Gregory Maqoma merges past and present in a kinetic piece exploring his ancestral roots 

Dancer-in-Chief

'Exit/Exist' examines the life of a South African tribal chief through dance

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'Exit/Exist' examines the life of a South African tribal chief through dance

Gregory Maqoma, an accomplished dancer and choreographer, finds inspiration everywhere, from the complex rhythms of classical Indian dance to the beats of traditional Spanish music. However, with his work Exit/Exist, having its Southern debut at Spoleto Festival, Maqoma found all the inspiration he needed at home, in his ancestral roots of South Africa.

This project's first seeds were planted when Maqoma was asked to create a work for South Africa's celebration of 100 years of the African National Congress in 2012. As he researched his country's history — studying its role as part of the British Empire, its troubled chapter of Apartheid, and into its place in the 21 century — he uncovered a bit of his own past.

"We have an incredible history and people in it who have played a vital and important role in the transformation and preservation of our country, our language, our cultures," Maqoma said from his office in Johannesburg. One such inspirational historical figure was Maqoma's own ancestor, Chief Maqoma, a leader of the Xhosa tribe who fought the ceding of his people's land on the Eastern Cape of South Africa to Dutch colonists in the early 19th century, and eventually died in prison as a result of his lifelong fight.

Maqoma traveled to the Eastern Cape to study more about the cultural and traditional forms of music and dance of the region, but also to conduct interviews with the village elders. He found that both written and unwritten history were filled with contradictions about Chief Maqoma, and that perhaps his ancestor was himself a man of contradictions. "It was exciting," Maqoma exclaimed, explaining that these contrasting views helped in creating a more complex character. "I didn't want to create a history lecture, but an artistic work that is informed by history."

That complicated character is who audiences will see in the hour-long work that developed from these interviews. Appearing with his back to the audience, Maquoma takes the stage in a shiny suit, a modern man. As the tempo increases, he shifts to high knees and faster steps, transitioning into traditional African dance, as if he's shifting from the man he is to his great warrior ancestor. All this takes place over a score composed by Xhosa singer and songwriter Simphiwe Dana.

"The music was a specific choice also because it helped reclaim the language — the Xhosa language," Maqoma explains. Dana's compositions are performed by renowned Italian guitarist Giuliano Modarelli and four singers, who almost serve as outside characters to Maqoma's powerful solo piece.

Beyond exploring his ancestor's history, Maqoma also tapped into his own memory. "For as long as I can remember, I think I've been dancing," Maqoma says. Growing up in Johannesburg, he lived near a hostel where many people from various southern regions of Africa lived, coming to the city in hopes of a better economic future. "On the weekend, they would perform their own traditional forms of dance as recreation. I was always intrigued by what I was seeing and started to join in," he recalls. This celebration of tradition was part of a growing cultural landscape in South Africa, and Maqoma tapped into the memories, bringing elements of those traditional dances into his performance. Equally important in Maqoma's memory are his first views of Michael Jackson's dance moves on television. He credits these experiences for informing the unique aesthetic he is so known for today.

From pop culture to tribal influences, Maqoma's work is designed to speak to the viewer on an emotional level as well. "I want to open a window for an audience to tap into my journey, and hopefully, through my journey, they can also reclaim part of their own history," Maqoma says.

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