Gary Raymond reviews Brothers in Dance: Anthony and Kel Matsena, a TV documentary charting the extraordinary story of two brothers taking the contemporary dance world by storm.
Dance is difficult to catch on screen. Even the most receptive and lively of filmmakers, capturing the breadth and depth of movement, will struggle to catch the blood, sweat and tears so evident in a live performance. Traditional western forms are all about restraining such bodily fluids from the audience, whereas contemporary dance lets it all out. One of the takeaways from this enthusiastic hour-long documentary is the visceral performances of the brothers at the centre of it, Anthony and Kel Matsena, and their cast as they rehearse and then present the show they created in response to the murder of George Floyd, Shades of Blue. The doc does well not to spend too much time patronising us with context for this. George Floyd is perhaps the most exacting shorthand now for racial injustice. The value of this film is not in re-examining the horrors of racist murders, but in the light shone on the creative process of two exceptionally talented black artists as they seek to find a way to respond creatively to the events. This is a film about art, pure and simple, and its vitality is the immediacy of the catalyst – but at its heart is an ancient question: how do we turn trauma into art? That the film also asks why do we do it, is also important.
Brothers in Dance also does well not to frame the journey of Anthony and Kel, who were resettled as boys in Swansea by their parents fleeing the oppressive Mugabe regime of Zimbabwe, as too worthy, pitching them as “good immigrants”. The various hardships and tragedies of their lives are part of the fabric of individual journeys, not exemplars of the refugee experience. The narrative is held close – no Yentob-ish narrator or interviewer here. Anthony and Kel tell their own story – it is their story to tell, after all. Other documentaries might have gone for a more arm’s length approach, but this is not a critical review of the work, or even the body of work. This is coming of age tale, and boy how abruptly and judderingly they needed to come of age.
Fleeing the oppressive regime of Zimbabwe, the Matsena family found themselves in Swansea, and it’s easy to imagine the energy and laughter they brought to any room they were in. There is cute footage of them dancing in the family living room, and engaging moments where they return to the places that made them who they are today, such as the local gym and the rehearsal space they used at Gowerton College. Considering the bleakness and rage at the centre of the documentary in the form of the Shades of Blue rehearsals (and the startling final performance), Anthony and Kel are ebullient, larger-than-life presences, colourful and funny but also frequently thoughtful and compassionate. Their stories, and their smiles, are built upon hardship and trauma. Family tragedy and racial violence – perpetrated on them and on those whose names we are unfortunately all too familiar with and must all remember – is the fuel for the work but is never allowed to overwhelm them as people. It is an inspiring division. Shades of Blue is a gripping explosion of rage. But the boys are not bitter, are not beaten down by their experiences. The power of art is within them.
Brothers in Dance: Anthony and Kel Matsena is available now on the BBC iPlayer
Shades of Blue is being performed at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff on the 10 & 11 May. Tickets are available here.