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On ‘Stand By’ or ready to respond?

Date Released: Tue, 29 March 2011 14:18 +0200

Award-winning choreographer Athena Mazarakis returned to Grahamstown last week to present her one-woman production Standing By. Commissioned by the Dean of Students Office to highlight Human Rights Week, Standing By poses the question: are we simply standing by, while human rights violations continue around us? Or are we on stand-by, ready to respond, to be responsible and response-able?

In an astoundingly assured and viscerally wrenching production, Mazarakis takes us through a number of scenes of violence, shifting from panicking lesbian trying desperately to justify her childhood toys, through to a fantastically realised game of toy soldiers, shifted into high reality by the use of digital cameras, projectors and the single light Mazarakis wears around her forehead.

Her voice creating the sounds of helicopters and stuttering walkie-talkies, we watch as the toy soldiers, grown to man height on the wall of the Box Theatre, fight their desperate and ultimately futile battle. The toy soldiers, although they do not move, become human through Mazarakis' passion and skill.

The final minute, where she lies, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, is almost comical after the heat of the battle, until she rolls slowly away, revealing a body of light below her on the floor, growing in intensity and clarifying into a genderless human figure, covered in leaves and soil, motionless against the earth. Then, in a scene of horror, the figure begins to twitch, shuddering uncontrollably, and the image fades out again.

With a finely judged blend of humour and pathos, Mazarakis illustrates the dilemma facing the witness to domestic violence, that gut-wrenching point where after the “thud of flesh on flesh, or on bone” there is the desperate wait for a scream... at least then, says her narrator, at least then, you know there is life on the other side of the wall. And you can turn up the TV, loudly.

There is no respite between vignettes. We are on her rollercoaster, and we must ride it with her.

Again Mazarakis' innovative use of digital media and lighting comes to the fore as, in a spectacular reversal of the power games some men play, she targets a man in the audience, focuses the camera on him, reminds him that it isn't really real, there's no real touching. She then proceeds to dance against his image, run her hands over the projection of his body, dominate his space, albeit virtual, with an aggression which, I'm sure made many of the women in the audience shiver in recognition.

As the lights dim a male voice is heard from Mazarakis' Ipod... “we must rock them, we must rape them, we must rock them, we must rape them”. And then, the most gut-wrenching scene of all. In yet another illustration of her consummate skill at telling a story without words, the head torch, now glowing red, comes down over Mazarakis' mouth, in a shockingly effective gag.

With head bowed she steps quietly to the back of the audience, and in the dark, with no light but the red glow where her voice should be, we hear instead the voices of survivors of “corrective rape” - women who, due to their sexual identity as lesbians, have been targeted, beaten and raped by men who find them too terrifying an affront to their own identity to let them be.

The voices of these women echo through the Box. For every voice that we hear, we have to ask, how many others were not left alive to speak up? How many were silenced forever for being who they were, and living openly as themselves? With her stepping back, and the red gag around her mouth, Mazarakis gave these women a voice. She lets them be heard.

One minute middle-aged brittle housewife with lines from years of cigarette use etched on her face, next a swaggering, arrogant man propounding corrective rape, then a man, in a bar perhaps, dominating another's space, then a dancer who is by turns the victim, the survivor, the attacker, the revolted witness, the compassionate bystander, the every person in the violent society.

The dancer falls, exhausted, to the floor, prone, on her back, and the body of light forms again beneath her. Again, we see Mazarakis peel her body from the virtual one, and yet, by now, we are not sure which is more real; the body on the ground, covered in leaves and earth and worms, writhing in its death throes, or the body of the performer, now quietly witnessing, now too a member of the audience.

“In 2007 a South African investigative journalism programme broadcast a story about the corrective rape of lesbians in South African townships. In an analysis of the viewership for that broadcast they found a distinct drop in viewership during that insert. Viewers switched over to another channel for the duration of that insert, and switched back again once it was over.” Athena Mazarakis, Choreographer's Note, Standing By programme.

By Jean Mckeowin
Picture: Sourced from möte09