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My Body My Space: Taking the arts to where you are

By Bowen Le Roux

The annual public arts festival was recently reimagined to be enjoyed through the convenience and safety of a cellphone screen.

My Body My Space 2021 (MBMS21) is an exciting festival of performing and visual arts educational experiences. This public arts festival of more than 90 arts projects takes the arts to where the people are. This year, it became one of the first public arts festivals to be hosted entirely on Whatsapp according to Peter John Sabbagha, the managing and artistic director of The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative (FATC) which runs MBMS21.

One of the first things that caught my interest was that the festival did not allow the Covid-19 restrictions to affect it negatively. Works were kept brief and were able to be viewed by audiences across the country from the comfort of their phones. One example of such a work is GLARE, a remarkable screendance work created and directed by Smangaliso Ngwenya. In addition to being a solo performance, the work was filmed and edited by Ngwenya.

In an interview with Creative Feel, he shares that GLARE was created on a staircase which was vacant and seldomly used by other occupants of the apartment complex due to the building having a working elevator. Therefore, he was not in direct contact with many people during the construction of this dance piece. The complexities of initially not having funds to create work was resolved by FATC’s commissioning of works like GLARE for MBMS21. GLARE was ‘catalysed by the forced silence and isolation instigated by Covid-19 regulations,’ says Ngwenya.

Smangaliso Ngwenya GLARE dance

Still from GLARE by Smangaliso Ngwenya, 2021

One of the dominant aims of MBMS21 was to speak about relevant contemporary social issues. This could define many of the artworks as documentary films. Watching the show through the lens of a documentary framework made my festival experience insightful, educational, and informative. I was made aware of other people’s experiences and views on isolation and confinement. The artists involved have helped South Africa and the world to digitally confront their hardships by creating an awareness of daily struggles.

Ngwenya asserts that thematically, GLARE focuses on the enlarged influence of silence. The dance work, mentored by choreographer David April, seems to revolve around the idea of rejecting oppressors and getting rid of unwanted baggage, weight, muck, and rubbish. This is seen in his movement vocabulary, which is repetitively and predominantly the confrontation of, and breaking free from, something ominous.

Ngwenya is creative in inviting his audience into his work from the onset through looking directly into the camera.

Still from GLARE by Smangaliso Ngwenya, 2021

The performer’s hand gesture could be interpreted as welcoming or calling the viewers into the work. Through breaking the fourth wall, and including the audience in the space, the work comes across as an embodied idea of confrontation and transformation. Not only does this facilitate an awareness of the audience-performer relationship, but it also reinforces the provocative nature of GLARE.

Covid-19 has forced individuals to re-examine their lives and who they are surrounded by, on a deeper scale. ‘It has caused us to confront certain elements in our lives,’ says Ngwenya. It was during the time of no work, no school, and complete isolation that one had the time to reflect on certain things that have become burdens or ‘parasites’ feeding on us.

Ngwenya continues, saying that the process of confronting unwanted parasitical events, energies, and lived histories is hindered by our constant state of busyness and noisiness. This resonated with me, as my own workload has distracted me from the process of confronting unwanted burdens. One can identify Covid-19 as something that gifted silence to humanity – to hear the things that weigh them down, confront them, and move forward to heal.

As Ngwenya writes in his performance synopsis: ‘It is only through the stripped-down mind that one can hear a distinct pitch’. When one witnesses the negative effects of parasites in another human being, it triggers them to face their own parasites. Like GLARE, through watching the character rid himself from parasites, it inspires hope in the viewer that change is possible. Biologically speaking, parasites can be painful to remove. On a metaphorical level, the same applies.

My experience of moving through this festival was adventurous, again through my engagements with GLARE, which enhances audience engagement. GLARE requests that the audience moves while watching the work. When I walked while watching the performer walk, it felt as if I was with him on his journey. His invitation into his world allowed for greater sympathy and understanding towards the character in the video.

Compared to a live festival, a WhatsApp festival proved to be successful in a number of ways. In a theatre, one is usually subjected to seeing the work from a single view – from the seat one sits in. In filmmaking, the camera provides a three-dimensional depth of field in the way it infiltrates the performer’s space from different angles, scenes, camera movements, and more. From this framework, one can see how the audience is taken on an exploration of the environment, and how different locations are displayed during the short runtime of the works.

While it becomes apparent that dance works are produced in theatre spaces through lighting, sound, and music, the difference here lies in time. The videographic medium allows for it to be created much faster than in theatre. This means that video is not limited in establishing the environment of the performer whereas in theatre this could be limiting.

The management team at FATC responded positively to the challenges Covid-19 poses, determined to let the arts thrive during a pandemic. I have huge respect for this festival, because during surreal and uncertain times, it still managed to reach people and remind us that we are not alone.

I truly enjoyed the experience and services offered by MBMS21. Navigating through this festival was relatively relaxed, since I was able to access the festival on WhatsApp at any given time. Interviewing Sabbagha, he says the reason WhatsApp was used as a platform to display and distribute the festival works was because it was easier and inexpensive to use.

I could re-watch videos which assisted me in understanding the intended meanings of the work more clearly. I had usability at a safe place without encountering other people, considering that the Covid-19 pandemic is still on-going, and I did not encounter any digital errors while browsing through the artworks.

Sabbagha shared that some choreographers were given funds to work with professionals in the film discipline and that training in film and cinematography was offered to several emerging dancemakers to acquaint themselves with filming, editing and sound.

Ultimately, the MBMS21 festival was stunning. It is still digitally accessible via the WhatsApp line (+27 600 110 444) until the 31 May 2021. If you have not already visited the festival, follow the instructions on the poster and get plugged in – the heart of art awaits!

Poster for GLARE by Smangaliso Ngwenya, 2021

Bowen Le Roux is an artist and writer currently completing an Honours in Drama at Wits University. He is interested in new ways of engaging with the arts that allow for a more widely accessible experience for audiences. 

This review was published as part of the Creative Feel My Art Radar project which was made possible by the National Arts Council’s PESP programme.

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