This month The Centre for the Less Good Idea celebrates its seventh year of promoting interdisciplinary, collaborative and experimental art not only in South Africa but also on the international stage. Season 10, running from the 18th to the 22nd, presented a revival of the Collapsed Concert and a reimagined version of William Kentridge‘s A Defence of the Less Good Idea.
Established by William Kentridge and Bronwyn Lace in 2016, The Centre for the Less Good Idea in Maboneng, Johannesburg, has become known as a hub for innovative and cross-disciplinary arts practices. Inspired by the Tswana proverb that goes, “If the good doctor can’t cure you, find the less good doctor,” The Centre has gained significant traction, evolving into a key space for artistic exploration. From 2016 to 2023, The Centre has facilitated over 400 individual performances, films and installations, engaging more than 700 artists.
The Wednesday show began with a soulful jazz performance that transported the audience to another realm. Led by Kyle Shepherd on piano, the ensemble consisted of Sisonke Xonti on sax and flute, Thembinkosi Mavimbela on bass, Micca Manganye on percussion and the Benin-born Angelo Moustapha on drums. With his mesmerisingly animated performance style, Shepherd emphasised the musicians’ mutual love for each other’s compositions and ended their set with an inspired piece by Africa Mkhize. During the brief intermission, I had a quick chat with Shepherd, whose aura still seemed to reverberate from the magical recital.
Serendipitously, I found myself seated just behind Kentridge during the first part of the show—proud to recognise him from the back of his head and confirm it when he turned his head slightly, revealing his profile and that unmistakable nose. While I am often critical of Kentridge, I’m also an undeniable fanboy. At the intermission, as we crossed paths, I uncontrollably bellowed “Kentridge!” directly into his face, and predictably, he carried on as if he hadn’t seen or heard me. My point here is that despite my criticality, particularly in the context of an institution like The Centre for the Less Good Idea, I remain a fervent admirer.
Indeed, the presentation gave the audience a lot to admire. While Kentridge spoke, various artists deliberately disrupted and reinterpreted the performance lecture. As the spectacle unfolded, I found myself in a rather delightful dilemma. While it is easy to linger on the somewhat uncomfortable Kentridgean engagement with Black figures, one thing is undeniable: the artist is a master curator of culture. His keen insight into the vital aspects of South African culture, and his knack for orchestrating their convergence under the umbrella of his art, is nothing short of remarkable.
As I glanced at the audience, predominantly composed of an older, mostly white generation, likely due to the rather steep ticket prices, I noticed them watching the performance with subtle nods and silent appreciation. On the other hand, a different segment of the audience, primarily younger Black individuals, responded to the work in a more visceral and exuberant manner, even joining in the performance with their percussive exclamations and guttural ululations. I found these distinct audience reactions quite intriguing and a merit to the show.
While all this went on, William Kentridge remained calm, almost unmoved, proclaiming, “So here we are in Season 10. Not blowing our own trumpet, but seeing what strange instrument we have made. …We do not avoid the world and its crises, its evil. The studio and The Centre need to be a place of allowing the fragmented world to find its place … So, The Center is a safe space for stupidity and for failure, but it also has to be a space to negotiate between hope and despair.”
In between Kentridge’s profound musings, the various performers appearing and disappearing on the stage added tension and triumph to his talk. Though the show’s meticulously curated elements, including soloists, a choral group, violinist and Kentridge’s signature gramophone and projection style, all felt unmistakably familiar, bordering on formulaic. Despite claims of playfulness and chaos, Kentridge’s show came across as cohesive and well-rehearsed.
Of course, one wouldn’t dream of criticising something for being too good. If it ain’t broke—don’t fix it, as they say. But perhaps one could be forgiven for daring to imagine that it could be even better. That perhaps something even more daring could come our way in seasons to come. Maybe something even less good. For now, Kentridge’s Collapsed Concert does what it says on the box. It inspires a precarious balance of gleeful enjoyment and critical thinking, signifying The Centre’s sustained dedication to testing artistic boundaries and gallant attempt to celebrate the “less good idea.”