William Kentridge’s elaborate danse macabre.
Dance has always been aware of death: it lingers just off to the side of the stage, waiting for the performance to end. William Dunbar’s 1508 poem “Lament for the Makers” describes two “state[s] of man”: “Now dansand mirry, now like to die.” In other words, you’re either dancing or dead. Death in the poem is personified as a sort of efficient businessman, doing his best to knock people out of the dance. The more familiar character of Death—the cloaked, scythe-bearing skeleton who fulfills his duties like an overworked godly employee—was around even before Dunbar, an invention of the medieval period, which remains the most productive time in human history for imagining deathly personifications. People then seemed less resistant to death than they are now, perhaps because the threat was omnipresent: one could die from the plague, childbirth, decapitation, infection, or even of indigestion, as Martin of Aragon did at a feast in 1410.
The danse macabre, or death dance, another medieval invention, was an allegorical way of resisting as well as respecting the force of death. It comprises a chain of dancers, some living and others skeletons, moving together toward a grave—death being the equalizing force that brings all of us together, finally. Some more modern dances, like the tarantella, present themselves as assertions of survival, proving that one is still alive despite mortal injury. When we dance, the thinking goes, we are at the most alive we can be. Likewise, when we stop dancing, we die.
At Marian Goodman’s London gallery, the South African artist William Kentridge has his first show in Britain in fifteen years, “More Sweetly Play the Dance.” The title piece, which occupies the gallery’s entire second floor, is a multiscreen caravan procession from floor to ceiling, forty meters in length. It encircles the viewer, depicting a dancing column of animated drawings and videos of dancers enacting various forms of the danse macabre. There are sickly figures supported by IV drips; priests moving almost jauntily, with funeral flowers; columns of people marching and dragging sacks, pulling forward dead bodies. The whole procession is led by a brass band. The background is derived from world maps, pages of text from Kentridge’s notebooks, and Chinese characters. The final figure in the cortège is the South African dancer Dada Masilo: she’s up on pointe shoes, dancing classical ballet around a rifle and wearing a vaguely African military uniform. It’s a deviation from Masilo’s distinctive style, which fuses classical ballet to African dance: she keeps her heels on the ground and arches her lower back, movements that are opposite to those in classical European ballet.
Meanwhile, Kentridge’s procession evokes real events even as it dodges specifics—typical of the artist, whose politics are, as described by Andrew Solomon in 2014, “associative rather than declarative.” The wrapped African bodies being dragged along summon images of Ebola victims and, in turn, of the black plague, the medieval affliction that continues to claim African lives. The people walking in processions carrying their worlds with them on their shoulders, all walking in the same direction, are like news images from Turkey or Hungary. After minutes of watching, the dancing becomes the least absurdity in the image. In the world of More Sweetly, dance is a way of living through violence and a way of dying by it.
Dance, being mostly gesture, requires complete precision and control over the body—but it also needs abandonment, recklessness, and energy. In the room below the projection of More Sweetly Play the Dance is a series of large-scale paintings that use text painted on Chinese-dictionary paper. Painted on it are the imperatives: “Be not so courteous,” “be not so refined,” “be not so kind,” “be not so restrained,” “be not so temperate,” “be not so gentle.” Those words, adapted from exhortations from the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution to its citizens, could also be the instructions to a danse macabre.
Across the room, another reads: “Fait divers: lundi 20 mars 1871. Mme Pauline Viardot n’est pas morte, elle est à Londres, elle n’a pas 54 ans, mais 50.” (“Monday, March 20, 1871. Pauline Viardot isn’t dead, she’s in London, she isn’t fifty-four, but fifty.”)
The fait divers were outré three-line unsigned news items printed in the evening papers of nineteenth-century France; they’re now best remembered for Felix Fénéon’s authorship. Suggestive and combustive, they allude to, rather than contain, great amounts of information and reject the idea of objective reporting. Here’s one from the Fénéon collection: “In the military zone, in the course of a duel over scrawny Adeline, basket-weaver Capello stabbed bear-baiter Monari in the abdomen.”
Kentridge’s notice also contains a sly reference to the ways in which the state can elide the lives of its citizens—the centralization of modern systems like databases, birth certificates, et cetera mean that the information that defines our lives is held by other powers. This is part of a theme: Kentridge uses, throughout the show, the invention of two separately repressive and deadly states, the Paris Commune and the Chinese revolution; the years 1871 and 1949 are mixed together. A second film, called Notes Towards a Model Opera, shows Dada Masilo again, this time wearing a uniform of the cultural revolution and enacting Madame Mao’s “revolutionary ballets,” created during the 1960s and seventies, in which young Chinese were taught to mix army fighting and dance so that they might be capable of such things as “throwing a hand grenade en pointe.”
Kentridge’s dictionary-paper paintings mimic the style of the large hand-drawn newspapers used in public places during the Cultural Revolution, just like the journelle officielle of the communards. These are interspersed with paintings of flowers and vegetables—meant to recall the dangerous politics of such images in China during the Great Famine. The famine was caused in part by Mao’s campaign to kill all sparrows: peasants would bang pots and pans together day and night, preventing the birds from sleeping and eventually causing them to drop from exhaustion.
Those clanging pots—you hear it in the two films, too—were accompanied by dancing: dancing to bring death, to invite it, to put it to work. It was a project in which lines of people paced and marched across acres of ruined crops, starving and dancing. They were sublimating the physical person, Kentridge shows us, not to survive so much as to assert themselves: just to make a living gesture.
Anna Heyward is a writer and reporter in New York.