Thursday, July 2, 2015

On the Rhythms of Longing and Connectedness Neo Muyanga's "Tebello: A Tentative Operetta on Longing" by Jessica S. Ruthven

On the Rhythms of Longing and Connectedness: “Tebello: A tentative Operetta on Longing” commenced 6:00 pm Wednesday when a group of 18 choral students from Wits University entered the Wits Theatre softly, slowly, and with intention. A hush descended on the gathered audience as we watched the black-clad students in a rainbow of richly colored scarves file toward their chairs onstage. Our host and composer for the evening, Neo Muyanga, followed closely behind the students and walked to the microphone downstage house-left. As the choir concluded its song on a decrescendo, Neo explained the meaning of “tebello” and told us what the show held for us: an evening of exploration, through song and embodied movement, of the human capacity for expectation laced with longing. A soft yellow glow illuminated the stage as Neo gazed directly toward us and spoke of the history of migrant labor in the region, as well as its continued presence in the lives of many today. He told us of the distance families must learn to grow into as a result of the mass structural separation of men and their families necessitated by mining and other systems of labor. He asked us all, gathered together, to be open to feeling that expectation, longing, the spirit of resistance, and other evoked emotions as the performers weaved through their program: instrumentation and choral work, audience interaction, protest songs, and finally blues music, funk, and a nod to Augusto Boal through Roberta Estrela D’Alva’s husky and vibrant voice. There were many bright moments during the night that caught my attention—too many and varied to cover in this forum. I could speak of resistance and social change; connections between South Africa and Brazil; audience and performer group dynamics/interaction; the role of sound in embodying practice; or even my thoughts as a native Mississippian (and DEEP lover of blues and funk music) on the relationship between blues and protest songs. Instead, I’ll limit focus on one moment that connected strongly with conversations held earlier in the day at the Adler Museum lectures. At one point when the choirmaster was working with the students on a section of minor-chord music, the sopranos struggled to harmonize with the group as the aurality suffered some dissonance. The soprano farthest stage house-left scrunched up her face, shook her head, and furrowed her brows as the group hit a particularly discordant note. At another point during the night, the students dissolved into laughter—embodied in staccato breaths, long chuckles, and ripples through the group when their bodies moved from more rigid performance positions to a brief looseness of form—as an error in timing resulted in some members bursting into song while the majority remained silent. This immediately invoked for me Dilip Menon’s comments earlier in the day on “idiorrhythmy,” a concept used by Roland Barthes in “How to Live Together.” For Barthes, idiorrhythmy is a kind of productive living-together in which each person in a group recognizes and respects that others have their own individual rhythms. Through this recognition/respect, sociospatial discord in a society is reconciled. Menon invoked this idea in his introduction to Ike Anya’s lecture urging scholars to consider the everyday perspectives of the people with whom they work when theorizing happiness and other social constructs. Later, Anne Allison noted that we might think of happiness as the rhythms of living together while also recognizing the fragility of happiness and the irregularity of rhythms in daily life. In the afternoon’s panel, Tina Sideris asked us to think about temporal dissonance, while other participants in discussion questioned the role of laughter in happiness. Hearing the dissonance, errors in timing, and resulting laughter that occurred during the evening’s performance, certain questions came to mind. In addition to thinking through the relationship of individuals to collectives and integrating others’ perspectives with our own, I wonder: what is the role of discord in what we envision as “happiness”? When we speak of “happiness,” what constitutes it, for whom, and how is it deployed conceptually and materially in particular places and times? How do longings for “perfection” or ideals shape people’s experiences of joy, elation, satisfaction, and a range of other terms that are at times associated with “happiness”? Would this group of choral students be “happy” in their performance for the evening, or did the discord/errors mar their experience in any way? At the end of the evening, Neo and Roberta smiled, thanked us for joining them, and said they hoped they made us happy. As an audience member, I know the kind of unexpected glitches in the performance directly contributed to my overall “happiness” with the production as an experience. Those blips in timing and tonality, as well as Roberta’s, Neo’s, and the choral group’s embodied reaction to them, enabled a sense of closeness and connection to the performers that would have been less accessible (for me) if the performance had been seamless. Even Roberta’s later exaggerated facial expressions and asides to the audience or shout of “Surprise!” as she did something unexpected and the choir rushed to get back on track with her added, rather than detracted, to the experience. Their laughter at various points in the show enabled my own, and I felt part of something more expansive than a singular self as my laughter joined the deeper rumble of the crowd’s. So I ask again—what is the relationship of discord, dissonance, the uncertain, expectation, failed expectation, and the unexpected in our understandings of “happiness”? As a final thought, I will leave you with the following: “It reminded me of when I was a kid listening to protest songs from South Africa, and they were so powerful. Listening now, it brought back a longing, a nostalgia, and also a sadness. But the power! And the kids were so caught up in it, like when they [Roberta and Neo] were singing and the choir just jumped up so spontaneously and joined! It looked like they were moved.” This is a comment I overheard one of our JWTC participants telling another in their post-performance chat as they ambled to the bus for dinner. What he notes above is something I hear artists in Johannesburg and abroad consistently refer to as “resonance.” It indexes a profound and meaningful connection to something that moves a person in thought, action, or feeling. What, then, is the role of activism and resonance (along with its cousin empathy) to notions of happiness in contemporary South Africa? Jessica S. Ruthven University of the Witwatersrand

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