Facing African Dance Creation

By Lys Stevens
  • Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe in his own work Skwatta / Photo by Meinrad Heck
  • Bienvenue Bazié and Jennifer Dallas in their own work Idiom / Photo by John MacLean
  • Qudus Onikeku in his own work My Exile Is In My Head / Photo by Agnes Chafei
  • Faustin Linyekula in his own work Le Cargo / Photo by Agathe Poupeney

Series C + Face 2 Face

Ottawa  February 4-7, 2015

In the middle of the various trials of winter – cold weather and the post-holiday blues – it is timely to be given an opportunity to encounter dance work from a warmer climate and from a continent that can put our Western Hemisphere worries in perspective.

For this third edition of the Face 2 Face series, Cathy Levy, National Arts Centre (NAC) executive producer of dance, chose to highlight artists “whose lives and stories are rooted in Africa.” Four smaller-scale shorter works that would not otherwise find a home in the series were chosen, including solos by Qudus Onikeku of Nigeria, Faustin Linyekula from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the inimitable Vincent Mantsoe from South Africa, and a program (one solo and one duo) with Jennifer Dallas of Toronto and Bienvenue Bazié of Burkina Faso. Even though I spread my experience over three days, there was a lot, almost too much, to absorb, considering the diverging aesthetics and equally impactful artistic propositions. I’m not sure the format does the artists or Ottawa audiences justice, but I am glad I made the effort. I was already sold on Faustin Linyekula, from having seen More more more … future, a funk-punk-poetry excursion he presented several years ago at the Festival TransAmérique in Montréal, and Vincent Mantsoe was of obvious interest because his tremendous reputation precedes him. I also knew of Jennifer Dallas as someone on the Canadian dance scene to pay attention to. Qudus Onikeku and Bienvenue Bazié were new to me and I look forward to seeing more of their work in future.

Onikeku and Mantsoe both presented in the NAC Studio, while Linyekula and the Dallas/Bazié collaboration took up residence at Arts Court across the Rideau Canal. Linyekula’s work, Le Cargo, was staged in the theatre and the Dallas/Bazié program, Sous un projecteur and Idiom, were co-presented by the Ottawa Dance Directive as part of their Series 10 project in the ODD Box space. I ran into other intrepid and dedicated dance fans who were doing the marathon intake, back and forth between the two locations, some seeing up to three of the shows in one day.

Having heard only reverential things, I was not disappointed by Vincent Mantsoe’s performance through his two works: NTU (an NAC co-production) and Skwatta. Mantsoe’s magic is in his total commitment to his deliberate, exquisitely intentional movement. It is as if, through the perfect control of his movements, mostly slow, at times exploding into speed (just as impossibly precise), he channels a powerful performative, almost spiritual energy. The movement and intensity in both pieces indicated an obvious struggle against unseen forces, ones I admit I could not identify as I watched. I can’t even say now what distinguished NTU from Skwatta. But while I noticed these thoughts, they did not seem to bother me. To watch his work is like receiving remote bodywork. It is an art that inspires: as I took in the performance, I imagined I too could, and should, create my own solo dance; it would take a lifetime to make it as pure and perfect. It would not be for the glory of the stage, but for the seemingly transcendental experience of creation that he so perfectly exudes.

Faustin Linyekula is a storyteller, a philosopher/creator, a singer and a dancer, who takes a very contemporary approach to the inseparability of the performing disciplines in traditional African arts. In Le Cargo, Linyekula inhabits a paradox, as the storyteller who has come simply to dance, and yet speaks through most of the piece. His scripted narrative, the story of his return to his childhood home of Obilo, a small isolated town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is projected, in translation, on the back wall. Voiced live through the first half, the text is repeated in a recorded version through the second half of the piece. At this point he is free of the microphone and is able to move, his dance an echo of the recounted search for the dances of his childhood, as if his movements are part of his struggle to incant the past into being. There is something a little bit incomplete about the effort in his dancing, even as the sweat flies from his chin. It is as if Linyekula is conflicted over the performer-spectator relationship, as if he wants to keep part of it for himself. The narrative makes more sense the second time around, but understanding the story is not necessary to absorb the sadness, the bitterness and loss he projects. I give him his anger and sadness. I am a willing witness.

Bazié presented a solo, Sous un projecteur, as an opening act to the collaborative piece Idiom, choreographed and performed with Jennifer Dallas. I appreciated the opportunity to encounter him alone before the shared piece. He is a tall man, who seems reserved on stage. His eyes avoid direct contact with the audience, and our attention is drawn to the sculptural impression his long body leaves, precise placements, purposeful stops, small twitches, hesitant and sure at the same time. His hand on his hip, back of the hip, small of the back, shoulder up, forward, down, pausing to consider each spot before moving on, and building in momentum, cascading into complexity. His arms lifted, stretch halfway up to the tall black box ceiling. It’s a technical, austere, mechanical solo, physically intelligent and satisfyingly complete.

As a result of coming second, Idiom becomes clearer in its intended focus on collaboration and encounter. The pauses and spaces in this piece speak to a respectful listening. It’s tender – not toward each other so much as toward the work: it is a precious space they have created together and there seems to be much effort put into taking care of it. Like a cautious conversation, they make space for listening to each other, each taking turns in a quiet exchange. This turn-taking makes the few moments they dance together all the more gratifying, as if a key finally fits into a lock, and a mechanism is put into motion. How do two people come together across such different histories and find enough common ground to collaborate? I sense it’s the heart of the artists that gives them the courage to walk that bridge toward each other, and this thought gives me hope.

Idiom and Sous un projecteur make up the least “African” of the programs, in content and movement styles. Linyekula, Mantsoe and Onikeku each cite their home countries as part of the artistic impulse for their pieces, and use distinguishably Africanist movement. Both Linyekula, in Le Cargo, and Onikeku in My Exile Is In My Head, address questions of home, exile and return in more direct (although non-linear) ways, while Mantsoe infuses his work with a resonance of South Africa more abstractly.

I wish I was not as saturated as I was when I watched Onikeku’s My Exile Is In My Head. He is an irresistible mover and a multi-talented creator, charismatic enough to surround himself with equally gifted collaborators: live music by Charles Amblard and stunning video conception by Isaak Lartey. Like Bazié, his movement begins sparse and abstract. He is more like Mantsoe, exploring and deconstructing identifiably African body isolations, and building them to physical extremes. Unfortunately, I felt the ideas were developed and then dropped all too quickly, the transitions less engaging. But in those short moments, a certain brilliance was perceived. In a recurring motif his back is hunched over, his arms outstretched and rippling like seaweed, or like light dappling on water. As in Linyekula’s work, words are used to invoke a story, but in Onikeku’s case the words, either spoken (recorded) or written (projected), seem to be purposely obscured, as if the specific meaning is not as important as the atmosphere it helps build. He sings too, as does Linyekula, at the very end of the piece. Both songs ring out in fading silence, like a blessing, a prayer, a lament, a healing.

Mantsoe is one of Africa’s leading choreographers, while Onikeku, Linyekula, and Bazié are part of a younger generation of African dance artists. Face 2 Face is an artistic experience, but I could not help wondering: where are the women artists and what do they have to say? What does it mean to open a choreographic centre (Studios Kabako) in the Congo, to start a company (Compagnie Auguste-Bienvenue) in Burkina Faso, to galvanize an artistic movement (YK Projects) in Nigeria? What is the political situation in each of these countries, and how does it influence the art in distinct ways from one country to the next? It can’t be a coincidence that this was scheduled for Black History Month. I wish for more opportunities like this so that, over time, these questions can begin to be answered.~


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