Exit/Exist is one of those titles that seems completely innocuous at first but takes on increasingly complicated dimensions—and can even suck you in, void-like—when you stare at it, and the thing it's titling, long enough. (Other titles in that category: White Teeth, Lolita, Waiting for Godot.) Is the "exit" of Exit/Exist a death, the exit from existence? Is exiting, as in dropping out, a way to assert one's individual existence? Is it hinting at some reversal of Heidegger's Dasein?
This solo dance piece—with live guitar and four stunning vocalists—by South African dancer/choreographer Gregory Maqoma, whose dance pedigree includes study with the legendary Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, rubs up against all of these implications. Exit/Exist impressionistically tells the story of his ancestor, a 19th-century Xhosa chief named Jongum-sobomvu Maqoma, who waged guerilla warfare against British military colonizers. He lost, as you might guess, and died under mysterious circumstances in the same prison that held Nelson Mandela for 18 years.
The first few minutes are mesmerizing. Maqoma stands downstage in an almost-full blackout, barefoot and in a suit, his back to us. We hear noises from Giuliano Modarelli's guitar, but it sounds like nylon strings being tickle-tortured by a cello bow, way up high on its neck. The sound is rasping but warm—a juxtaposition of moods that dominates the entire piece. Maqoma twitches his hands and undulates his arms, as if he's playing the invisible guitar like a theremin.
He makes his way upstage, the lighting brightens a little, and then we see the revelation that is Gregory Maqoma's feet. The way they socialize with the floor, throughout Exit/Exist but especially in this first passage, is otherworldly. They stomp, they caress, they brush, they tickle, and sometimes they seem to hover, as if Maqoma is a magical, fleeting medium between the earth and the air—lightning's little cousin.
The singers are also impressive, each of their voices reedy in a different register, as if one had a clarinet lodged in his throat, another a bassoon, another a tenor saxophone.
Exit/Exist, however, quickly moves to a more literal, storytelling mode with supertitles on the upstage wall, telling us snatches of detail about the elder Maqoma and his doomed fight to reestablish his family's way of life and leadership. (It's a complicated story if you want to look into it, including a father allegedly ceding land that the son wanted back and the cattle-killing prophesies that inspired many Xhosa to kill their cattle and destroy their crops while hoping that, in return, ancestral spirits would sweep the British into the ocean.)
In these later passages, Maqoma uses costume changes, piles of grain, and sand—or some fine powder—falling steadily from the ceiling to tell this story, as well as a movement vocabulary that seems to borrow from both continents, the colonizers' and the colonized's. But none of it quite matches the magic of Exit/Exist's first few moments.
Still, the power of the music and Maqoma's undulations—and his fleet feet, which cannot be underestimated—clearly moved last night's audience (which, it must be said, seemed more ethnically diverse than the audiences at most On the Boards performances). On the way out of the theater and through the lobby, I heard more than one person say: "I feel like I'm in church."