Matthew Ondiege.s Dance into Space Troupe Soars

Not even the sky’s a limit to ‘Dance Into Space’ CEO Matthew Ondiege
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
July 18, 2012
As a professional actor, dancer, director and choreographer, Matthew Ondiege feels he’s defied the odds that bet most Kenyan performing artists won’t go far in life.
“They either get lost in the world of NGOs, become professionals in the corporate world or academics that give up performing except in the classroom,” observed 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 Ondiege’s 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.
Unfortunately, Nairobi Theatre Academy didn’t last long. Ondiege, who’d come straight from secondary school to what was then called the French Cultural Centre, earned a diploma in acting and dance in 1993. But NTA died shortly thereafter, though not before it inspired performing artists like Ondiege to stick with the stage, a sphere he’d loved since primary school.
“My first taste for the stage was in class 3 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 Dhafur where his people were being slaughtered every day. In the second, he had a small part playing Officer Mutuku in VibekaMuasya’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 components of Ondiege’s proposal was his plan to work with both disabled and able-bodied dancers in a production he calls Paths Cultural Exchange.
For while Ondiege didn’t start up Dance Into Space with the intention of training disabled people in dance, he got involved while studying in Germany and hearing 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,” Ondiege recalls. He wasn’t trained to teach or choreograph the disabled, but he had a rich background choreographing dance dramas for the dance 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 Limenyaand Drumbeats over Mount Kirinyagafor 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 Mathenge, but also by French choreographers who came to Kenya,” Ondiege said.
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’s trained.  Most have come from Nairobi’s so-called ‘slums’. Many have started up their own dance companies. In Shauri Moyo there’s 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 artists, Nicholas Ouma who’s been paralyzed 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 Paths production.
But Ondiege 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 artists, both with Paths and Dance Into Space, Ondiege sincerely sees that not even the sky’s the limit to creativity. Like his disabled dancers, he believes ‘Yes, he can’.
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