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With Raised Voices

Stories are embedded in the dances of Gregory Maqoma, the South African choreographer and dancer whose work, “Broken Chord,” is currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. In both “Broken Chord” and “Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro,” which came recently to the Joyce Theater, the human voice, danced rhythm, and the material of the stage itself become essential ingredients in the expression of a deep emotional truth. That truth, in turn, is based in history and experience. The whole body is involved, as are the senses: sound, vision, the audience’s and the performers’ inner vibrations. In the case of “Broken Chord,” even our sense of smell is affected through the use of a censer that emits billowing clouds of fragrant incense.

 

Performance

Gregory Maqoma: “Broken Chord”

Place

Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, October 19, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Nokuthula Magubane, Avuya Ngcaweni, Tshegofatso Khunwane, Luvo Rasemeni and Gregory Maqoma for “Broken Chord.” Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

The stories Maqoma tells are African stories. “Cion” was centered on rituals of dying and the communication between the living and the dead.  “Broken Chord” draws on the recorded experience of a South African choir, “The African Choir,” that traveled around England in the early 1890’s. The choir was both well received and patronized by the Victorians, exploited, and eventually abandoned by its British guides. It is a tale of deep disillusionment made worse by European indifference. Maqoma and his collaborator, the composer Thuthuka Sibisi, find ways to connect the choir’s story to the West’s attitudes toward Africa even today.

In format the show is a hybrid, much as “Cion” was, half opera, half dance-theater, half seance. A quartet of South African singers—Tshegofatso Khunwane, Luvo Rasemeni, Nokuthula Magubane, and Avuya Ngcaweni—is joined by an ensemble of sixteen singers from the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The two groups sing separately, together, and sometimes in opposition to each other. Maqoma dances, sings, and speaks. And the South African singers, who are usually in close physical proximity to Maqoma, also dance and pound out rhythm. They are like a family, telling a story together, while the (mostly white) Trinity singers, dressed in black, form a kind of social and sonic backdrop. 

Nokuthula Magubane, Avuya Ngcaweni, Tshegofatso Khunwane, Luvo Rasemeni and Gregory Maqoma for “Broken Chord.” Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

Thuthuka Sibisi’s musical language is rich, and layered. He has worked widely in opera—including with the director William Kentridge—and in many ways, one could describe “Broken Chord” as an opera. The plain and sometimes severe language of Anglican hymns (and “God Save the Queen”) is layered and contrasted with African-inspired harmonies and folk songs, further augmented by rhythms for the feet—or even for blobs of dough, kneaded rhythmically. Sometimes the clash of musical languages becomes cacophony. But when the quartet of South African performers sings alone, its multi-part harmonies are beautiful and stirring, elevated by the sweetness of Nokuthula Magubane’s soprano voice, anchored by Luvo Khunwane’s base. Toward the end of “Broken Chord,” a soprano (Madeline Apple Healey) from the Trinity choir sings a quotation from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” a lament, or perhaps an olive branch. Loss is an universal emotion.

Within this tourbillon of sound Maqoma’s body acts as a kind of medium for all the stories and emotions that swirl around him. He quakes, spins, back rippling with rhythmic cross-currents. Fast footwork becomes stomping, and then a kind of gliding. Delicate arm flutters spread across his torso until every part of him, even his lips, is moving, almost as if his body had been overtaken by an external force. Amazingly, he is able to sustain several rhythms at once through different parts of his body. More than once, his dance resembles a trance. Maqoma, who is fifty, has said that this is the final work he will perform in. It’s a pity, but dance of such intensity must take a toll on the body and the mind.

Luvo Rasemeni, Tshegofatso Khunwane, Avuya Ngcaweni, Nokuthula Magubane, and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street for “Broken Chord” by Gregory Maqoma. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

He and the South African singers exemplify harmony, within their bodies and in their relation to the world around them. They dance and sing as they pound dough, an activity that speaks of home and nourishment and togetherness. In contrast, the Trinity singers, who stand or sit on a platform behind them, are called upon to vocalize harshly, yelling things like “go away, who are you, go home!”. They dance, too, but are made to look vaguely ridiculous. The quartet laughs at them. There is no possibility of real understanding between the two groups, it seems. As Maqoma says in one of his spoken passages, “we cannot realistically speak of a clash of cultures given the virtually total dominance of one side.” 

The injustice, as Maqoma makes clear, is not just in the past. Over the course of “Broken Chord,” he calls for the return of African artifacts from Western museums and an end to cultural imperialism (“white people want us to sing their songs, we don’t like their music!”), and remembers the souls of those lost at sea in the perilous crossings undertaken by many thousands. 

Gregory Maqoma in “Broken Chord.” Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

“Bring back the spirits of those who died in vain,” he calls out. “For what is this gospel?” 

“Broken Chord” does not offer a kumbaya to the consolatory idea of cross-cultural understanding or forgiveness. But it does not lack a sense of higher purpose. It is a gospel, a Requiem for those who have suffered and died. It is their lives and their dignity that are held high in these songs and dances, celebrated as something precious and beautiful.

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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