A Festival at the Intersection of Amsterdam and Africa
AMSTERDAM — William Kentridge stood at a podium and waved a hand authoritatively. “Fumms bö wö tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwii Ee,” he said decisively. The audience at the Frascati Theater here laughed as Mr. Kentridge continued to speak the meaningless — yet somehow meaning-filled — nonwords that make up the 1932 sound poem, “Ursonate,” by the artist Kurt Schwitters.
Mr. Kentridge’s performance was the second part of a show that began with “Enyangeni,” by the dance teacher and composer Nhlanhla Mahlangu, in which nine singers and dancers spoke and sang in Zulu, a language probably equally mysterious to most in the audience, while a stamping dance, performed up, down and across a scaffold, told a tale of its own.
Language, meaning, interpretation, translation and the ways these are mediated through and reinterpreted by history are among the themes of this year’s Holland Festival, which runs through June 23. Founded (like the Edinburgh Festival) in 1947, in the wake of World War II, the multidisciplinary festival aimed to show the power of art to heal and rebuild community and cooperation.
This year, for the first time, the festival has invited two artists to contribute their programming ideas. Both are from Africa: Mr. Kentridge, the visual artist from South Africa, and Faustin Linyekula, the Congolese choreographer.
The choice of Mr. Kentridge and Mr. Linyekula was part of an effort to extend the festival’s offerings beyond Europe and North America. That effort began in previous years with work from Latin America and parts of Asia, said Annemieke Keurentjes, the programming director, alongside Jochem Valkenburg. “Africa feels like the last bit to really explore,” she said.
Ms. Keurentjes pointed out that 170 different nationalities lived in the southeast part of Amsterdam, and that most of that population came from African countries. “We have had lots of discussions about diversifying the audience, but for me it starts with what is onstage,” she said. And Mr. Kentridge’s and Mr. Linyekula’s themes of inclusion, exclusion, appropriation and cultural diversity “are very topical for us here,” Ms. Keurentjes added.
Both men have used the opportunity to involve their collaborative partners and artists they support. Mr. Linyekula brought work from his Kinshasa center, Studios Kabako, including “Not Another Diva,” a vehicle for the South African singer Hlengiwe Lushaba, as well as his own “In Search of Dinozard” and the new “Congo.” (I wasn’t able to see Mr. Linyekula’s works because of scheduling, but during an informal post-performance conversation, he talked about his insistence on taking a work, “Parlement Debout,” to the southeast Amsterdam neighborhood that Ms. Keurentjes referred to. “Context is everything,” he said. “Dance is a form of storytelling that you write with the body.”)
Mr. Kentridge brought several pieces developed by other artists at the Center for the Less Good Idea, the multidisciplinary studio space he founded in 2016 in the newly trendy Maboneng neighborhood of Johannesburg. One of these was the multipronged “Defense of the Less Good Idea/Blind Mass Orchestra/Requiem Request,” which opened with Mr. Kentridge explaining that his Center was “primarily a space for defending uncertainty.” One thing apartheid had taught, he said, “was that the absurd is the best way to make sense of the world.”
His speech was gradually drowned out by sounds as eight musicians arrived onstage, and began an improvisatory performance conceived by João Renato Orecchia Zúñiga. It was governed by instructions (“Do not listen to each other,” “40 seconds of rage” “Your favorite song”) projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, and sometimes extending to the audience (“Audience talks to themselves,” “audiences sighs with relief”). The effect was funny, patchy and somehow enchanting.
It was followed by “Requiem Request,” a 20-minute work choreographed by Gregory Maqoma, which begins with a lone, mummified figure (Thulani Chauke) struggling to break out of the bands of tape that bind his limbs to his sides and mask his face. As he writhes out of his bonds and into a sinuous solo, 10 members of the Phuphuma Love Minus choir, directed by Mr. Mahlangu, begin the traditional, all-male Zulu form of a cappella known as isicathamiya (issi-KAT-ah-mee-ya), a mesmerizing mix of percussive chants, soaring voices and trilling calls, performed as the men ascend and descend the scaffolding stairs with repetitive rhythmic stamping walks, a stick held in the right hand.
When a second dancer (Xolisile Bongwana) joins the central figure, Mr. Maqoma constructs an intricate, grappling pas de deux that suggests dependence, vulnerability, perhaps illness or death; choir members huddle to one side, lifting hands to heads as they softly sing a plaintive phrase over and over again.
The elements of the show — Mr. Kentridge’s speech, Mr. Zúñiga’s exuberant musicians, the disciplined sound and movement of the choir against the wilder, more complex duet at the center — came together in an oddly coherent, moving whole, each in its own way speaking to ideas about form and meaning.
Mr. Maqoma — whose “Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro” (which grew out of “Requiem Request”) will go to the Joyce Theater in New York next year — also showed a solo work, “Beautiful Me.” Created in 2009, it was developed from movement material contributed by three of Mr. Maqoma’s friends: the choreographers Akram Khan, Vincent Mantsoe and Mr. Linyekula.
The work is a meditation on many of the issues that Ms. Keurentjes discussed and that were raised in talks and workshops. To whom do cultural traditions belong? Who is in, who is out, who is accepted, who is not?
Mr. Maqoma is too subtle an artist to make any of this explicit in his work. Instead, accompanied by five musicians, he gives us the stamping, percussive footwork and gracefully undulating arms and wrists of kathak, the classical Indian form bequeathed to him by Mr. Khan. What was derived from the South African Mr. Mantsoe and Mr. Linyekula was harder to identify as the movement mutated from an extraordinarily fast sequence of whipping arms that transformed his limbs into a blur to quick, high two-legged jumps, then smaller, through-the-torso, nuanced ripples.
At times the names of South African politicians are projected on a screen. At other moments, Mr. Maqoma recounts a memory or a dream, or speaks to three microphones that represent his absent choreographer friends. At the end, he tells us he has never been able to say “R” properly. “I could never pronounce my own name, Gregory.” (His full name is Gregory Vuyani Maqoma.)
In that sentence, he suggests the ambiguity of being an African artist working in a Western tradition. But his solo and its multinational sources suggest that identity is muddled, complicated.
As Mr. Kentridge says in the festival program, the idea of cultural appropriation “assumes that there is an essence. That there is something that is pure and untainted that one can go back to.” “Beautiful Me” is partly personal and autobiographical, partly drawn from the wider world of cultural influences. What is “African”? Who am I? What am I? Mr. Maqoma asks through both words and the body. The answers are many.