In the middle of the ornate space of Shoreditch Town Hall, the stark white stage for Via Kanana made a bold visual statement. The dancing that soon filled it made a louder statement still. This show, part of the Dance Umbrella season, was a blast of South African pantsula, a township dance movement that has drawn influences from everything from tribal dances to hip hop, and has been used for decades as a means to make political statements.
In this instance, Via Katlehong Dance, working with the Soweto-born choreographer Gregory Maqoma, was focused on the insidious, pernicious nature of corruption in South Africa. The eight dancers, who didn’t leave the stage for the entire hour performance, unleashed a maelstrom of activity – dominated by the fast, frantic footwork of pantsula, which at times resembled the intricate Double Dutch-style skipping routines, without the rope, at other times looked like hyper-articulated popping, or a fractured, slow-motion krumping.
“The levels of tolerance for corruption in Africa are amazing,” flashed on the back wall in Jurgen Meekel’s accompanying video work. Anger and frustration about that situation bubbled through Via Kanana, which swept us from quotidian mundanity, such as a skilful depiction of the trials of commuting, to high metaphor, such as a disturbing sequence when one dancer was teased and baited like a fox chased by hounds.
Images of dominance and intimidation, helplessness and submission suffused the piece – eyes were covered, suggesting wilful blindness. But there was also, increasingly, the hope derived from the collective, moving and singing in synch, which offered a way to speak truth to power and effect change. By the end, drenched in sweat, the dancers seemed to be warriors readying for the fight, hammering the floor with slamming kicks. If not all of it was clear – and the woman performer charged with bursts of narration was let down badly by the venue’s acoustics – the energy and exuberance of this dance form and these supremely skilled practitioners was electrifying.