The lights dimmed momentarily, and then the performance began. From the entranceway, a figure—artist Paul Maheke—emerged backwards on their hands and knees. They slid their pointed snakeskin boots across the wood floor, dragging their arms with them. The music, by acclaimed electronic musician and artist Nkisi, kept a steadily pulsating beat that vibrated throughout the room. Maheke was difficult to see all at once as the light flickered and moved through the fog created by a smoke machine; we had to crane our necks as Maheke slid through spotlight and shadow.
For the last performance of the ASSEMBLE series this year, ‘Sensà’ was presented at Volksbühne’s Grüner Salon at the end of September. The piece was a tight collaboration between Ariel Efraim Ashbel, who controlled the lights, Nkisi, the sound artist, and Paul Maheke, who conceived of the work and brought the individual artists and collaborators together, and Firpal Jawanda who designed the outfit and Curtly Thomas who styled it. ‘Sensà’ is a Bantu word that translates as “coming to visibility, to appear, to reveal itself, to make sense.” This conception, of revealing those identities from the margins—outside of the hegemonic, normative spotlight—was palpable in the dim haze of Volksbühne. When considering that the aims of ASSEMBLE are, in part, to “suggest forms of public gatherings, resistance, or identities; and consider possibilities of action in public, private, and institutional spaces”, the performance raised pressing questions about accessibility, in terms of who has the right to see and to be seen in cultural institutions.
The artists destabilized the idea of a central spotlight, as Maheke glided in and out of peripheral vision, blinking lights revealing their presence on and off as they two-stepped across the floor, with sweeping arm movements and rhythmic steps. The music resounded throughout the space, a deep and vibrating pulse that was so intertwined with Maheke’s movement that it was impossible to distinguish which came first.
When Maheke stood, and when they happened to be under the light, their full costume was made visible: a complex jumble of materials, both recognizable and unfamiliar. Torn floral lace, like a ripped blouse, was layered overtop basketball shorts and, finally, at the base, spandex printed with bones and musculature peeked out from underneath. The torn fabric of the pseudo-blouse took on the form of a flamenco costume when juxtaposed with their movements, wrists and elbows raised: an unpredictable Spanish dance.
The sheer effort of the piece was palpable. You could hear them breathe harder as they moved faster and faster, and you felt it tight in your chest along with Nkisi’s steady bass, a ragged catch in your throat. There was little space to move back, as they whirled closer and closer to our bodies, their own body a dervish. Perspiration rolled down their exposed back and, as they sat on the stage steps, the lights bright behind them, a bead of sweat dripped off their silhouetted nose, the music pulsating.
Maheke’s dancing was continuously reactive, organically in dialogue with the audience, the music and the lights. It was this combination and seamless collaboration that made the work so powerful. It was, purposefully, as the title suggests, difficult to see Maheke sometimes: the shadows and fog enveloped their form or they were just slightly out of view, or the lights did not show them but instead concealed them. Yet, throughout, the music assured us that they were still there, still dancing.