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Gregory Maqoma South African choreographer's work reconciles present, past

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Gregory Maqoma South African choreographer's work reconciles present, past

For South African choreographer and dancer Gregory Maqoma, being on stage allows him to express and transcend himself.

"The best moment is on stage," he said.

On June 5, Maqoma will perform his solo piece "Exit/Exist" as part of the Spoleto Festival USA. The performance is an example of how artists can reveal their own identity while telling someone else's story.

In it, the Soweto-born dancer channels his own ancestor Chief Maqoma, a 19-century Xhosa warrior who fought for the emancipation of his people during a series of wars between Xhosa tribes and European settlers.

"This performance is about how I exist as a person and a descendent of Chief Maqoma," Maqoma said. "To his exit, we exist."

"Exit/Exist" starts with Maqoma dressed in a gray suit, claiming his identity as an artist living in modern times. As he takes off the suit, he goes back to what is believed to be the beginning of Xhosa history and starts narrating Chief Maqoma's life.

"I'm negotiating the tension between the modern society and the tradition," he said.

Simon Lewis, director of the African studies program at College of Charleston, said it is exciting that South Africans can now look more closely at their local history, as opposed to examining Africa as a whole or in the context of colonialism.

"The Xhosa history involves internal African history regardless of any European intervention," Lewis said. "It also has a very typical clash between Europeans and Africans. In a way you can say Xhosa history is an illustration of some of the major themes of what happened across the continent as a whole."

To make the performance more accessible, Maqoma worked with director James Ngcobo to create their own rituals. In one scene, Chief Maqoma is seen drenched in oil, a symbol of his transition from one land to the eternal land, as oil was considered a way to preserve the body from decaying. This ritual was rarely practiced in history since oil was just too precious, according to Maqoma.

He is also joined onstage by four vocalists and one guitarist. Since most audiences won't understand the Xhosa language, music becomes an essential element in informing spectators of the cultural context, he said.

"I don't wake up with a tradition or live (with) a tradition on a daily basis," he said. "For me, it was a research. From the research I make choices and decide what I want to reflect and what personal journey I want to take."

Souleymane Badolo, an African choreographer and dancer who's now based in New York City, agreed with Maqoma.

"The first thing about dance is to be yourself," Badolo said. "Dancing is not to make other people happy. It's about making yourself happy and then helping people to learn about your culture."

While Maqoma credits choreographers like Steve Paxton and David Zambrano for influencing him, he finds it hard to say exactly what styles can be seen in "Exit/Exist."

"Hence I call it 'cocktail' because you can't separate one influence from another," he said. "My dance has a very strong structure, but I allow the work to live in the moment."

Referring to himself as "a citizen of the globe," Maqoma regards tradition as a personal experience.

"I want to tap into that history, but I also knew there's absolutely no way that I could fulfill the complete picture within an hour of the show," he said. "So my approach is to invite them as much as possible into the journey."

Anita Xu is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.

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