Part One - January, 2004
Wednesday - I start each morning looking out of the
large hotel room picture window at the expanse of Table Mountain, looming
over Cape Town. It's an unavoidable presence, monumental and massive and
utterly imposing. I tip my cup of coffee at it, and a billion years of
granite pays no attention whatsoever.
We're making great strides in our work, and as a break and reward we take
the afternoon off for a trip to Cape Point. Here, for the first time, I
have the clear, unavoidable sense of being in a different country. On the
drive there we stop at a beach abutting the highway, and see a spouting
whale, fifty meters off shore. Baboons hurriedly cross the road just after
we pass, a sight as commonplace here as cats are back home.
At the Cape of Good Hope a
group of Japanese tourists is taking pictures of the baboons. One of them
looks curiously at a photographer, then ambles closer. The tourist
nervously backs off, and suddenly the baboon grabs his backpack with all
the camera equipment inside, and races off for the nearby cliff. A small
mob of tourists chases after the creature, and begins to climb after it.
The baboon waits patiently until they've almost reached his perch, and
then gracefully lopes to a slightly higher place. It's some time before a
new strategy is developed. The baboon is tantalized back down with the
lure of food, and a mutual exchange is made. It has the tension of spy
exchange at a hostile border crossing, but both parties walk (or amble)
Walking on the beach I see
ostriches pecking at the vegetation nearby. A strange sense of
displacement; I've never been this close to them before without a fence
between us. I'm told that nearby in these placid waters is the greatest
concentration of Great White Sharks in the world, and any desire I have to
swim in the inviting waters suddenly dissipates.
John and I drive to Brent
and Laurence's, looking in vain along the coast for penguins. Penguins?
Yes, there are penguins in South Africa, but none that we see on the
beaches we pass. Supper is punctuated by very good wine and long
discussions about circus and teaching. The school has changed over the
years from its beginnings as a modest training facility. At some point in
its development, the older students wanted to know what was next, how they
could utilize their growing performance skills. This led by increments to
their current performing and touring schedule, and impressive range of
The South Africans say,
"Cape Town is not South Africa." The trainers from other
countries say, "South Africa is not Africa." They all want me to
know that this is a very untypical experience of the continent. Indeed, I
have to look carefully for the details that inform me that I'm in another
country. Cape Town is very familiar and westernized, very like so many
Canadian and American cities I've been to.
- Our luggage has finally arrived and been delivered to Zip Zap, but the
Canadian wine that John brought for Brent (a serious wine aficionado) has
vanished. The lock on my suitcase is broken, however nothing is missing.
This isn't surprising; the things that are valuable to me would generally
perplex and be ignored by thieves. What are they going to do with juggling
clubs, with a diablo and devil sticks? Wine, on the other hand…
At lunch two of the students show us the very energetic and acrobatic new
clown piece they're working on. It centers on a very clever use of a
specially adapted picnic table, which allows them to slide along it, just
missing each other with impressive precision and timing at seemingly
In the evening I have dinner at the Mesopotamia restaurant. Ironically,
it's here, surrounded by oriental rugs, patrons smoking hookahs, and
mid-eastern cuisine, that I have, for the second time, the sensation of
being in a different country and culture. I'm here with one of the Zip
Zappers, and we're sitting on cushions at the low tables, when suddenly
the music pumps up, and a veiled belly dancer enters, gyrating in a swirl
of skirts. With her eyes and gestures she invites the patrons to join her.
Never one to deny a new experience, I get up and dance with her, doing
what I think is a passable imitation of her undulating motions to the
amusement of the other patrons.
John leads a last-day-of-training ritual with a long circular rope.
Together we lean back into it, each of us held up by a collective
balancing act. Then, one by one, each person stands in the middle, while
the other trainers in turn says one positive, expressive word about that
person. It's moving to hear how others perceive our contribution to the
intensive work, and know we've all taken steps into unknown territory
final gesture, we re-open the box that had been sealed on the first day,
and encourage people to take out whatever they'd deposited on that first
day. The trainers have a lot of fun as they pull out anxieties that have
shrunk to miniscule size in the past five days, or are unable to locate
their initial contribution at all.
Our weeks end celebration takes place at the magnificent Spier Vineyard.
This is vineyard, restaurant and breathtaking experience. Face painters
who put dotted markings on all the guests greet us, and then we enter
the main dining hall. This is a huge open-air tent with an enormous
buffet filled with the familiar, the unfamiliar, and the very unfamiliar
(i.e. the sweet dessert known as "cooked sister"). We sit at
long tables, and blankets draped over the back of each chair keep us
warm in the cool night air. Musicians and accapella singers roam about
the grounds; other diners are seated in the numerous tree houses reached
by flights of stairs. Conversations spring up around the plentiful
tended fires scattered throughout the grounds. Lights are festooned in
branches, and couches are conveniently places outside among the paths
inlaid with complex mosaics. We dance until the early hours, and leave
too early. In all
this cornucopia of food, music, camaraderie, dancing and wine, there is
a conspicuous absence of penguins.
- I'm at the local market first thing in the morning, even as the stalls
are being set up. I barter for masks and tin animals cleverly constructed
out of discarded pop cans, while John's on the hunt for fabric. Bartering
is a slow process of casual conversation and feigned disinterest, of
countering an artificially inflated price with a ludicrously low one, of
tempering stubbornness with openness to a revised offer, of assessing each
other's desires and bargaining skills.
In the afternoon we return to
Zip Zap for a special presentation. First, Arnauld and one of the
students, Neville, demonstrate a continuum of trampoline techniques for
the audience of trainers, students and guests, going from the most basic
moves to very advanced in a concise 15 minutes.
Then the students show us numbers they're rehearsing for a new
performance. The opening begins with a collective dance number, a half
circle of choreographed movement, which then freezes while individuals
perform signature dance and acrobatic displays. The emphasis throughout is
on group numbers, on a combination of dance and circus
|Here is Tansy (all of 15 years old) on the unicycle,
skipping rope while jumping up stairs, then riding down the stairs
as if they were merely a modest incline. Then comes a stable trapeze
number with percussive music that lends itself to the quick staccato
movements. Next is Charles, smoothly manipulating a flaming staff to South
American pan-pipe music, then, a contortionist with the feral movements of
a tiger. We can see that this is the kind of image and approach that could
eventually inform and transform this number from a physically challenging
act to one that would magnetize the audience.
t's fascinating to see
these works in transition, somewhere between talented student work and
polished, professional presentation. The show continues with four people
passing fire-torches while balancing on the shoulders of four others. Also
noteworthy is a very good 16 year old juggler who performs an impressive 7
balls, followed by 5 clubs.
In the afternoon David, our guide, John and I do some tourist things
before we fly out. We take the revolving cable car to the top of Table
Rock, with its magnificent view of Cape Town and the Atlantic. In Nova
Scotia, I live on the other side of that ocean, and there's some heated
discussion about whether Canadians swim in their Atlantic, or South
Africans swim in ours, but in the interest of international relations, we
decide to share it.
As we lunch, birds hop about, alert for the smallest crumb. A sign nearby
states, "Do not feed the birds or dosse." Dosse? Is that a noun
or a verb? Maybe I'm dosseing right now, and unknowingly contravening
local law! Later, David points out several of them, weird little
marmot-like creatures standing utterly still on nearby boulders.
We also briefly visit the Casino, but this is a place that could and does
exist everywhere, and the glut of people is the last thing I need before
the long flight back. On our way to the airport, we stop by a beach
replete with wind surfers. Cool sand squelches through my toes and a
postcard perfect sun sets behind a clouded Table Mountain. And there,
finally, we see…penguins! They're at a great distance in the darkening
ocean at twilight, mere specks on a remote rock, and it takes an act of
the imagination and faith to believe they're not just part of the rock
themselves, but I'm content to see them in any form on this last night in
to Journal Index