Exit / Exist is Gregory Maqoma’s reflections on the story of his ancestor, Chief Maqoma, who faced up to the British in South Africa in the 19th century, came off worse in the struggle and died in the infamous prison on Robben island. It’s not an attempt at any literal narrative but a series of scenes that shows us the state of mind of the protagonist as he realises trouble is coming, and what fate that ultimately implies. Maqoma’s intense and committed solo dancing is gloriously supported and propelled by live performances from four South African singers, Sizwe Nhlapo, Tobela Mpela, Lucas Madzinge, and Siphiwe Nkabinde. If recordings had been available at the venue of those sweet but powerful blended voices they would have been snapped up by many on the way out.
Maqoma is an established figure in South African dance, but has appeared here in London only intermittently. He was an imposing figure when appearing with the slighter Akram Khan in Khan’s Variations for vibes, pianos and strings as part of a Steve Reich evening in 2006. In 2010 he was at Sadler’s Wells with Shanell Winlock in Southern Comfort, a piece which, like this one, took a hard look at power and who wields it. Both these works, though modest in scale, featured some wonderful musicians, and the same applies here. The music is composed by Simphiwe Dana and the arrangements are by Guiliano Modarelli, who appears here on guitar.
The work is a short but concentrated sixty minutes. It’s presented with an elegant economy which suits the intimate surrounds of the Shaw Theatre. There is a scrim on which fragments of narrative are sometimes projected, supplemented by occasional voiceover. The musicians act as a kind of chorus, not just singing behind the scrim but appearing on stage to address Maqoma directly. In an arresting image towards the close two of them pull him away to the back of the stage via the chief’s robe he is standing on as an image of a lighthouse at Robben island flashes up on the scrim.
We first see Maqoma in modern clothes, a shiny silver suit. He remains with his back to us for a number of minutes as the music slowly grows in intensity. It’s a tribute to his charisma that he can sustain interest so long without even showing his face, via his flickering hands, rippling spine and convulsing shoulders. He then changes into a costume representing his ancestor and is presented by the musicians with a cloak which he ties on, seemingly as a symbol of taking up his responsibilities.
The portrayal of the chief is not simply a matter of proud display. Maqoma can indeed claim the stage and powerfully stamp out his authority. But equally there is introspection and grief. As well as power Maqoma has a remarkable delicacy and control. His fingers have a refinement in their placement recalling Indian classical dance. At one point he pours out a plate of rice on the floor and then dances for minutes with the empty plate sitting on his head, involving extended balances on one foot and then rapid spins under a hail of falling sand. It is only when this falls to the floor that his defeat is realised.
This mix of strength and delicacy is strongly supported by the music. The singers can shift in an instant from full-throated raw power to surprising softness and vulnerability. Their grief over Chief Maqoma’s cattle lost in his dispute and the way of life they represent is deeply, yearningly felt. Translations of the songs are provided in an accompanying booklet, which it does help to run through beforehand, but the shift in fortunes is clear both in dance and music.
Maqoma changes back into his modern suit for the final section as if formally returning to the present to reflect on all that has happened. He is on stage throughout. Even his changes of costume are done in full view of the audience. It’s a commanding and focussed performance. He and the musicians were enthusiastically received. It would be good to see him return here again with other works.