As stores open up and everyday life begins the slow return to “normalcy,” it is expected that artists will be on the forefront of evaluating this new world. In fact, they’ve already started.
Contemporary dance artists Vincent Mantsoe and Ondiege Matthew premiered three short films exploring different perspectives during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the “Dance in a Digital Age” platform, presented by the 22nd (Digital) JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience.
Mantsoe expresses his feelings of being isolated from work and his native South African soil in his short film, “Cut,” which he made while quarantined in France. Mantsoe begins with a controlled, Eastern-inspired meditation, his arm angled up and knees bent until his waist nearly touches the floor, eyes focused forward and mind focused inward. But by the end, he is broken down into a panicked wretch. French filmmaker Frank Pizon’s artful editing condenses and bullies Mantsoe into shrinking boxes, smooshing his writhing body into a small, simple shape. Lesotho-based composer Mpho Molikeng equally punishes Mantsoe as the the cruel amplification of recorded breath sounds interrupt the echoing drone of a didgeridoo and fluttering bird calls as Mantsoe, having disemboweled himself, struggles to breathe.
Matthews also has qualms with his world being upturned in an instant due to COVID-19. His two works on the platform contrast Mantsoe’s deeply personal panic attack with a general critique of Kenyan society through an ageist and antiauthoritarian perspective.
In “Generations,” two figures stand in round pools of light. One of them, Matthew, shifts his body in a continuous morphosis, reaching toward the sky only to collapse into a liquid spiral to the floor and at once drawn up again—no doubt inspired by a repetitive youth-shaming lecture about the dangers of too much internet usage performed by the second man: spoken-word collaborator Teardrops. It’s ironic considering this film is part of a virtual platform.
“Essential Services” represents the average Kenyan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the perceived authoritarian requirements imposed by the government, set on dancers from Nairobi-based dance theatre company Dance Into Space. These masked “pedestrians” perform mundane activities with an exaggerated style, each dancer interpreting the choreography in their own way. Masks are worn in every way imaginable—thrown on the ground, slung under chins, picked up by feet and teeth, twirled through the air—and are only used correctly at the behest of a government authority, who barks orders and drills the civilians into obsequiousness.
Mantsoe and Matthew are part of an inevitable growing trend of COVID-themed art. While feeling uncomfortably on-the-nose now, these films serve as candid documentation of a globe under great duress and should be a useful reference to future generations. Most importantly, they are stories told only the way that artists’ can, as organisms dancing on the business end of the microscope.
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.
Fellow Tristan Bruns is a tap dancer from Chicago. Tristan is a professional company member of M.A.D.D. Rhythms, and was a founding member of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project's resident ensemble, BAM!. Tristan is the Director of Tapman Productions, LLC, a multi-genre dance production company and tap dance floor rental service. Besides tap dancing, Tristan has been a featured columnist at DanceAdvantage.net and currently pens the blog The Tap Book at TapmanProductions.com. Tristan holds a BA in Music from Columbia College Chicago.