Never Twenty One
Compagnie Vivons / Smaïl Kanouté
From a distance it looks like tribal art, an intricate series of paint strokes across three male torsos. It’s not until Aston Bonaparte, Salomon Mpondo-Dicka and Smaïl Kanouté step closer that you begin to read the words emblazoned on their skin – ‘Gang’, ‘Guns’, ‘Glock’ – a tattooed testimony to the language of violence.
Born out of the Black Lives Matter movement, #Never21 acknowledges those lost before reaching that age. Here, choreographer Kanouté pays particular homage to the gunshot victims of New York, Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg – and the devastated families they left behind.
Using Police-style flashlights to illuminate the space, the dancers exude tension. Tight fists, tight muscles, tight faces all braced to give or receive force. As they move, a steady diatribe against gun use is delivered by mothers, daughters and medical professionals. It’s as hard to listen to as the on-stage brutality is to watch, but everything about Never Twenty One commands our attention.
Three pairs of flashlight eyes scan the stage, before turning onto the audience. It’s time for us to stand under the harsh light of interrogation. Beyond denouncing the violence perpetrated on Black bodies, Never Twenty One confronts us with the reality of our inaction towards a problem that feels never-ending.
The protagonists are the dancing spokespeople for an unfortunate community of suffering. The graffiti markings on their chests and arms are like scars etched forever onto the skin of those left behind, or targets on those who have not yet succumbed. The pained voices of the families of the deceased ring loud as the men embody the horrors of the cycle of violence. From krump to Malian dance, their moves are an outlet for burning rage as much as a way to transcend the nonsensical injustice and find rituals for healing.
The piece fills the air with palpable tension. How much more death will we see before change comes?
One by one, torches pierce the pitch blackness of the auditorium. Six searchlights form three pairs of eyes – watching us, unnerving us; inviting us to imagine this is our daily reality – stop and search, shoot to kill…
Three huddled bodies wield the blades of light and use them to paint pictures in the dark. The dancers duck, dive and spin to avoid the glare and the hail of bullets that will inevitably follow. And it does – seen but not heard as a body drops and writhes with the impact – feet disappearing from the light as if on to the slab of a morgue.
Paying tribute to those lost to gun violence, and giving physical expression to the tragic testimonies of those left behind, Smaïl Kanouté’s Never Twenty One is a portrait of pain, trauma and loss. A work that walks side by side with death has never felt so vital and alive.
One, two, six torch lights kindle in complete darkness. Scanning the room, they bring about a subtle floor dance of light dots before unveiling three male torsos marked by words written in white. It makes Aston Bonaparte, Salomon Mpondo-Dicka and choreographer Smaïl Kanouté light up like skeletons.
Never Twenty One wishes to ‘pay tribute to the victims of gun violence’, putting emphasis on their often young age, hence the title. The dancers embody both perpetrators and their targets in powerful yet sometimes overtly theatrical scenes of outrage. The drama suggests a violent deadlock seized by racial bias and injustice.
But in the end, little is left to our imagination. Skirmishes are delivered stabbing and fisting. And although the searchlights are briefly aimed at us, it is really indicative of how we stay out of harm’s way. The piece never manages to unbind from a firm illustrative grip and move beyond mere visual testimony.