‘How do I describe 20 years of performances in 50 minutes?’
Brett Bailey, the new Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival and Creative Director of Third World Bunfight, spent well over 50 minutes on this task on Sunday. The presentation was a dense, deep unpacking of his wide body of work that was a pleasure to watch.
Over the last 20 years Brett Bailey produced over a dozen performances, including IpiZombi, MacBeth, Big Dada, House of the Holy Afro and Terminal. These productions have taken the form of theatre productions, moving installations, operas, site-specific performances and house music shows.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first Third World Bunfight show, Zombie, at the National Arts Festival.
‘Generally, with the exception of an opera like MacBeth, I allowed the form to emerge from the material that I am working with. So it could emerge into a ritual drama, or a performance installation or some kind of grotesque cabaret like Big Dada. I am a little bit of a one trick pony; I think I talk about the same stuff a lot.’
‘My trickery lies in genre-hopping. I am continuously hopping between different genres. So people think they are seeing a different work, but it’s really the same thing.’
While Bailey’s work may exhibit a consistency in its themes, this consistency is counteracted by the immense scope of his stylistic variations.
Bailey’s early work, the likes of Zombie, Ipi Zombie and The Prophet, looked like Pan-African protest theatre. As artistic references Bailey mentions Ndebele architecture, West African voodoo, the mythological figurines of Johannes Segogela and the horned figures of Jane Alexander‘s Butcher Boys.
Then, in 2001, Bailey was commissioned to stage an opera. After reading though a collection of operas with ‘increasingly ludicrous plotlines’, Bailey decided on MacBeth. ‘I think it was a little bit over exotified, the first one, but I think slowly I’ve gotten towards what I wanted to make.’
Bailey’s work exploded with pop energy in House of the Holy Afro; a nightclub show Bailey produced for the Sharp Sharp festival in Bern, 2004. ‘Some really pop songs, some songs that were recorded in Sangoma caves… in the foothills of Lesotho, township gospel… and put it to house beats and made this crazy show that was really just about pop and the sort of syncretism of this drag queen… and crazy fashion mixing with religion, mixing with the sacred. High energy pop.’
Of Medeia (2012), Bailey says ‘I think I was influenced by House of the Holy Afro, so it was more pop. I don’t think it was so successful, but it did help me to get back on the stage again… I wasn’t proud of the production really, I felt like it kind of lacked soul, somehow. I got distracted.’
With Terminal and Exhibit A and B Bailey’s work turned towards moving installations and, to critics, began flirting with exhibitionism. The static realism of these performances was a big shift from the theatricality consistent in Bailey’s work, even throughout his transformative fusions of opera and pop with African story-telling.
Style and influences
Bailey’s grandmother was a spirit medium. It was because of this early influence that Bailey believes his productions focus on ‘dreams, as well as archetypes, illumination, the sacred’. These elements were developed by his experiences travelling in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.
Bailey identified an ‘Alice in Wonderland mentality’ in his work; Where an outsider steps into a strange world. In Imumbo Jumbo, Chief Kaleka steps into the foreign European city of London. In Big Dada, Idi Amin moves from being a general in the army to running ‘this crazy country.’ Safari looks at Carl Gustaph Jung’s journey into Uganda. Medeia is taken by Jason to Corinth. Orfeus arrives in Athens from Thrace and must go to the underworld. MacBeth and Lady MacBeth step into a new realm of power and try, unsuccessfully, to navigate this strange terrain.
Bailey describes balancing two forces in his work. The first is the Dionysian, represented by a ‘lack of order, chaos, riotous behaviour… that was influenced largely by… Sangoma rituals’. This energy and focus was evident in Zombie, Ipi Zombi, Mama Jama, The Prophet and House of the Holy Afro.
The second is what Bailey describes as ‘the Napoleonic, which is must more ordered, much more cool, and I think the main influence there came from… a month spent in Bali in 2005 or 2006. It had a very clean, cool aesthetic.’ This Napoleonic force dominated in Terminal, Orfeus, MacBeth, Exhibits A and B and Sanctuary.
‘And then there’s this… kitsch, pop, camp stuff that seems to invade my work at all times beyond my control. That really was celebrated in House of the Holy Afro which was really just a piece of pop.’
In 1994, after spending time in Buddhist ashrams in India, Bailey felt a desire to begin exploring African spirituality as a source of inspiration for his theatre. For Zombie, Bailey spent several months living with Sangoma’s in rural Pondoland. In 2005 he returned from Haiti after exploring the aesthetic and spiritual world of Haitian voodoo. These rituals were dominated by women, which informed the chorus of women, the guides, in Medeia. The set and design for Orfeus was largely inspired by Bailey’s time in Bali, where Bailey described ‘spirituality pervades life and moves into an aesthetic.’
In regards to his place as a white South African living during Apartheid and during the transition into democracy, Bailey describes his desire to ‘understand what had been kept from me by the barbed wires fences of Apartheid.’
‘I also wanted to make theatre that captured this extraordinary moment in South Africa, the rainbow moment. I wanted to make work that responded to that. Structures were in a state of flux, and I wanted to make a kind of theatre that would endure.’
When asked why he works with theatre and not in other forms of visual art, Bailey responded with;
‘Working with people gives (the work) a lot of resonance. It’s alive and vivid. I’m tempted sometimes to go to a studio and just make stuff but there’s no movement in it, and no life. For me a painting is like a dead residue of something, of the inspiration, but while it’s in performance it’s constantly alive.’
Bailey currently has another iteration of MacBeth touring the country, set in the wars in the east of the DRC and told by refugees, dramatized using the story of MacBeth.
Bailey has another work premiering next year entitled Sanctuary. The play depicts the refugee crises in Europe using a labyrinth-style series of installations inside a fortress-like structure of security fences.
‘Again, I really am a one trick pony.’