William Kentridge: the world stage of "More Sweetly Play the Dance"
The first figure who appears is dancing. He spins around the room, across each of the screens. Next, it’s a man who proceeds solemnly, throwing leaves of paper over his head as he steps. He’s followed by a flagbearer whose banner suggests protest. Then, a 21-piece brass band. Their exuberant song swells as more groups — ebola patients, politicians, miners, clergy, skeletons — enter stage left, parade around the gallery space, then shuffle out of frame.
The nature of their procession is unclear. Is it celebratory? Religious? Protestive? Military? Political? Funerary? Perhaps it is all at once.
The artwork, by South African multimedia master William Kentridge, is an eight-channel panoramic video installation titled More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015). The work was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 2016 and is now on view in Ottawa for the very first time, in a seven-screen installation devised by Kentridge and senior curator of contemporary art Josée Drouin-Brisebois.
Drouin-Brisebois calls More Sweetly Play the Dance “one of (Kentridge’s) masterpieces.” It is life-size in scale and incorporates a number of his artistic disciplines, with filmic, live-action performance reminiscent of his theatre pieces, sculptural elements — the chairs and megaphones arrayed around the space, throwing shadows across the floor — and the stop-motion charcoal animations the artist is perhaps best known for, here, deployed as evolving stage sets.
It is an immersive, 21st-century danse macabre, the late medieval artistic tradition born of the same era as the Great Famine and the Plague, depicting Death merrily leading nobles and peasants alike in a dance toward the grave. With typists, labourers, rubbish collectors, and people carrying their belongings evoking images of the refugee crisis, Kentridge samples from the society he sees around him at present. It is a pageant of everybody who today flickers upon the world stage. And in the march ever forward, it is an appraisal of who makes up our population, their needs and how well our collective notion of “progress” has provided those.
Processions like these are something of a motif recurring throughout the artist’s body of work. Kentridge was born in Johannesburg during apartheid, when many gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited by law. (His parents, it is worth noting, were leading anti-apartheid attorneys; his father defended Nelson Mandela.) Processions were thus a show of dissent. “Processions became a way to symbolize freedom, resistance and also hope,” Drouin-Brisebois says. In the Kentridge paradigm, the act symbolizes “democracy” and “basic human liberty.”
Indeed, the first Kentridge the Gallery acquired was a 26-piece bronze sculptural installation titled Procession (1999–2000). The characters, many which turn up in other works by the artist, lumber forward, down the long wooden plank. Some appear broken by exhaustion, while others appear to dance. The work was shown recently in the exhibition William Kentridge: Procession at the Art Gallery of Alberta, alongside More Sweetly Play the Dance and a third work by Kentridge from the National Gallery of Canada collection, titled What Will Come (2007).
What Will Come is an anamorphic animation, in which the images projected onto a circular steel plate appear distorted until viewed in the reflection of a polished steel cylinder fixed at the centre of the plate. With Kentridge’s signature charcoal drawings, the film presents imagery inspired by the Abyssinian war of 1935–36, when the Italian forces infamously, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, attacked Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) using poison gas. The animation spins like a merry-go-round and is accompanied by carnival sounds interspersed with a marching song favoured by Mussolini’s fascists. Near the end of the film, a procession forms, which Kentridge describes as a “raucous band of humanity (storming) across the world.” The title of the work comes from a Ghanaian saying: What will come has already come.
This circularity, too, is a theme for Kentridge, like the march in More Sweetly Play the Dance that loops and encircles the viewer, creating an all-encompassing and continuous procession of joy, terror and all that is in between. “The idea of progress is something he’s quite critical of,” Drouin-Brisebois says. Perhaps, then, the proverbial “march” is “ever forward” not because it breaks fresh ground, extending out like an arrow, but because it makes a loop upon itself. The procession, maybe, ends where it begins, and the same dance continues across time.
William Kentridge's More Sweetly Play the Dance is on view in B106 at the National Gallery of Canada from 14 December. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.