Robyn Orlin, The Pit, Barbican, London

Stand up for the new South Africa

Nadine Meisner
Sunday 15 December 2013 06:06
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On paper it sounded like one of those dance-theatre pieces where performers rush about and screech their lines while the audience sits cold and uninvolved. But you don't sit during Robyn Orlin's piece – or you can if you want, but on the floor, or one of the few benches around the central, raised platform. And while Daddy, I've seen this piece six times before and I still don't know why they're hurting each other is a mouthful of a title, it encapsulates a piece that, on one level, comments on dance and some of its body-wrenching cliches; and, on another, on the topsy-turvy politics of today's South Africa.

A beautiful woman (Neli Xaba) begins the show, making swaying moves, her velvet dress hiding the stool under her feet, so she looks like an elegantly elongated ebony carving. Below her, the technician, Nico Moremi is busy preparing the stage and trying to satisfy her every whim – cold water, but no ice, some protein to eat, preferably scrambled eggs – until he rebels and hustles her off.

This is a world where traditional roles are shattered, different coloured skins try to redefine themselves, and no one seems to be in charge. Where is Robyn? The stage manager, Gerard Bester, tries to reach her on his mobile. Robyn has gone to the London Contemporary Dance School, where she trained. "But Robyn," he says, "the show has started. The audience is here, they're going to be furious, they're very strict in London."

What follows are Bester's heroic and exhausting attempts to keep the performance going. Not everyone in the Johannesburg-based City Theatre and Dance Group has the self-discipline, especially Moremi, who keeps thinking he's one of the dancers. Then there are all the disruptions – from a sword-dancing group and Toni Morkel, who clambers on to the stage, causing havoc among the ordered rows of red plastic plates that have been lain on the floor. "Look, could we share a bit of space," she protests to Xaba. "I've learned to negotiate in the new South Africa."

This sounds earnest, but it's not. Rather than watching in a state of detachment, you will feel involved and energised. You might find some passages affecting, such as the dance where Xaba appears in a tutu, a black swan sieving flour over herself with deliberation, while Tchaikovsky's music plays. The Protea Dance, on the other hand, is knockabout comedy, the dancers arranging themselves like synchronised swimmers. You will encounter a lot of laughs and surprises, as well as gloriously outrageous audience participation near the end. Near-anarchy may rule, but there is warmth, vitality and, perhaps, even optimism. "Please stop fighting," Bester remonstrates with Xaba and Morkel. "Nelson Mandela worked very hard to make us live together. We're supposed to be the Rainbow Nation."

Orlin really belongs to the European mould of dance theatre, but what she produces is completely fresh and African. The couple standing next to me planned to return the following evening, and, if it had been possible, I would have done the same.

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