Ubumbano – collaborating across a Covid divide

By Vicky Prior

Making art in a pandemic hits different. How do you collaborate when all your performers can’t get together in the same room? How do you cross a double boundary of being in different countries and abiding by coronavirus travel restrictions? For Ace Dance and Music and Indoni Academy, the answer was to hire Wayne Sables to show how to use technology to bridge the gap. The result? A series of dance pieces exploring African dance from traditional to contemporary, a new skill set of filmmaking, video conferencing and projection mapping, and a partnership that will last for years.

British Council funding

The British Council releases funding for arts organisations in Britain to work with a similar company somewhere else in the world. Ace Dance and Music, based in Birmingham, UK, chose to partner with Indoni Academy, in Cape Town, South Africa. Both companies explore African culture through dance. Their initial bid was unsuccessful, as the digital component, essential for the times, wasn’t strong enough. But the British Council really liked the other aspects of the dance companies bid, and suggested that if they could beef up the digital side, a resubmitted bid might be successful.

Digital consultancy

Enter Wayne Sables, who initially was asked to consult on how the companies could use technology to collaborate and share best practice. This evolved into Wayne teaching the companies via video conferencing how to use smartphones to film and edit dance films, or to photograph their work. Finally, Wayne introduced the companies to projection mapping, adding another visual element through digital means to their dances.

Global connections

The collaboration became known as Ubumbano. Ace Dance and Music already had South African connections and working with Indoni Academy has strengthened them. Indoni works by exploring African traditional dance and then adding contemporary influences, while Ace takes contemporary Western dance and apply African styles to it. The dancers learnt a lot from merging these two processes together. Dancers in each country filmed themselves performing and then shared the videos with each other via WhatsApp. This necessitated Ace sending some laptops and phones over to Indoni to make sure that everyone had smartphones with the correct technology. When taking dance classes, the two countries live streamed to each other so that the classes ran simultaneously and all the dancers could work together.

Creating a dance film

Both companies used smartphone filmmaking to explore how to capture movement and develop narratives that looked at the relationship between the dancer and the camera and the camera and the viewer. Particular attention was paid to lighting each shot and the difference between natural and artificial light, looking at the different effects that would be created as well as how the dancer would be framed. Angles and different focus points were also explored and all of these techniques were applied to photography as well, something which the dancers initially struggled with but which they soon saw the value of. As a final step, Wayne taught the dancers how to edit the footage together to create a full dance film.

Introducing projection mapping

Wayne is fast becoming a sought after projection mapper. He loves sharing this skill with others and knew Ubumbano would be a great platform for projection mapping. This took the dancers very far out of their comfort zone but they loved it, with several expressing a desire to continue working with projection mapping in future projects.

Ubumbano – the documentary

Towards the end of the project, Wayne started to edit an Ubumbano documentary, featuring interviews with the participants and footage of lessons and rehearsals. Much of the footage was taken by the dancers themselves using techniques Wayne taught them. The documentary ends with a magic and circus themed dance film devised and shot entirely by the dance companies. The film uses several mirror tricks and twists with camera perspective, including making a dancer look like she is trapped in a water bottle.

Future work

Ace and Indoni are not the only companies to firm a long lasting partnership through working on Ubumbano. Wayne Sables Project has been a key component of the project, nurturing the dancers’ digital skills to help them portray their art form through new means. This will continue on future projects and Wayne enhanced the bespoke package of lessons and advice he created for Ubumbano.

To have a similar package created for your arts company, contact Wayne at [artistic@waynesablesproject.co.uk]