Review: Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero, Barbican

Plunged into darkness, I sit and wait for this performance to start. Then, the sound of soft crying fills the silence, building and building until it crescendos into a musical lament that perfectly sets the tone for this evening. 

Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero is a combination of live music and dance, performed as part of London’s international dance festival, Dance Umbrella. Gregory Maqoma is the creator, choreographer and lead dancer in this piece, having created Cion in response to the political landscape of both South Africa and the rest of the world. His foreword talks about “this show’s message of death and its dire consequences” in relation to the destruction that “greed, power and religion” cause. 

The themes of the piece are evident, but are presented in a broader context. Throughout the performance, I can’t identify a journey to follow. Instead, the show is weaved together by a combination of interpretations surrounding the themes of death and grief. Maqoma’s choreography creates beautiful imagery, but the lack of a coherent storyline stops a larger picture being painted, which would more succinctly illustrate Maqoma’s intentions. 

Similarly, Oliver Hauser’s set of various crosses, marking gravestones and hanging ominously from the ceiling is a simple yet effective way of clearly symbolising the religious element that Maqoma spoke about. Yet, little interaction with the set stops it from truly having any real poignancy.  

Dance is one of the key components within this piece and it truly is wonderful; an impressive blend of different styles, all executed with an inspiring level of energy and emotion. They say there is strength in numbers and Maqoma’s choreography really embraces the power of an ensemble. Alongside eight dancers from Vuyani Dance Theatre, Maqoma delivers powerful group routines, which are not only visually engaging, but aurally too. Alongside Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s composition, Maqoma has given the musical quartet another musician- the cast themselves. 

The music is the second key element of this show, with two musical showstoppers- Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, which is interpreted by a quartet of musicians who manage to marry Ravel’s original composition to the piece perfectly. The quartet is made up of Siphiwe Nkabinde, Sbusiso Shozi, Xolisile Bongwana and Thabang Mkhwanazi, who similarly to the dancers, display an impressive range of musical talent. Of course, ‘Bolero’s’ more famous sections get recognition from the audience by a communal intake of breath, but I believe it is the emotional resonance of the musicians that control the atmosphere within the auditorium. 

Although the lack of an overarching story leaves me piecing together the segments individually, there is no denying that Cion is a spectacular display of the beauty that comes from the marriage of great dance and music. 

Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero played the Barbican until 19 October. For more information, visit the Barbican website.