just continue with my beauty.” While I would have preferred the show to examine that statement deeper, at least by the end of it, the complexity of the topic is acknowledged onstage.