Gregory Maqoma dances his past to roaring applause 

Exit/Exist a riveting trip to South Africa

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As a writer, I’ve always been enamored by Winston Churchill’s quote, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Owning one’s history is a fascinating concept. Especially if one’s life is flecked with hardship, battles, controversy. For South African dancer Gregory Maqoma, history will be kind to him for he intends to dance it.

During his opening Spoleto performance Exit/Exist, the dancer somehow managed to translate the unscrupulous reality of colonialism through nothing but the movement of his body. In one hour Maqoma told the story of his Xhosa ancestor Chief Maqoma’s (1798-1873) frontier wars to keep their lands from the British.

Setting the scene, Maqoma appeared on stage in a linen suit, his back to the audience. As a dissonant soundtrack played, the performer’s fingers shook, his shoulders began to shudder, and like a snake shedding its skin he slowly slithered out of his modern-day persona into the Chief. The scene was made all the more riveting by his accompaniment, South African ensemble Complete. The four men sang in both English and Xhosa, and their tribal harmonies were goosebump inducing.

Using a scrim, the artist employed projected footnotes to poetically explain Maqoma’s life. While sometimes the phrasing was obtuse, it didn’t matter as it was really only a reference, not an historical tutorial. The trials Chief Maqoma faced were more than express in the choreography. The set was basic with only two bags of grain on the floor, four blocks, and sand falling from one end of the stage ceiling. The blocks were employed to great effect when one singer appeared sitting across from Maqoma on them. As the two reach out to shake hands, they missed and spinned onto the other block, reached again, missed, spinned — the movement perfectly symbolizing promises made, promises broken.

Maqoma has an eye for such simple symbolism. In another segment the dancer placed a plate atop his head and proceeded to dance without it falling off, balancing changes in his land. In another portion Maqoma poured oil on top of his head, wiping it down his body, a sort of anointing that made his sculpted body glisten in the stage lights. The use of such tactics were so surprising that when in his glowing glory his movement finally stopped and the singers came to a final note, the lights went black and the audience sat in complete silence for a minute. Finally the lights came up and the audience jumped to its feet in awe of the history just danced before us.

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