Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero – Barbican, London

Choreographer and Director: Gregory Maqoma

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

There are pieces of classical music that live in the public consciousness, their orchestral strains forever linked with a particular moment in time, so that whenever you hear them these associations spring instantly to mind; Dvořák’s Symphony Number 9 and Hovis, the thundering intensity of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number 2 and a weeping Celia Johnson bidding farewell to Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter while Ravel’s Bolero in Britain means the purple outfits and a 1984 gold medal-winning Olympic figure skating routine by Torvill and Dean.

Hearing that last piece sung in two slightly different styles in Gregory Maqoma’s new work Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero as a group of possessed dancers and the professional mourner Toloki explore death and destruction in an atmospheric graveyard is an illuminating experience. The concept of unnatural death as a result of preventable human action is a key theme and this 65-minute show takes an abstract approach to exploring violence and grief.

Maqoma seamlessly combines two quite distinct cultural pieces, the novel Cion by South African author Zakes Mda from which the character of Toloki is taken, and Ravel’s thudding march that appears in the middle and final sequences of the show. Divided into four chapters, it opens with the sound of man crying in the dark, a pitiful wail that over several minutes transforms into a tuneful ululation as the spirits of the eight dancers are taken over by Toloki, sinking low into their knees in symmetrical patterns as he commands their movements.

The changes in tone across the piece are well managed and production values are high, not least Oliver Hauser’s set design that comprises a ring of crosses, with further crucifixes suspended in the air against a textured stone wall which Mannie Manim lights beautifully, altering the mood with sunny oranges and rich reds to intense and spooky shadow with cool blues, whites and greens as the story unfolds.

What that story is, even with the programme notes, is less easy to follow, as a series of abstract concepts that include a brief love story for Toloki and a tale about learning to hate your own children are unfolded. And while the choreography is interesting, combining lots of warlike moves as the excellent dancers work together as a pack indicating acts of violence, pain and suffering – not least in the final piece as three performers transform into animals and consume their prey – how each section relates to the overall themes isn’t always as clear as it could be.

Maqoma employs a mix of styles, with a few sections in English as well as combining elements of ballet, modern dance, flamenco and traditional African dance and hip hop, with the skill of dancers Maqoma himself, Otto Andile Nhlapo, Roseline Wilkens, Thomasanqa Masoka, Thabang Mojapelo, Smangaliso Ngwenya, Itumeleng Tsoeu, Ernest Balene and Nathan Botha, in creating the various shapes and fluid movements being extremely enjoyable.

But Maqoma saves the best till last as, dressed in black lace veils, the company perform a final sequence to the Bolero inspired by the day of the dead with a rhythmical tap dance routine that takes on a hypnotic quality to end the show on a high. There’s lots to enjoy even without understanding the intricacies of the concept, but you might enjoy it more if you do. One thing’s for sure, the Bolero doesn’t just belong to Torvill and Dean anymore.

Runs until 19 October 2019 | Image: Siphosihle Mkhwanazi

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

High production values

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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