Desert Crossings gets thumbs-up from The Times

Thursday 16 June 2011

Desert Crossings Review (Pegasus Theatre, Oxford) – Donald Hutera, The Times 8 March 2011

Gregory Maqoma is sensitive to elemental forces and sacred rituals. This South African choreographer’s new production starts – and ends – with great rumblings and booming. It’s the crack of Creation we’re hearing, the thundering shift of tectonic plates. Alongside such awesome geological disturbances he shows us human beings struggling, celebrating and trying to make sense of their various patches of Earth.

Desert Crossings was commissioned by State of Emergency, an English company that for a quarter century has been promoting and producing work by artists of African descent. Although the piece was economically designed for touring, you sense its epic reach.

Maqoma and his collaborators, including the composer Steve Marshall and an admirable cast of five, aspire to heights and depths from which bigger but more timidly conceived performances might shy away.

The choreography covers a wide swath of shapes, rhythms and interactions. Protean demands are made upon dancers of both sexes, who are identically clad in dark, loose trousers and tops pulled tight across their bellies.  They begin by jiggling manically in place. As their frenzied gestures subside they slide into repetitive steps punctuated by a throwing-out of arms. At times they cluster and split like atomic particles, or later sway and nearly collide beneath large silver reflectors that hang like twin errant moons above the stage.

Not all the movement attempts to harness fierce, almost inhuman energies. Short moments of smaller-scaled joy and beauty jostle against references to godly or man-made systems of power. Lerato Lepire, a dancer who knows how to tap into her own potential magnificence, becomes a sleek, eagle-eyed queen riding proudly on the backs of beasts of burden.  Gerrard Martin transforms into an implacable, many-armed deity simply by hanging a handful of bulky, striped sacked on his shoulders. Later there’s a passage of grovelling group self-abnegation with dancers undulating like inchworms across the shadowy floor.

Although Maqoma’s ambitions may not always measure up to Marshall’s excitingly layered, infectious music, Desert Crossings remains a sensory pleasure. What gradually emerges from its sweeping vision of landscapes and civilisations is an unstable portrait of a small band of symbolic, often dispossessed survivors.

The tour continues: