The South African collaborators choreographer Gregory Maqoma and composer Thuthuka Sibisi, premieres “Broken Chord,” their reimagination of the first South African Choir’s journey across the U.S. and the UK as part of BAM’s Next Wave. Near the end of the 19th century, the troupe toured under the stage name “The African (Native) Choir” hoping to raise funds to build a school in the city of Kimberley. And although “…the tour was profitable (and even included an audience with Queen Victoria), proof of the Choir’s performances was thought forever lost—until glass plates of the singers emerged in 2014, 125 years later,” notes the release. Maqoma and Sibisi bring the journey to life with a cast of performers from South Africa and the U.S., mixing traditional Xhosa, contemporary dance, and delving into complex themes of colonialism and racism, to create their unique blend of movement and storytelling. This production marks the second collaboration between Maqoma and Sibisi, and the farewell performance for Maqoma as a dancer.
I corresponded with Maqoma and Sibisi through email with a few questions about their collaboration and the process of making “Broken Chord.”
AmNews: This is the last performance for you Gregory, correct?
Maqoma: Yes, it’s been great touring this work as my last offering as a performer on stage.
AmNews: Thuthuka, how long have you collaborated with Gregory?
Sibisi: Greg and I collaborated on “The Head and The Load” at the Park Avenue Armory in 2018. That was the beginning of our collaborative relationship. With a work of this nature, we consistently tried to avoid the roles of ‘composer’ and ‘choreographer.’
AmNews: How has it been to tour “Broken Chord”?
Maqoma: It is a work that takes me to spaces I have always wanted to present.
Sibisi: I’m thrilled that we finally get to see this work on American shores and to experience how they hear and make sense of it.
AmNews: “Broken Chord” weighs heavily on migration, dispossession, borders, and paths of forced closure. Are you aware that these issues are happening in the U.S. now?
Maqoma: The issues are universal and are heightened in some places like in the U.S. and the greater part of Europe. Hence it is important to amplify and highlight this phenomenon for humanity to prevail.
Sibisi: I am aware of the current global rhetoric toward the policing and punishing of bodies through legislature and policy. I think this is part of the excavation “Broken Chord” was trying to get into. The story of the 1891 African Choir may be about 16 Black, educated, 2nd generation elite singers from the outskirts of South Africa, but it’s also about violations against difference, dreams deferred and the quiet violences that persist and transmute. We ask the audience to be more than a passive viewer of the artist’s talents and virtuosity, but perhaps more.
AmNews: Gregory, is there a personal connection to this global situation?
Maqoma: I am a citizen of the world and therefore I am connected and affected by the global situation of a Black body constantly fighting against the pushback by the West.
AmNews: What are some discussions that both of you have had with the cast of Black vocalists, and with each other about the research that led to this retelling?
Maqoma: Thuthuka has been involved with the work way longer as he curated an exhibition of the choir which I connected to and got interested by the thought of an African Choir touring England in a period when the colonizer was taking over our country. The discussion with the team was around issues of Blackness and representation.
Sibisi: There was never a single conversation, or one single way of having it. On a practical level I have rewritten the musical score 17 times, this may be the 18th version because my thoughts on the subject keeps evolving. The beauty of being a living composer and making ephemeral art means that the end is never quite written. When we started working on this, we afforded everyone in the room to feel a certain way but also understand that that position may change. Because there was no recording of the original 1891 choir, we spent a lot of time creating a story around the singers through research, myths, fabulations and sometimes personal sonic imaginings.
AmNews: The choir is a cast of white singers, correct?
Maqoma: The choir of white singers represents the West. The work is about the tension that exists between races and the constant pushback and closing of borders. It is through music that we unleash the characters that continue to perpetuate the ideology of divide and rule.
Sibisi: This is the macro question for this work. We thought a lot about how the casting will speak directly to differences (or similarities) between the global south and the West. Africa has been labeled the “Dark Continent” and, with the “European Enlightenment,” only having a roster of white faces, it seemed both natural and organic to represent this on stage. The chorus and the quartet [of Black performers] represent different sides of the conversation on identity politics, and the global rhetoric on difference also made for a more nuanced approach.
We cast the choir to represent the West in every city that we perform. It’s been an interesting process to go through because as much as we are making theater, we are dealing with real human emotions and stories. One thing I have been very deliberate about is creating a safe space for everybody. There has to be an understanding that we are creating this work together to speak on sometimes difficult subjects. We are all responsible to each other; I deeply believe in the politics of (positive) care.
AmNews: Thuthuka, how has it been to tour the work and what are your thoughts as it comes to a close?
Sibisi: I was just speaking to a friend about the future of things and the potential anxiety that comes with such thoughts. By the end we agreed that the only thing that matters is the present moment. I’d like to think about this work in the same vein. There are many parts to come before I can think about “Broken Chord” coming to a close, but I’m excited to see the work come to life in the Harvey. In my heart I’m still very much at the beginning of things.
AmNews: Gregory, U.S. audiences are looking forward to seeing this work, seeing you and, sadly, to saying goodbye to you. Are you looking forward to coming back to NYC and this BAM debut?
Maqoma: I have had the pleasure of performing in the U.S. and I am looking forward to this return to reconnect with audiences. I will always make work that I’m sure will make a return.
“Broken Chord” runs Oct. 9-21 at BAM/Harvey. For more info visit https://www.bam.org/broken-chord