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The Moving Target: African Dance

Moving Africa, 651 ARTS, and Adzido Dance

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by Thea Nerissa Barnes

July 2004 -- London

Moving Africa, given at the Barbican Theatre in London, UK 13 January 2004 presented works by African choreographers Vincent Mantsoe, Seydou Boro and Ariry Mahefasoa Mohoatrarivo Andriamoratsiresy. Similarly, 651 ARTS in Brooklyn, New York 6 February 2004 presented Compagnie Konga Ba Téria, Sello Pesa and Ariry Mahefasoa Mohoatrarivo Andriamoratsiresy. The most provocative, evolutionary aspect of these works was their use of alternative dancemaking traits not usually associated with African dance aesthetics. Hinting at current ruptures and varied discontinuities in African dance practice, these particular expressions were an indication that African dance is not only not homogenous but also currently include Europeanist modern/post-modernist inclinations.

Published reactions to these works were mixed in New York and London. These prizewinners (1) received pejorative responses that searched for Europeanist similarities while simultaneously missing or even denigrating Africanist and Asian aesthetic roots entirely. One critic suggested that “globalisation makes art bland” and these particular choreographers should maintain the integrity of their “regional accents (2)”. Another review commented the works had more in common with “mediocre and derivative New York dance ensemble (3)” work or imitated Merce Cunningham and Laura Dean. These responses advising the choreographers to stay within the boundaries of some preconceived national dance aesthetic seemed relativistic; to comment the work was derivative of second or third generation imitators of American modern dance choreographers, elitist. Beyond these reactions the works indicated individual approaches to dance making that revealed distinctive intra and intercultural experiences. Particularly, the Moving Africa works had an individual mode of vibrancy and imagery that did not simply vivify a specific “traditional” cultural expression.

Previous experiences or preconceived notions of what dance from Africa is thought to be dispersed before these modern dance expressions. These works were not theatricalised presentations of culturally specific, scared or secular rituals, nor were they renditions of the lived experience of the noble savage or the peregrinations of the elegant survivor of denigrating circumstances. Rather, they were illustrations of the complexities of international cross-cultural appreciations with perspectives on contemporaneous African and Asian dance making. These works testified that modern dance as a distinct genre of dance making is not national. At least it hasn't been national in Britain from at least the 1960’s when Martha Graham sent Robert Cohan to assist Robin Howard with the building of The London School of Contemporary Dance and London Contemporary Dance Company.

Modern dance may have had its primary instigators in Isadora Duncan (American) and Mary Wigman (German) but it is Europeanist by nature and most definitely a plurality. Modern dance has a vast collection of individual dance makers from several parts of the globe who share a default theatre form and similar dance making tools, but varied movement forms and content according to personal histories. The aesthetic similarities or dissimilarities lie in the negotiation of movement language, singular or transliterated cultural significances, design, technical skills and intention.

So, what was the expectation of modern dance making from Africa that was disappointed by the presentation of Moving Africa in London and 651 ARTS in Brooklyn?

To offer some plausible answers to this question, an examination of the current predicament of Adzido Dance here in London is offered. Adzido Dance will serve as a microcosmic case enabling insight into the confluence of responses to an important shift in African dance making as witnessed in London and New York.

Adzido Dance

Adzido Dance used to be Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble; a British company founded in 1984 with the distinction of presenting narrative based, theatricalised “traditional” West African dance. Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble presentations were more related to the early twentieth century work of Asadata Dafora and Olatunji in the USA. They were also related to the more personalised choreographies of Germaine Acogny and Zab Maboungou’s solo renditions of traditional African dance expressions that circulated at the end of the twentieth century. Adzido Pan-African Ensemble as a repertory company also had works similar to the musical theatre spectacles African Foot Print and Umoja!

In the past two years, Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble had a review of its managerial infrastructure, was questioned about its artistic vision, and was made to reflect on the efficacy and value of its particular aesthetic practices. This overhaul retired the artistic director, employed new managerial staff and changed the company name to Adzido Dance. While this intensive renovation of its operations was going on several in-house presentations by choreographers from America and Africa were given to an invited audience of stakeholders and African dance aficionados in the British dance community to view, experience and offer critical comments. These included Jawole Wila Jo Zollar, Urban Bush Woman, USA, Béatrice Kombé, Compagnie Tché Tché, Ivory Coast, Souleymane Badolo, Kongo Ba Téria, Burkina Faso, Gerta Mendez and H Patten of Britain.

These were many goals but the most invasive was to stretch the possibilities of Adzido’s dancers and articulate the character of Adzido’s aesthetic for the future. This process has culminated in the present tour of two works, “Footsteps of Africa” by Zenzi Mbuli which is reminiscent of Adzido’s aesthetic past, and “SILK” by Gregory Maqoma. Both these choreographers are from South Africa. Although “Footsteps” is what is familiar to the British dance community as “African dance”, SILK was not “recognised” as representative of “African dance”. Casual post show conversations after Adzido’s performance at LSO St Lukes City of London Festival Friday 2 July 2004 spoke of moments within “SILK” that offered inspired insight with its particular use of space and rhythm. This work, though, had various movement gestures that extended from what is recognized as “traditional African dance” but offered alternative dimensions of that movement vocabulary. While the repertory of this tour confirms that Adzido Dance will maintain its traditional roots, it is also an indication of Adzido Dance taking a contemporaneously eclectic approach to its Africanist dance expression.

Some audience members were vilified by this transformation of Adzido’s expression of “African dance”. Nostalgic recollections spoke of the significance of Adzido performances, its particular aesthetic preferences, which offered a beleaguered community an indigenous identity, an endearing and exotic representation of the Africa of myth and legend. Conversations discussed the cultural politics posed by this contemporary dance that used African dance movement vocabulary and content in a Europeanist theatre manner. Legitimation, ownership, and consignment of cultural value were discussed and quickly placed Adzido on a cusp in this British dance landscape. Adzido Dance is now aligned with other current “African dance” practitioners whose intertextual contemporary dance making strategies challenge previous conventions of “African dance”. This performance signalled Adzido Dance’s alignment with both the accolades and the perils of practitioners of African dance in the Moving Africa and 651 Arts events. Despite the forewarning afforded by Moving Africa, British spectators’ were unprepared for this deviation of African dance practice.

Given these events and in this confluence of British and African sensibilities, what is “African dance” now? With the transliteration of Europeanist and Africanist dance practices, with the proliferation of cultural hybrids in dance being the norm, not the exception -- what is “African dance” at this moment in time, post modernity, post apartheid, perhaps post racial?

There is a geographical and shared history for all African dance forms that lead to commonality but there are also the stereotypes and myths, the traditions that make exotic, or denigrate, invisiblise or commodify “African dance”. Traditional dances satisfy nostalgia recalling the classic forms with raffia, flowing fabrics, drums and the narrative. Those dances were a means to affirm cultural identity by recalling history, portraying life stories, enacting rituals or reclaiming spiritual significance. Those reminisces have been exemplary, but have also ghettoised dance practice by proclaiming a singular approach, a singular responsibility for what “African dance” is -- what Adzido Dance should be. Those dance works also reinforce a stereotyping that fixed the reality of Africa as a politically and culturally constructed entity distinctly different from anything “British”; something “primitive”, something “black”, something “other” than. The apprehension of those past dances had positioned “African dance” outside British “mainstream” dance art. “African dance” seemed appreciated even desired in the past, but perhaps was only tolerated by the hierarchy out of some philanthropic piety borne out of imperialistic arrogance. Cultural relativity also has its own arrogance. Both types of arrogance still subjugate Adzido Dance’s artistic vision to limited aesthetic apprehensions of what “African dance” is.

Given the performances of Moving Africa and at 651 Arts, these lingering, often cherished impressions of “African dance” persist. Africa is changing, though; its political terrain is chaotic, there is affluence and deprivation. There is democracy and anarchy; there are many different spiritual beliefs, different geographical terrains, and different aesthetic embodiments for dance to evolve and proliferate. Any allegiance to “African dance” needs to acknowledge Africa’s current circumstance and its multiplicity. With citizens of the African Diaspora living all over the world, any notion of “African dance” should acknowledge its contradictions and shared histories.

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1 All three choreographers presented at 651 Arts received the African and Indian Ocean Choreography Competition in Madagascar 2001; Mantsoe, FNB VITA Choreographer of the Year 1996, 1999, 2001, Company Rary, Radio France International Danse, 2002; Seydou, Radio France International Danse, 1998 and has been artistic director of the African and Indian Ocean Choreography Competition since 2000.

2 Jenny Gilbert, Independent: “Boxed in, claustrophobic… inspired!” 18 January 2004, London, United Kingdom.

3 Jennifer Dunning, New York Times: “A Showcase for Prizewinning African Choreographers in Brooklyn” 11 February 2004, New York, New York.


Edited by Azlan Ezaddin and Jeff.

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