The endless procession of figures in South African artist William Kentridge’s 8-screen, 14-minute animated movie, More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015), is part parade, part danse macabre. The piece was one of several that made up the exhibition “If We Ever Get to Heaven,” which also included the film installation I Am Not Me, the Horse Is Not Mine (2008), created for Kentridge’s production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera, and the charcoal-drawing animation Other Faces (2011).
More Sweetly Play the Dance, however, commanded center stage. Commissioned by the EYE Filmmuseum, it brings together many, if not all, of the aesthetic modes Kentridge has employed in his 40-year career: charcoal drawing, ink painting, shadow play, film, dance, theater, and music. Making reference to the reaper who appears in everyday lives in Hans Holbein’s 16th-century series “The Dance of Death,” as well as to the shadows that enthrall the fictional prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave (a recurring theme in Kentridge’s work), the piece also conjures a modern-day New Orleans funeral march.
Kentridge’s interest in “people on the move” dates back to 1999, when he created the projection Shadow Procession for Istanbul’s Yerebatan cistern. While Shadow Procession features generalized images of anonymous refugees fleeing hunger, violence, and illness, the men and women moving through More Sweetly Play the Dance seem to tell a more Africa-specific narrative. They begin as revelers and end as patients pushing IV drips, accompanied by caretakers dressed in hazmat suits. In between they are placard bearers, farmers proudly raising their crops into the air, or pallbearers pulling along a trolley of skeletons.
A virtuoso marriage of fine art and performance, the piece was accompanied by a lush score by the African Immanuel Assemblies Brass Band. Synthesizing the ideas and images that have preoccupied Kentridge since the beginning, it had the feel of a fully realized universe.
More Sweetly Play the Dance and other recent works are currently on view at Marian Goodman Gallery in London, until October 24.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 93.