Collaboration leaves lifelong impact

| September 16, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Stephen Holder

In August 2010 the Kingswood College concert Band toured to the Western Cape.

In Paarl, one rainy Saturday, we took part in a concert arranged by the local Hospice and Butterfly Project. During the last piece the audience got up and spontaneously danced. That wasn’t the end of the dancing: once the Band had finished playing the musicians danced with the Butterfly children.

So the idea was that the Band collaborate – more formally -with dancers. We asked Janet Buckland, the founder and artistic director of the Ubom! Eastern Cape Drama Company, if she would be interested in such a collaboration. She came to see us, bringing with her Sifiso Sikhakhane, a third year Music and Drama student at Rhodes University. Sikhakhane is also the choreographer working with the Amaphiko Township Dance Project (Amaphiko means wings.) He had the idea of developing a contemporary physical theatre dance piece with members of the Amaphiko company and dancers from the university which would be accompanied by the Kingswood Concert Band.

Goals

In his production proposal Sikhakhane mentioned three goals. The first (short term) goal was the creation of an artistically productive relationship between those involved in the performance of the piece. The second was the creation of a platform on which participants could exchange their artistic knowledge. The third (long term) – and, for me, the most important – goal was “to eliminate the barriers which prevent people from different backgrounds (race, gender, age) from interacting with each other artistically”.

You know who a person really is by the language in which they cry

Sikhakhane was inspired by the story told in a documentary called The Language You Cry In for which Dr Cynthia Schmidt, one of his lecturers, had researched the material (The title of the dance piece is a saying of the Mende people.) In the programme note for the dance performance the story is summarized thus:

A family’s memory is pieced together through a song with legendary powers to connect those who sing it with their ancestors. This journey [in dance and music] explores the gift of memory, the gift of song and the power of ancestors.

African Americans have been able to retain links to their past through memory, in this case the memory of a song, sung originally as a dirge by the Mende people. As Sikhakhane explained, the subject was too dark for it to be danced only by children. Hence his inclusion of students from Rhodes University of whom there were seven. Four children from the Amaphiko Project took part. We gave five performances of the piece on the National Arts Festival Fringe this year.

Getting it together

The way we did the production turned out quite differently to the way we first imagined it. We thought we would do as we always – up until now – did. Learn to play the music off fully written- out parts. I had said during our initial discussion that I required the project to extend our limits: there had to be a challenge. I was certainly not disappointed. I faced challenges along with the Band members.

The dance had to be finished before the musicians could begin work. This way of working only became obvious once the project was underway. As the performance date got closer and closer and no music had been done I grew anxious. The dance began coming together in May and the performance date was the end of June. To allay my anxiety a little I wrote five minutes of music myself, sticking to the specifications which Sikhakhane had given me. He came to a Band rehearsal and listened to us play – and we never heard that music again. Sikhakhane began directing the musicians, encouraging

them to develop musical ideas which he sang to them. Occasionally he played us a recording to show us the kind of sound he had in mind. He asked us to improvise and suggest improvements but whatever we first tried turned out to have inappropriate associations which distracted attention from the subject of the story; or the music was “too busy”. Eventually, however, the Band members picked up on Sikhakhane’s ideas and under his guidance offered their interpretations and improvisations. So an entirely original musical score grew, in tune with the dance and with the choreographer’s conception. It was a beautiful collaboration.

Workshopping the music with an ensemble of forty-seven – the number of musicians in the Kingswood Concert Band – is not quickly done. It became clear that the whole Band was too unwieldy to do the work necessary in the very short time which we had available. The ensemble was reduced to two flutes, two clarinets and two saxophones. Trombone and tuba made up the brass section. Bass guitar, timpani, six djembe players and two marimba players completed the line-up (we also doubled as singers for the first section of the production.) As these players were the more experienced ones amongst us, we were able to work creatively and efficiently. They also brought a professional commitment and wholeheartedness to the project which I appreciated very much.

No-one’s way of seeing is ever the same as your own. To work together with a large number of people – in this case the seventeen school musicians who accompanied the dance – to produce a coherent piece is extremely challenging. If you get it together it has to have been the result of maturity, focus and perseverance. The experience will surely have a lifelong influence. Sikhakhane, the dancers and the musicians did this. That the piece evolved (or workshopped), that it was allowed to happen, is profoundly exciting. We all participated, adding our musical ideas and suggestions. Thus the work was created – by us all.

Stephen Holder is Head of Music at Kingswood College, Grahamstown.

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