As a professional actor, dancer, director and choreographer, Matthew Ondiege feels he has defied the odds to prove that Kenyan performing artistes can go far in their careers.
“They are either expected to get lost in the world of NGOs, become professionals in the corporate world or academics that give up performing except in the classroom,” said the CEO of Kenya’s first professional dance company, Dance Into Space, which will be 15 years old this year.
The few illustrious exceptions to his point of view include several of his former teachers.
They are performers who taught him during the Golden Age of Kenyan Theatre in the 1990s when Nairobi Theatre Academy was going strong and Ondiege had the good fortune to learn from local luminaries like Francis Imbuga, David Mulwa, Annabel Maule, Wasambo Were, Tirus Gathwe and the late Dr Opiyo Mumma.
But Nairobi Theatre Academy did not last long. Ondiege, who had come straight from secondary school to what was then called the French Cultural Centre, earned a diploma in acting and dance in 1993.
NTA died shortly thereafter, though not before it inspired performing artistes like Ondiege to stick with the stage, a sphere he’d loved since primary school.
“My first taste for the stage was in class Three at Jamhuri Primary.
I played the head shepherd who told my fellow shepherds to follow the star to find the chosen child,” recalled Ondiege whose most recent acting roles have not been on stage but in film.
On screen several times in April when two award-winning Danish films were shown during its annual European Film Festival, Ondiege was conspicuous in both In a Better World and Lost in Africa.
In the first (which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2012), he played a Sudanese elder based in Darfur where his people were being slaughtered every day.
In the second, he had a small part playing Officer Mutuku in Vibeka Muasya’s film about Kenyan HIV/AIDS orphan adopted by Danes who bring the boy back home for a visit where he literally gets lost in Kibera.
It was during the casting of her film that Muasya and Ondiege first met and found they were both dancer-choreographers. Both keen to continue Kenya-Denmark collaboration, Ondiege wrote a proposal that the Danish Cultural Fund liked.
The main idea involved mixing the media of dance, digital film and live music. DCF also liked the linking of Nairobi and Copenhagen, classical ballet and modern African dance since Vibeka is professionally trained in ballet and Ondiege is trained in modern dance at NTA as well as in Dakar, Moscow, and Bremer, Germany.
One of the most intriguing parts of Ondiege’s proposal was his plan to work with both disabled and able-bodied dancers in a production he calls Paths Cultural Exchange.
Although Ondiege didn’t start Dance Into Space with the intention of training disabled people in dance, he got involved while studying in Germany where he heard about about Gerda Konig whose dance company mixed able and disabled dancers.
“When I learned she wanted to develop a dance project in Africa, I got in touch with her and encouraged her to come to Kenya,” says Ondiege.
He wasn’t trained to teach or choreograph the disabled, but he had a rich background choreographing dance dramas for the troupe he formed in 1997.
His productions include original works which he scripted, staged and choreographed such as Akokhan, Freedom of My Soul, PishaPokea and Wakati, his one-man show which roused wider recognition of Ondiege as a gifted choreographer, dancer and actor.
Even before he established Dance Into Space, he choreographed shows such as Limenya and Drumbeats over Mount Kirinyaga for the Theatre Workshop Production, the company he joined shortly before graduating from NTA.
‘I was professionally trained as an actor, but I also trained in dance and choreography — both by Africans like George Menoe and John Mathenge, but also by French choreographers who came to Kenya during the days of FCC director Guy Le Croix,” said Ondiege. In addition, he found his way into modern dance courses taking place everywhere from Bagamoyo and Dakar to Moscow and Bremer, Germany.
All that training was bound to transform Ondiege into a teacher himself. Working in the field of theatre for development when he wasn’t choreographing shows of his own, he taught a wide range of community groups how to use dance as a means of translating complex ideas into empowering plays.
Working with everyone from the Kenya Human Rights Commission and Family Planning Private Sector to Action Aid and the Association of Physically Disabled, Ondiege has trained more dancers than he can count.
However, one number that stands out in his mind is the 150 disabled Kenyans that he has trained. Most have come from Nairobi’s so-called slums. Many have started their own dance companies. In Shauri Moyo there is Imani, in Mukuru one is called Utena, and Kibera has got the Lake Victoria dance troupe.
Ondiege has found it rewarding to work with the disabled. “I don’t think I have taught them anything.
I have merely motivated them to explore what they can do.” Sounding like a Barack Obama whose 2008 campaign slogan was “Yes, We Can”, Ondiege says he actually learns from them, since they are the ones defying their physical limitations.
In the upcoming production of Paths, Ondiege plans to work will be two disabled artistess, Nicholas Ouma who’s been paralysed from the waist down from polio most of his life and Michel Ondaro, the amazing blind musician who’s composing original music for voice, flute and guitar for the production.
But he doesn’t see Paths as being primarily about the disabled.
It’s about the way people’s paths intersect, be they from Copenhagen or Nairobi, blind or starry eyed, classical or modern dancers, black or white.
Blazing trails for Kenyan performing artistes, both with Paths and Dance Into Space, Ondiege sees that not even the sky’s the limit to creativity.