Just as the zebra has stripes for camouflage, so do men disguise their vulnerability by “masking themselves behind a machomasculine façade”, says PJ Sabbagha, choreographer of Zebra, the South African-Russian collaboration that explores the contradictions of masculinity in a powerful contemporary dance production.
The all-male cast from Dialogue Dance in Russia and Forgotten Angle Theatre in South Africa spent two weeks in a “creative laboratory” last year, “just checking each other out”, says Russian dancer Ivan Estegneev. “The most important level is the collaboration.
Russian artists speaking to South African artists and South African artists speaking to Russian artists,” Sabbagha says. “We weren’t too concerned, initially, with the product, but wanted to explore each other’s personal perspectives,” he says.
He said that trying to combine different dance styles and ideas about masculinity was a “scary experience”, because no one had an idea of where it should be going.
“We are six men with very strong ideas about ourselves, the role of art, the way we like to create,” he says. “Each one uniquely different, with very strong personalities.”“It’s important to see how the energy moves through this piece,” Estegneev says. “The idea is the secondary level.”
Cooperation despite differences
The language barrier caused a lot of misunderstandings. “All the cast are either second- or
third-language English speakers, and it was astonishing how much got lost in translation,” Sabbagha says.
The name of the production seems to dictate the contents of the contemporary dance collaboration.
“The zebra came first,” Sabbagha says. Through the laboratory work, “those issues that dominate men’s lives kind of bubbled to the fore”, says Sabbagha.
Zebra, which premiered at the FNB Dance Umbrella Festival in Johannesburg in March, speaks beautifully to issues of masculinity and the way men conduct themselves in the world – in the personal, political and emotional.
Combining Russian and South African ideas of contemporary dance was difficult for the performers – and Sabbagha.
“It asked Russia and South Africa to work together in ways they’ve never worked before,” he says. “The Russians need to find a conceptual space and think, while the South Africans just want to jump and then think what they are doing,” explains Sabbagha. “They are very often totally preoccupied with the body as opposed to concepts.”
Estegneev explains that Russian contemporary dance began between 15 and 20 years ago, and it is vastly different to Russian folk dancing and ballet.
“For Russians, a contemporary dancer is some kind of opponent to a ballet dancer. How do ballet and contemporary dance communicate? There is no communication,” he said.
The zebra theme extends to every aspect of the performance. The stage, which is striped black and white, creates “a kind of visual chaos. It does funny things to your eyes”, Sabbagha said.
The lighting, too, is black and white, with lots of shadowing and silhouette. The very structure of Zebra is fragmented with lots of interruption and images that fade away.
“Everything works together to create a zebra-like effect,” he says.
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