By delineating a unity of sensory and visual impulses as the core of In Between Breath, Francesca Matthys has provided herself with the richest possible choreographic source. The spacious AFDA stage was set – a bare, dimly lit platform of nothingness, without anything to distract, simply a lavishly draped backdrop of white fabric, alluding not only to an artist’s studio, but also to a cold, clinical mental asylum. As a spectacle In Between Breath is ravishing, and made even more so by the intermittent rushes of colour in blues and warm white.
Purely judged on her dancing abilities, Matthys emerges a victor. Her pacing between segments is flawless, building up just enough momentum and anticipation before steaming ahead in full form. The sharp and detailed moves create a lucid and hallucinatory illusion of some angry spirit being expelled from its pure vessel. But her figures are also static at times. And in the slow-moving first half of the production, Matthys doesn’t fully transition from choreography to art work. As she contorts her body and lifts her arms, she looks more like an acrobatic dancer than someone attuned to their cognitive realm.
That sense of dynamic duality only surfaces more prominently in the second half of the show, when the backdrop is transformed into a backdrop for the projection of vintage digital slides depicting psychotic suppressions circa the 1930s. As these slides proceed, Matthys renders an abstract reinterpretation on what plays in the background. Occasionally the lighting dims to showcase only her fluid silhouette, a geometric structure with a bucket and chain, while the music hardens with a more eerie force.
Mental illness still remains one of the thorniest, most resonant issues of the day. From birth, we all face a lifelong battle to adapt to a transient environment. And Matthys’ take of a woman struggling to maintain her equilibrium sheds a light on that moment when a mind breaks under the conflict of life.
I wonder what difference it would make should Matthys and her ambitious design team allow themselves a more overt visual referential approach to these sources. Because In Between Breath is a marvelously opaque venture of work steeped in aggression and disharmony, but as yet it is neither literal enough in its referencing nor sufficiently independent of it, to become a fully realised piece of dance.
Benn Van Der Westhuizen
In Between Breath ran at the AFDA Theatre from 22 to 24 September 2016 as part of the Cape Town Fringe Festival.