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The expression “But is it art?” has been framing challenges to visual culture since early modernism. In South Africa, the dance fraternity is finally catching on.

Since 1998, artist Steven Cohen and his partner Elu have courted the discipline of dance by pushing its boundaries. Elu is a trained choreographer, Cohen self-educated in the visual arts and a maverick in dance. Their work has traditionally horrified most mainstream local critics and dancers because of its unequivocal challenges to society’s values.

“Elu and I brought art legitimacy into a dance environment,” says Cohen in an interview. “We were the absolute first to … accompany movement with douche-drinking, fire-up-the-arse, pornographic videos … and call it art.”

Appearing at the annual FNB Dance Umbrella (February 13 — March 19, 2005), the pair consolidated their radical line and the influences they afford the discourse. But the two were no longer alone in making work that questions dance’s values.

Other practitioners may not be using the same devices as Cohen, but the visual tone of performances, judging by the pickings of this year’s Dance Umbrella, was palpable.

Among the choreographers who submitted work were PJ Sabbagha, Jay Pather and Gerard Bester, all of whom used social issues to challenge the language of dance.

Pather’s The Beautiful Ones Must Be Born, held at Constitution Hill (March 5 and 6), is a site-specific composition that draws on Zulu praise poetry, the Greek Oresteia, the story of Shaka, and the Indian epic, Mahabaratha. The performance, which had dancers dressed in anachronistic costumes, included Shembe dance, classical ballet, Bharatha Natyam and San and Khoi dance.

Sabbagha’s still here! confronted “surviving love, loss, illness and the rain” and blended original Jennifer Ferguson music with a tragicomic performance by Irene Stephanou and video art by Nathaniel Stern. A toaster in Bester’s offering, titled Attachments, a physical theatre essay on love, offered a surreal interregnum between movements. The beauty in these three pieces was serious, witty and controversial.

In Elu’s piece, titled Munk/Punk, and Cohen’s presentations Dancing Inside Out and Maid In South Africa (March 16 and 17), the two dancers’ manoeuvres onstage have become offset by other possibilities. “They’re scary in the gravity of the issues they address,” Cohen says of his current works.

In the former, he exploits his idioms of otherness, which he has been developing for the last decade. He positions himself against audio-backdrops of Hitler’s speeches, dressed in phylacteries, a prayer shawl and a gas mask. Not only does he scrutinise his Jewish body with a magnifying glass, he shows footage of this work being performed outside Lyons’s Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance (previously Gestapo headquarters), where he was arrested.

“It’s humiliating when people have the right to pry into your mind and make decisions for your body”, Cohen told Adrienne Sichel in The Star.

Controversially labelled by Cohen as “homage”, Maid in South Africa represents Cohen transitioning into pornography. The juxtaposition between Dancing Inside Out and Maid in South Africa is also logical. Made with John Hodgkiss, the latter work features octogenarian Nomsa Dhlamini, Cohen’s childhood nanny and sometime collaborator. In bringing this elderly black woman into the fray, stripping her down, dressing her up in tacky if sexy lingerie, filming her doing domestic duties in his childhood house, Cohen reflects on the society that demeaned a woman to having to clean shit from white people’s toilets.

“This work has a bitter taste,” says Cohen. “We are not just voyeurs butprotagonists.”

Robyn Sassen is a freelance arts writer, artist andGauteng editor of ArtThrob

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