Gumboots, Barbican, London

These boots were made for mining
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The Independent Culture

How do we feel about entertainment that trades off the evils of colonialism? Perfectly happy, to judge by the whooping Barbican audience. South African gumboot dancing has a pretty sordid history, but Gumboots the stage show doesn't really want you to dwell on it. This is a song-and-dance spectacle brimming with chirpy swagger, as 11 bare-chested men dressed in wellies, jeans and coloured bandannas stomp through rhythmic routines that originated in the hell-hole of the gold mines.

How do we feel about entertainment that trades off the evils of colonialism? Perfectly happy, to judge by the whooping Barbican audience. South African gumboot dancing has a pretty sordid history, but Gumboots the stage show doesn't really want you to dwell on it. This is a song-and-dance spectacle brimming with chirpy swagger, as 11 bare-chested men dressed in wellies, jeans and coloured bandannas stomp through rhythmic routines that originated in the hell-hole of the gold mines.

In the mines of Witwatersrand which opened in the 1880s, black labourers were held deep below ground for three months at a time. Conditions were appalling, and hundreds perished every year from disease, accidents or abuse by the foremen. Chained to their workstations, the miners were forbidden to talk to one other, so developed a system of communication based on their traditional rural dances. The only instruments available to them were their boots and bodies, thus the gumboot dance evolved as a kind of underground Morse Code. Slapped shins, stamped feet and the rattle of ankle chains became the ultimate dance of the oppressed.

Gumboots pays lip service to this back-story in brief verbal introductions that leave much unsaid. "The mine workers worked in darkness," the lead dancer informs us. "Someone had stolen the sun." Yet before this terse poetry can take effect, we find ourselves in thrall to a cheerful chorus stomp whose rousing energies banish all thoughts of suffering and gloom.

Gumboots goes all out for the Tap Dogs treatment. We get well-displayed six-packs, industrial levels of noise, and an impressive set (by Tap Dogs' Nigel Triffitt) which allows the performers to construct the machinery of a working mineshaft bit by bit as the show progresses. The completed model - colourfully lit like a fairground ride - ingeniously trickles water from a great height onto the climactic dance below. It is sobering - though perhaps not helpful - to recall that South Africa's mines housed men permanently working up to their knees in infected floodwater.

Like Tap Dogs, the basic dance material of Gumboots is limited. It's almost all loud clumsy stomps and slaps, with virtually no interest in the upper body, as this is mostly bent forward to reach the boots. Compared with the virtuosic muscle-isolation of West African dance, this seems very basic indeed. Given the bluntness of the instruments, the rhythms are pretty ordinary too. Did you know, for instance, that the "bump jive" - the move widely favoured by drunken party guests in Britain - originated in South Africa's townships? Alas, the knowledge doesn't make the dance any more interesting. And I could have also done without the cast's welly-boot rendition of "I'm Too Sexy", with each dancer competing to see who could thrust and grind the hardest.

After this, the pure vocal numbers are oases of refinement. The cast's true quality as rhythm merchants is revealed in a sophisticated mouth-music number whose nine-part click-and-slurp counterpoint is as complex as anything by Steve Reich. A cappella songs about the miners' longing for their families far away in Jo'burg sit alongside a dirge for a dying worker and an upbeat chorus about never getting tired. All are rendered in strong, beautifully tuned close harmony with a grinning bonhomie that belies the import of the lyrics. You can't help but warm to these guys, for all their glib patter and goofy larks. And no doubt Zenzi Mbuli created the show with the very best of motives. But I went home after the show and dreamt of stinking mineshafts. No amount of stage partying can change the colour of the past.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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