Notes on the Work
One of the paradoxes of human creativity, notes composer David Bruce, is “the fact that life-enriching art has been produced, even inspired, by conditions of tragedy, brutality, and oppression.” Gumboot dancing stands as an example of this paradox. Born in the mines of South Africa during the years of Apartheid, gumboot dancing was created by black prisoners chained together while working in that country’s gold mines. When the mines flooded, as they often did, the miners were forced to keep working in Wellington boots, since the mine owners found it cheaper to supply boots than to drain the mines. By slapping their boots and chains in particular ways, miners developed a form of communication to circumvent the ban on speaking frequently imposed in the mines. Out of this came a form of dance, named after the Wellingtons, which the miners called gumboots.
Today, gumboot dancing is widely practiced in the townships of South Africa, and dancers regularly perform it around the tourist sites of Capetown, Johannesburg, among other places. Remarkably, considering its origin, gumboot dancing is generally lively, energetic, and highly rhythmic. Paul Simon, in his hugely successful African-inspired album Graceland, paid tribute to the spirit of this dancing in an up-tempo song called “Gumboot.”
Gumboot dancing also inspired Gumboots, a new piece by David Bruce. Winner of the Lili Boulanger Memorial Prize, this composer enjoys a growing reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. Known particularly for his vocal music, Mr. Bruce has created an unusual and critically acclaimed series of chamber operas, and his song cycle Piosenki, commissioned by Carnegie Hall for Dawn Upshaw, proved successful from its first performance in April 2007. Gumboots, composed for Todd Palmer and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, is the result of a second Carnegie Hall commission.
The composer comments on the piece as follows:
Gumboots is in two parts of roughly equal length. The first is tender and slow moving, at times yearning, at times seemingly expressing a kind of tranquility and inner peace. The second part is a complete contrast, consisting of six ever-more-lively “gumboot dances,” often joyful and always vital. Although there are some African music influences in the work, I don’t see the piece as being specifically “about” the gumboot dancers. If anything, it could be seen as an abstract celebration of the rejuvenating power of dance, moving as it does from introspection to celebration.