Brighton Festival 2019
A brave, empowering and explosive blend of dance and spoken word that furthers the current conversations around body politics and rape culture. Sullied aims to deconstruct the social conditioning around the female body and lifts the lid on the misogynistic effects that religious and patriarchal ideologies have on society.
It is easy to see why this impressive production won the Gold Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival South Africa 2018. Sullied, as the name implies seeks to highlight the concept of purity and impurity of the female body. Using the combined power of dance and spoken word, choreographer and performer Kristi-Leigh Gresse takes on religion, body politics, racism, gender, sexuality, rape culture and toxic masculinity. This is not light entertainment and with her fellow performers, Sandile Mkhize and Fezeka Shandu, a powerful piece that challenges the hypocrisy of a world where abuse, suffering and pain is accepted, normalised and tolerated is stunningly portrayed.
Gresse, gives the audience no time to settle into their seats before the piece commences. From the minute we enter the performance space we are faced with the unexpected sight of her being bathed in a stainless steel tub by a young black woman, Shandu, her head wrapped in a black cloth, she wears a black dress and has layers of African National Congress cloth wraps swathed around her bust. Steam rises as she gently rinses Gresse’s limp body clean with maternal care. In contrast, an enthusiastic man, Mkhize, in an overcoat and a white skirt, welcomes us with choruses of ‘Hallelujah!’, greets us. To the left, stands a tall headless mannequin on which the man’s overcoat is soon hung. In front there is a chair with a Bible placed under it draped with more fabric in the SiSwati and other African cultures traditional designs.
When Gresse finally emerges fully naked, clean but not unsullied from the tub, Shandu rushes to cover her with one of her many wraps, chastising her nakedness whilst drying and dressing her as if she were a child. Gresse dances in mute compliance, only resisting when bright red lipstick is forcefully applied. Dressed just in a flesh-toned bra and knickers and a short, white dressing gown, the incongruity of the red mouth is startling and quite a vivid metaphor for the inherent double standards placed on women and so often facilitated by women. As she breaks free, her ‘carer’ sits on the chair and begins to tidy up, unfolding and refolding the cloths whipping the fabric in time with Gresse’s dance and scolding under her breath. All the while Mkhize observes hungrily from the back as he paces like a caged animal. He starts to mirror her movements as if spellbound by her form.
Shandu now becomes storyteller and while Gresse and Mkhize’s bodies orbit endlessly around the stage, her hand thumps the leather Bible like an African drum as she recites a Khwezi Becker poem showing her disappointment at a woman for letting herself get into these kinds of situation. Brilliantly illustrating how often we see both a lack of ‘sisterhood’ and the divisive use of the Holy Scriptures to justify abuse and resulting in victim blaming.
The choreography reflects beautifully the emotional conflict of women as they pursue of ownership of their body. The relationship between the two dancers displays first, mutual trust and desire, which is then violently broken by acts of toxic masculinity. The mesmerising repetitive cycle of harsh words and evocative dance builds with intensity throughout the piece. Despite the challenging topics, watching Gresse and Mkhize work together is sublime, they are both technically impeccable and dynamically visceral. Shandu’s impassioned vocal delivery matches perfectly and pushes the narrative to another level.
The Spire is a canny choice which, given the religious connotations of the piece, creates an ideal ecclesiastical environment in which to immerse the audience. Nkosingiphile Dlamini’s lighting is also highly effective in spotlighting the action on the relatively small performance space compared to the cathedral like proportions of the beautiful grade II listed St Mark’s Chapel in which it is placed.
The greater message behind Sullied is to bring awareness to the pressures that women face on a daily basis and their desire to have their bodies respected and in this, the production entirely succeeds. Gresse uses her South African heritage and experiences to inform the visual motifs of the show but it is clearly a well-observed interrogation of the kind of cultural conditioning present in many parts of the world and is particularly relevant in the current climate. I recommend this production wholeheartedly and share Gresse’s hope that through this kind of honest portrayal we can bring about a dialogue and find ways to create a more just and equal society globally.