Dancing heterotopias of COVID in JOMBA! digital platform

I received South African choreographer Vincent Mantsoe’s latest dance offering, the first part of “Cut” on day five of the 22nd Digital JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience while wearing a white dress on the South Side of Chicago. It was the morning after the Black Diaspora’s Chadwick Boseman (King T’Challa) gained his wings. Like all sacred gatherings in the height of a global pandemic, this one is sadly virtual, too. 

“Cut” illuminates the painfully familiar place in which we find ourselves: in collective isolation as a result of being severed from our humanity. Stemming from Mantsoe’s canceled performances and exacerbated by the uncertainties that come with COVID territory, Mantsoe embarked on an ambitious remote collaboration between French filmmaker Frank Pizon and a legendary Lesotho-based musician, Mpho Malekeng. In black and white film, we were given a gift of virtual intimacy. Mantsoe took us on a solitary pilgrimage energized by the earth below the vinyl floor of his slightly unfinished studio in France. For those 17 minutes, every plié was worthy of reverence. I devoured Mantsoe’s ever-expanding upper body and yearned to receive the ancestral energy he summoned from his sangoma lineage in Soweto.

Accompanied by a backdrop of high-pitched horns and traditional South African instruments, the contemporary dance sweetheart of South Africa breathed deeply, his postures reminiscent of a sage, cleansing the space as he sliced through it. The musical score successfully emphasized a surprising ending in the dance: self-inflicted wounds furthering the theme of dissection which eventually ascended to a transcendental state. Perspiration, tears, breath and the spirit that dominated the contracting frames in the video served as a testament to survival—suggesting gratitude for life and digital connection, yet still longing to be close. 

On day six of the JOMBA! digital festival, I found myself driving in silence, reflecting on the quiet djembe drumming I heard earlier viewing Kenyan choreographer/director Ondiege Matthew’s “Generations." It echoed as my cerebral soundtrack. I remembered two spotlights highlighting a regal Matthew and the spoken word poet Teardrops emerging from a smoke-filled stage. My attention relayed from Matthew’s athletic praise dance to Teardrops’ chill Swahili lyrics—occasional English captions served as translations.  The pulse resembled the opening scene of “Love Jones.” Virtual snaps felt appropriate. I held on to these bars:

“A generation that sleeps with the phone under their pillow” 

“Kizazi ambacho huenda kwa mazoezi lakini akili zao hazijafungwa”

“A generation that goes to sleep and the only thing they dream about is Facebook (What’s on your mind?)”

“Essential Services" followed “Generations” on JOMBA’s digital dance platform. Performed in Matthew’s Nairobi theatre, "Essential Services” is a moving photograph of everything COVID. From my seat in Chicago, I recognized masks and militarized states. 

Quiet. Fear. Care. Red. Lines. Waiting. Distance. Formation. 

Performers Kennedy Wafula, Lorriette Aluoch, Novaline Akoth, Kelvin Tesha, Rodgers Maithya vibe as understated break dancers, fluent with the ground as they transition between levels effortlessly. In front of a red backdrop, we witness art imitating life. Casual walks, jumps, somersaults, shimmies and kneeling yanvalous grace the violet lit stage—an ambitious five individuals negotiating space with obvious social distance. Clinging to essential gestures, they shy away from tight formations and non-stationary motion. It’s energetic, but not exhausting—a more cautionary approach than one might have seen pre-COVID. Nowadays, as Matthew expressed in the split screen post-performance conversation with Flatfoot Dance Company director Lianne Loots—he exerts less energy within rehearsal and more time leveling up his technology capacity. He wants what every performing artist wants during this time: to survive. 

Switching gears, I do a mental somersault to send an “I love you” text to my granddaddy. Matthew’s lens perfectly captures what is obviously present. This is a time to focus on the essentials.


This piece was produced as part of the inaugural See Chicago Dance Critical Writing Fellowship, in partnership with JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa), the University of the Witwatersrand  and The Ar(t)chive (Johannesburg, South Africa) and the University of East London (London, UK). Financial support is provided by the U.S. Consulate in Durban, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

For the past 15 years, fellow D’onminique Boyd has contributed to the field of dance in varying roles as a performer, educator, healer, community member and arts administrator. Most notably, she danced professionally with Kotchegna Ivory Coast Company, the Howard University Marching Band, studied with the Urban Bush Women in the Summer Leadership Institute, appeared in the movie Step Up and worked as a dance facilitator at El Puente Academy of Peace and Justice.