Dance film review: Short dance film created by Cape Town City Ballet and Norval Foundation, inspired by William Kentridge’s sculpture exhibition, Why Should I Hesitate: Sculpture, at The Norval Foundation, Cape Town

Duration: 11 minutes

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Tickets: R50- valid for 48 hours from purchase

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown in South Africa, on March 26, 2020, Cape Town City Ballet (CTCB) and The Norval Foundation were temporarily closed. Under level 3 regulations, when it was possible for film crews to operate, CTCB collaborated with The Norval and recorded a short film for digital streaming. The film was inspired by William Kentridge’s Why Should I Hesitate: Sculpture exhibition which was on at the Norval.The exhibition is no longer on at the Norval. It is over but you can experience the exhibition, through the gaze of the CTCB dancers who interact with Kentridge’s work.

Dancers from CTCB’s Choreolab programme selected pieces from the exhibition. The Choreolab programme was introduced in 2019 “as a platform to incubate, nurture and invest in aspiring South African choreographers from within the Company.” Dancers taking part on this year’s programme are Tamlyn Higgins, Mbulelo Jonas, Kristin Wilson, Kholekile Biyongo, Conrad Nusser, Gabriella Ghiaroni, Gabrielle Fairhead, Mia Labuschagne and Nicolas Laubscher.

Under lockdown level 2, posting this September 15, 2020, the Norval Foundation is open – with strict Covid-19 compliance – restriction of the number of visitors, masks and sanitiser. Artscape, the home base of CTCB, is not yet open for public performance. Beyond being footage of a time when it was not possible to be in the Norval, the film exits in its own right, as a stand- alone art/dance film and evokes a potent sense of the dancers feeling their way in the Norval, exploring the exhibition.

I loved the film- on many levels – and I will tell you why.

Watching the film in lockdown 3, I was aware of the hesitation on their faces and the tension in their bodies as they slithered through the spaces. I was with them in their hesitation. We were locked in for so long and here they were emerging into the light filed Norval galleries.

Kentridge sets up his exhibitions as installations – rather than as per the traditional gallery/museum set-up of paintings/drawings on a wall or sculptures on plinths. I did not see this exhibition but I saw his recent show at the ZeitzMocca. It was interactive. There were spaces to sit and watch films, rooms to enter, moving bits on installations. His work is about dialoguing between artist and viewer. I think that this film is very much in synch with the way he sets up his exhibitions.

I like the way the Norval  is used as landscape, medium. The dancer’s bodies become intertwined with the Kentridge body of work- an extension of his body of work in the Norval. His exhibitions are not static. He sets up installations with moving bits. He works with animation and animating static surfaces- one dimensional image morphs into moving image and film. A squiggle transmutes into a figure and then dissolves into a landscape. In the film, the  movement of the dance figures  riff off the quirky and theatrical aspect that Kentridge brings into his work and into his exhibitions. Transition  – idea, image – physically and emotionally – is core to Kentridge’s work and that comes across for me in the CTCB/Norval film – genesis from solid state to movement – to sound –to gesture.

The inside/outside sense of the Norval is conveyed in the film. At times it feels like this performance is happening outside and other times – inside. There is a sense of the dancers yearning to materialise somehow; through the glass walls, to break out of being locked in. I enjoy the way the dancers explore the gallery and the surprise and fun that is part of the journey- through and over the ampersand sculpture. I also want to do that – play with the &.

The natural light heightens the gestures and expressions of the artists. After months of not performing, here they are doing their first performance for digital streaming. Yes, there was no audience in attendance. In level 3, it was the crew and creative team who were present. However, the dancers knew that this was being filmed for the public. This was not a rehearsal in a studio. The film is not only an intersection between art, dance and film but it marks, that significant moment when CTCB could go in and film in The Norval. Much of lockdown has become a blur and I think that this film conjures up a sense of joy and hope that we sensed in level 3, when there were openings for digital streaming of performances – albeit without a physically present audience – but with a virtually present audience- ready to watch via digital streaming. It is also a significant film, because it was created under lockdown by the company, in response to the Kentridge exhibition. It was not existing archival footage which was edited as a lockdown film. We will gaze back at the context – the lockdown under the pandemic- when we view this film. We will probably shake our heads and say – wow – imagine – we lived through that. Everything was closed and these dancers emerged into the gallery and that signified that we would also be able to experience the Norval again- physically- and also walk through the light filled galleries in beautiful Cape Town.

The dancers/dance add another layer to the exhibition – Why Should I Hesitate: Sculpture. At the start, the dancers are cautious and then they become reflective- gazing at the works – inviting our gaze. Then they are physically interacting with some of the works and that shifts our gaze again. I think that this film could have easily become a promotional film for Norval and the ballet company. “Oh look, we cannot perform to audiences so look, here we are in the magnificent light filled Norval which is the space for a Kentridge exhibition.’

The result is very different. It is a film which resonates now as a lockdown film – with the dancers exploring the possibilities of performing again in a public space – albeit one which was still closed to the public in June – when filming took place. Their bodies, gestures, faces are expressive of a sense being able to dance – and having the permission to not hesitate. The use of space/art is fully integrated so it comes across as an immersive experience – rather than a piece filmed in a gallery which happens to have an exhibition by one of SA’s greatest contemporary artists.

The dance/dancers/music/movement becomes part of a conversation between Norval and the exhibition/installation. I think that for those that have not been to The Norval, they will want to go after seeing this film. For those unfamiliar with Kentridge, they will want to explore his work. And for those who haven’t attended a CTCB performance, they will hunger for the next staging.

Film credits

✔ Directed – Kirsten Isenberg and Nathalie Vijver

✔ Score composed -Peter Johnson

✔ Cinematography – Pascale Neuschafer

✔ Producer – Francois Schreuder, Frames and Mortar 

✔ Editor -Hanno de Vos

Photo credit: Mandla Mokoena. Photo by Nardus Engelbrecht