Flatfoot Dance Company perform in Yaseen Manuel’s “Unhinged” at JOMBA! 2021 (photograph by Val Adamson)

Manuel’s “Al-Kitab” and “Unhinged” use the body to confront the perpetual internal conflict of multiplicity

By Siphumelele Gumede

The 2021 Mellon Artist in Residence, Yaseen Manuel, presented two films on the digital JOMBA! stage in collaboration with the Flatfoot Dance Company. Al-Kitab and Unhinged document the inner discord of transgressive identity and contending with alternative realities. Manuel’s choreography sustains tension and embodies the perpetual internal conflict of multiplicity.

Al-Kitab engages the complexity of a hybrid identity. Manuel’s dichotomous existence between his Muslim religion and dance is embodied in an agile choreography that borders on the combative; revealing the tension of an identity that cannot be simplified into the demarcations of religion and the secular. In fierce and tearing movements where he pulls off his hijab and punches into the ground, Manuel poignantly renders in dance his inability to make a choice between the two versions of himself that seem mutually exclusive. He whirls and tumbles as he tries to untangle himself from the discursive fetters of both religion and dance that have inscribed themselves on his body.

Throughout the film Manuel dances in a thobe, undermining the conventional behaviour expected from a devout Muslim man. He attempts to equalise prayer and dance where he kneels to pray and is immediately transported away to a serene setting where he dances freely. It is as though Manuel is saying prayer and dance are not separate; that his dance is actually his worship. This resolution is fully embraced in the end when the phrase, “…freedom is to uncover”, is repeated by the voiceover. There seems to be a surrender as Manuel’s body is rolled through soft grass and innocent flowers — as though his bodily movement has finally converged with his religious practice.

In Unhinged Manuel includes more bodies and delves deeper into the battles of the mind. The film specifically chronicles the disconnection from the outside world by schizophrenia. At the onset, the dancers’ faces are wrapped, suggesting a mind severed from the outside world and taunted by the incessant accusing of inner voices. The desperate clutching and releasing of hands pulling at elusive forces illustrates how psychological struggle manifests in the physical world.

Essentially, Manuel is foregrounding the permeability of the boundary between what is physically real and what is not. Dancer, Jabu Siphika standing in a circle of figures who appear and disappear in the same scene suggests that she is actually alone in the physical world, struggling against the voices inside her mind that have manifested into a faux reality. She is caught in an invisible web and unhinged from reality.

In his evocative choreography, Manuel skilfully tackles psychological and emotional complexity. The disorientation animating the choreography starts to affect our own psychological state as the audience, through the layering of scenes and the rapid change in viewing angles. In invoking these feelings in his viewer, Manuel exposes the truth of inner conflict — that it is universal and diverse.

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