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Artist William Kentridge on stage in South Africa

South African artist William Kentridge is perhaps best known for his charcoal drawings and videos in which those drawings seem to dance.
/ Source: The Associated Press

South African artist William Kentridge is perhaps best known for his charcoal drawings and videos in which those drawings seem to dance.

But he works in a wide variety of media — putting his drawings on stage amid a polyphony of keyboards and brass curious instruments salvaged from antique shops, and text from Shakespeare to Gogol. Dancers, puppets and singers thread their way through the maelstrom of his pieces.

Over the past month, hometown audiences have had a chance to immerse themselves in the collages of image, sound and movement that have made Kentridge a major international figure.

"Refuse the Hour," a two-week festival of his work at Johannesburg's renowned Market Theatre, culminates this weekend with "Dancing with Dada," a new piece of dance, spoken word, live music and video.

Kentridge, 56, is so prolific it sometimes seems he is everywhere: directing opera in New York, mounting a mixed-media retrospective in Paris, projecting a video onto a curtain at Venice's main opera house.

In an interview Saturday in the studio behind his hilltop Johannesburg home, Kentridge said that his charcoals remain central even as his work has branched out in many directions.

Drawing is "a way of thinking aloud," he says.

Kentridge, though, calls himself a bad drawer — but says that's an advantage because it forces him to use his imagination to fill in the gaps between what he sees and what he draws.

The ideas he turns into international projects start in his Johannesburg studio, so the two-week festival here has been a sort of coming home.

The series grew from requests to give a local public performance of "I am not me, the horse is not mine." The quirky lecture has been seen around the world, but in Johannesburg it's only been viewed only by friends in his studio. Soon, other work was added to the program.

The Johannesburg festival culminates in "Dancing with Dada," a piece featuring dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo. Kentridge recruited the 26-year-old after seeing a solo performance she choreographed two years ago.

Kentridge paces the stage for much of the piece, a Prospero in dark pants and white shirt, shadowed by Masilo. Masilo based dance movements on Kentridge's walk and gestures, transforming them into something rich, strange and graceful.

On one level, the piece is named for its choreographer. On another level, the title references the whimsy and sarcasm of Dada art.

In 2012, another version of the show will become part of Documenta, a German contemporary art exhibition that takes place every five years. He plans to expand the piece and rename it "The Refusal of Time."

"The whole question of time and wanting to take it back" began to resonate more and more as the project evolved, said Masilo, who worked through a hamstring injury to perform.

Kentridge's two-week festival opened with that requested performance of "I am not me, the horse is not mine." During the monologue, he takes the audience through the ideas and images that informed his production of the Dmitri Shostakovich opera "The Nose" at New York's Metropolitan Opera House last year.

New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini lauded the way Kentridge "unleashed his imagination on Shostakovich's bitterly satirical and breathless opera."

Kentridge is known for confronting dark themes in his work, including the oppression and brutality of apartheid.

His father, Sydney Kentridge, was a prominent anti-apartheid lawyer in South Africa who represented Steve Biko's family at an inquest into the activist's death. Biko, a symbol of black resistance, was killed by apartheid police 34 years ago this month and remains an icon.

Westerners often remark on the freshness of Kentridge's work. He says that might be a result of the isolation of apartheid, which ended in 1994. Until that time, cultural boycotts meant he was working without much idea of what was happening in the major art centers around the world.

"I developed great confidence in not knowing what I was doing, and discovering it later on," he said.

Long term collaborators also took part in the festival featuring Kentridge's work, among them composer Philip Miller, who first wrote for Kentridge films in 1994. He and Kentridge have worked together so long, they barely need words to communicate.

During a rehearsal of "Dada," that sense of deep creative cooperation was evident among all the musicians, singers, dancer and cast of production managers, movement coaches and multimedia wizards.

"One of the skills I do claim is the skill of working with good collaborators, people whose language I understand," Kentridge says.



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