By Diana Condolo
My guest, Nesia and I were invited to attend “The Meal,” one of two works Mamela Nyamza and her company perform as part of Canadian Stage’s three-week, multidisciplinary Spotlight South Africa festival. “The Meal,” being performed at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto, clearly echoes Nyamza’s love/hate relationship with Western dance and culture; she was immersed in ballet from childhood while growing up under apartheid outside Cape Town.
When climbing the stairs at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs to see Nyamza’s “The Meal,” we were surprised to find Nyamza repeatedly writing on a long scroll of paper that ran down the stairs. Much like an unruly schoolgirl who was found doing something naughty, she endlessly wrote, “I must not have a big bum.” As a black dancer in the white world of classical ballet in South Africa, she had to fit the visual stereotype of the slim and dainty ballerina. Since childhood, Nyamza has used her art as a means to interpret, cope with, and reconcile her life’s events.
The story opens with Nyamza sitting at the feet of her white ballet mistress who teaches her the ways of the ballet world. This robust mother figure, who is nothing like the ballet ideals, gives instruction to Nyamza and painfully pins a false braid onto Nyamza’s head, transforming her into a typical ballet dancer.
“The Meal” is a deeply personal story of culture and tradition; how western culture can be drilled into someone, resulting in pain and suffering but not entirely without some desire of the indoctrinated to enjoy the delights of western culture. You can see the pleasure on Nyamza’s face as she steps into a pink tutu and struts about with zeal, taunting the audience with frilly, provocative views. A second dancer, Kirsty Ndawo, joins her on stage and also gleefully dons a pink tutu.
The dance ends a brilliant transformative act where Ndawo instigates a change in Nyamza and she returns to her native appearance accompanied to the music of Swan Lake. The brave and provocative piece makes a strong statement on the need to break free from colonization and domination.
Sprinkled throughout the serious and elegant dance are moments of light-hearted humour. The girls flap their birds like chickens and make birdlike “kwok” sounds; they even shoot the middle-finger bird at us.
We yearned to understand the occasional words spoken in Xhosa. We also wished we could completely understand the symbolism and meaning of this piece, but it gave us an opportunity to contemplate and discuss the intricacies of this gripping performance.
About Spotlight South Africa
Spotlight South Africa is an initiative to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Nelson Mandela, as well as the artistic achievements of South Africa, which finally saw democracy under Madiba. Spotlight South Africa features five productions, most of which are making their North American debut.
You don’t usually think of ballet as being political. I like that this performance challenges convention and brings attention to the enduring effects of colonization.
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