David Kramer's Langarm - Much More Than Just a Dance FeaturedWritten by Ryan Swano
Something I have learned that helps me immerse myself into the full experience of watching a theatre production or a movie is to leave any and all expectations at the door. Somehow the very little I know of Langarm dancing, through once in a while having to play a few tracks of the genre when I DJ at weddings and private functions, sneaked into The Fugard with me.
Accompanied by the vivaciously scintillating Wiskunde Juffie aka Marley Rose who knows more than a thing or two about Ballroom Dancing, having at some point been an active participant in what is essentially also a very competitive sport, I was fortunate to be in the company of someone who could anchor me during the very lively and animated conversations that followed as we left the theatre and met up with members of the cast in the ground floor bar area.
What makes Langarm dancing distinctly different from Classic Ballroom Dancing is that it is more than just a dance form; It is a cultural phenomenon; a social experience; a competitive sport and it even defines a genre of music which by the late 1970's and 1980's had developed an unmistakable sound that people refer to as Langarm music.
Do not be mistaken... Langarm dancing, langarm social functions and ballroom dance bands that cater specifically for those functions have been around since as early as the 1930's.
Those are things I've only learned a few days after seeing the show.
"The term 'Langarm' was in widespread use by the so-called Coloured communities of District Six and the Cape at large in the late twentieth century, to refer to the then current Ballroom dances and dance bands as well as earlier Ballroom dances and dance bands from the 1930's onward," says Michael Dunseith who recently completed his Master's Degree in Musicology at Stellenbosch University.
Most of my preconceived ideas of what the Langarm musical would be like in terms of the music, the characters and visuals were blown right out of the water from the get-go.
As each new character is introduced and as their back stories each unfold, one realises that David Kramer's Langarm isn't simply about the music, the dancing or the lead couple of the white Jewish young man Jeff (Cameron Botha) and Coloured young lady Angelina (Rushney Ferguson) having to dodge arrest for dancing together.
This could very easily also be billed as "Distric Six: Langarm" for more good reasons than not.
It's 1965 with a clampdown of the Immorality Act which prohibited people of different racial classifications from being married; having sexual relations and even dancing together as well as the Population Registration Act by which government "scientists/bureaucrats" could assign people to different race classifications based on arbitrary test like the 'Pencil Test'.
Plot twists, sometimes surprising and many times hilarious, there are plenty of but integral to the whole play is the story of the widow Dinah Levin played by Kim Louis. She had invited her nephew Jeff to help her run the Canterbury Hotel in District 6 after her husband passed away. The story unfolds gradually revealing the hidden secrets of her history with Eddie Jephta (Elton Landrew) the leader of the Moonlight Serenaders Langarm Band which Jeff had hired to be the hotel's resident band.
"Oh, that voice of yours!" was the first thing I blurted out when I met Kim Louis after the show.
With her beautifully strong vocals Kim's singing is able to portray the emotions of a woman who is grief-stricken and devastated; afraid of what the future holds while trying to fight off any sense of remorse for her past life choices.
In our opinion Langarm is Dinah's story more than it is anyone else's and when you go see Langarm, even if you do not agree, you would hopefully at least understand why we came to that conclusion.
It's heart-warmingly funny that I never got to ask Kim anything about her role as Dinah as she was so very excited to tell me and everyone else around us about how much she enjoys reading our content on Bruinou.com and I ain't gonna lie... That was an awesome feeling. Thank you for your support Kim.
Playing opposite her, Elton Landrew makes the character of Eddie seem like a natural extension of his own personality.
Though Eddie is worlds apart from the real life Elton Landrew, he does Eddie so well that you'd probably expect him to have many of the very same nuances if you'd meet him in person. Fortunately I have met him before so there were not going to be any of those illusions.
Wiskunde Juffie and I ended up speaking to Elton a little while later after we had already met the other cast members and it was clear that he loved playing Eddie and that he relished the idea of doing theatre in between film and television work.
"Theatre keeps me grounded and the immediacy thereof helps to keep my acting skills sharp" he noted.
Our conversation then ventured into all sorts of topics and it felt like we were hanging out with an old friend who we ran into after not seeing each other for a very long time.
Wiskinde Juffie later remarked that in terms of meeting actors for the first time, and she has met many, he is probably one of the nicest people in the entertainment industry.
I wholeheartedly agreed. Elton is 'n regte egte mense mens wie van nature lekker kan gesels.
Kim and Elton are not in any way novices when it comes to working with David Kramer.
Remarkably Langarm reunites Kim Louis with David Kramer after nearly twenty years, when she performed in Kat and the Kings on Broadway. Elton Landrew who can be currently seen on circuit in the award-winning Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story, originally played Young Kat Diamond in the David Kramer and Taliep Petersen musical Kat and the Kings, touring Germany and Austria as well as the Tricycle Theatre in London.
Angelina's plan to enter The Swaziland Ballroom Championships starts faltering when her dance partner Lulu played by Julio Jantjies (West Side Story, Giselle) along with his family and other black families living in District Six are forced out and placed in Langa Township.
That was the first wave of forced removals from D6 a few months before it was officially declared a white area on 11th of February 1966. Lulu is understandably angry and the ordeal of having to travel multiple modes of public transport from Langa to The District and having to carry a dompass forces him to quit and Angelina is left without a partner. He "leaving her in the lurch" is very far from a voluntary act.
Rushney Ferguson, also no stranger to The Fugard Theatre stage having performed in the hit musicals King Kong and District Six: Kanala, brings an air of cheeky feistiness to the role of Angelina while at times also succumbing to the 'vulnerable girl' side of her. She asks Jeff to dance with her at The Swaziland Championships and he eventually agrees but not with a whole lot of drama in between.
Jeff, like many young whites still today, seems mostly oblivious and unaware of his white privilege but he seems to start getting it when he has to make a conscious decision to flout the law and risk being arrested along with Angelina.
Of course the reality is that if they were caught and arrested, he probably would only get a light slap on the wrist and she would most likely get a harsher punishment for 'seducing a vulnerable young white boy'.
Notwithstanding, if you can pick up on the nuances, Cameron Botha does a really good portrayal of a naive white boy who doesn't quite get how bad life is for everyone else around him and how much worse it will still become for them.
In steps Van der Byl, the villain who with an egregious and devious hilarity demonstrates how the Population Registration Act in all of its absurdity was applied by the Apartheid ‘scientists/bureaucrats’ in ways that are arbitrary, subjective and often very corrupt.
Pierre Nelson (Poppekas, GodgOdgoD) with his spot-on comedic timing thankfully does not in any way soften the inhuman horror of laws he relishes in applying nor does it in any way try to evoke any sympathy for his character.
Without giving too much away, Van der Byl typifies many of the really dark evils which Apartheid officials could get away with and not having to answer for.
With top level acting, great singing, a really solid band and superb dancing this story with all of its heart-wrenching moments and often hilarious tangents turned out to be more than I have expected.
Speaking to one of the Fugard representatives a few weeks ago about how fast the show is selling out, to me it became almost a foregone conclusion that Langarm would be extended beyond its current run and indeed an announcement has just been made that Langarm will now run up until Sunday 3 March 2019.
Wiskunde Juffie seemed quite awestruck with the dance sequences. Of course to me it all simply looked so fantastically 'kwaai gedoen' but she enthused afterwards about how the technical executions of the dance moves were of an exceptionally high standard.
Wat sal ek dan nou weet van technicalities af... but there you have it; the expert with me was verily impressed.
With most of the cast we'd been fortunate to gather around us after the show we asked who among them did not have any specific ballroom or langarm dance training before joining the cast. We thought all of them might have at some point.
It amazingly turns out that about a third of them had no previous langarm experience at all.
This certainly speaks volumes of the training they’ve been put through by choreographer Grant van Ster of Figure of 8 Dance Collective (Aunty Merle the Musical, Calling Us Home).
Something that heavily bothered me, seeing that I’ve inadvertently entered the theatre with some form of expectation, was that the music did not bear much of a resemblance to what is now considered Langarm music. I just had to find out why.
It turns out that the soundscapes created by David Kramer may in fact have been spot on as I delved into a bit of the history of Langarm culture a few days later and it became clear that the music has evolved since the 1960's.
"I have been wanting for many years to do a musical inspired by the langarm-ballroom bands from this time,” says David Kramer. “I grew up watching my parents dancing to the music of these bands, and Langarm pays homage to the likes of the Johnny Lyners Blue Moon Jazz Band and Willie’s Starlite Orchestra.”
The band in the Langarm musical under direction of The Fugard Theatre Resident Musical Director of Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (West Side Story, King Kong, and Funny Girl) perfectly executed each song and irrespective of my misconceptions about what langarm music was supposed to sound like back then, it all sounded 'period-correct' for whatever different genres they were playing.
It was also a really interesting experience to see how Kramer's song "The 11th of February" from District Six: Kanala was melded into the Langarm show. That reinforced the notion that the musical was indeed zooming in on an untold part of the District Six story and how life had been for that particular group of langarm enthusiasts.
David Kramer clearly in many ways continues to pay homage to his late writing partner, collaborator and friend Taliep Petersen and at times one can clearly hear influences of the sounds that Taliep Petersen was distinctly renowned for.
I often hear whispers and sometimes even loud outcries of people saying that Kramer is riding on Petersen's coat tails and that he continues to "milk the District Six story from every angle possible" with accusations of "cultural appropriation" flying around all the time.
No we do not own those spaces; No we do not own those resources; but it seems that every stage actor I have ever spoken to sees it as a professional milestone to work on a David Kramer production or to grace the stages of The Fugard.
Why should actors, singers, dancers, choreographers, musicians and technical staff from our communities be sitting idly at home because of a vaguely defined political idealism that Coloured stories should Only be told by Coloureds?
Well, I'm not going to sit around waiting for a reply...
Even if someone from the Coloured community might someday come along being able to brilliantly write musicals about the people of District Six or anywhere else for that matter in a way that inches close to how Taliep Petersen and David Kramer did and how Kramer is still doing, should we really be trying to snub Kramer's efforts as an “intrusion into” or “an appropriation of” Coloured culture/identity?
Was Kramer seen as doing such when Petersen was still alive? I think not.
David Kramer is a brilliant storyteller, a fantastic playwright, and his musical genius is something that no-one can deny. Not only does he compose great original songs but one can also hear his hand in the re-arrangements of classics from the period.
Perhaps his naysayers should look at it from the angle that this is Theatre. As a musical it is a fictional depiction of what is a highly plausible human story and that people attend theatre not for an accurate history lesson (Langarm actually seems to get most of that one right) or because they have to see something that fits into a narrowly defined cultural and socio-political narrative.
People attend theatre first and foremost to be entertained.
Langarm is Thoroughly Entertaining.
WATCH The Official Langarm Trailer
Now don't be that someone who sees it on DVD at a friend's house a few years from now and then you start wondering why you denied yourself the full experience.
Langarm has a recommended age advisory of no under 12s.
Langarm runs at The Fugard Theatre until 3 March 2019. Tickets ranging from R150 to R260 can be booked through The Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or through The Fugard Theatre’s website at www.thefugard.com. There is a 20% discount available for the Friends of The Fugard members. These discounted tickets can be booked through the box office.
Just a cautionary word of advice; Arrive early to make sure you get secure parking in the nearby enclosed lot or parking within line of sight of the entrance as with any venue anywhere, patrons who have parked too far and leave a little later than the rest run a risk of their cars being broken into which, though it may possibly have just been an isolated incident, indeed happened on the night.