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The Moving Target: African Dance

Moving Africa, 651 ARTS, and Adzido Dance

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by Thea Nerissa Barnes


Perhaps the question is not one of expectation but what omission. Perhaps a more refined description of Maqoma’s “SILK” to reveal its intra and intertextual dimensions will encourage a revision of preconceived or less informed notions. Like the work of Vincent Mantsoe, Seydou Boro and Ariry Mahefasoa Mohoatrarivo Andriamoratsiresy, “SILK” is the product of a national and international intertextual reality. “SILK” exemplifies Maqoma’s transliteration of Africanist and Europeanist theatre dance aesthetics. Modern dance is the default unifying structure but Maqoma’s cross-cultural inventiveness challenges the notion of “African dance” by redefining social/political constructs that underpin how “African dance” is made and what its form and content consist of.

Upstage left are five foam human mannequins standing in a line and upstage right three red metal sculptures approximately six or seven feet high. Entering stage right walking solemnly, the dancers and musicians dressed in charcoal suit jackets and pants, the women with black bras and the men in shirts. The space is transformed into a landscape with the dancers walking predetermined paths where they would stop, wobble and mimic flying or women would drop into knees grabbing men for support. A sonic hum is heard with drum accompaniment. This walk is a tentative negotiation through an imaginary landscape, urban streets or rural roads, beginning the dance where varied movements manipulate space, the mannequins, and the dancers’ bodies.

There is a section with the dancers poking their heads forwards while facing upstage right, their backs to the audience. The head poking builds in intensity utilising standing upright, squat, or lunging movements that develops into a cannon, then a punch stride sequence with a slide, one dancer leading the others. This compositional device of taking a simple gesture then building it to full body moves that travel around the space is an Africanist gesture with a modern dance inflection. Africanist expressions relish dynamic tension, creating a juncture for opposites to converge. The subtle movement of the head that led to bombastic movement phrases through the space has a harmony of its own and was complemented with a building drum rhythm. The head movement, a known Africanist gesture, has been explored for alternative movement possibilities and alternative significances.

During “SILK”, Samuel Adu Dordoh takes off his suit coat, dances in a contorted, agitated manner and then hangs it on one of the mannequins positioned upstage while the other dancers watch or continue performing separate perhaps unrelated movement motifs. Non-linear and non-narrative this composition relishes the presentation of conflicting elements, rupturing the notion of a continuous line. Dordoh would later take off his pants and dance with the other dancers, they in their black suits, he naked save for black briefs. Taking off his suit jackets seemed a metaphor for the alleviation of restrictions or an opportunity for transformation. These gestures, perhaps compositional devices, were chosen to resonate an essence of lived experience. This experience is urban perhaps a reflection of a current social/political or personal circumstance.

Victoria Dzibenu and Florence Okwan danced a generic African movement that incorporated hip vibration and full spinal sequencing in opposite corners of the stage. But these moves were fragmented, dislocated from their origin and supplanted with a rhythmical intensity and an altered significance. Alienation and frustration encapsulated these moments of performance that had fierce repetitious beats in the body while the face was calm, almost austere. Proficiency of a vocabulary facilitated virtuosity for a manufactured contemporary variation. Repetition was valued but not at the sake of the dancer’s performative manipulation. The drummers’ polyrhythms offered counter rhythms to the dancers’ movements and layered one on the other supported the uninhibited manipulation of both movement and music.

Solos performed by John Akoto and Ishmael Sackey summoned at moments throughout the work had heightened spontaneity seeming almost improvised. Multiple rhythms and negotiation of the space from rolls on the floor to jumps in the air were not virtuosic per say but offered an emotional/physical duality in purpose. Here again the resonance of lived experience and proficiency of vocabulary shaded movements with altered significance. A smile would flash across the face during the most raucous, bombastic moves while the drums offered cross-rhythmical support. These overt facial expressions camouflaged the true nature of that being portrayed; a calm mask, the slight hint of a smile, had other rhetorical significances offering contradiction and parody, recognisable traits within African dance expression.

Throughout, the movement vocabulary of “SILK” was a mixture of African and European gestures, some traditional, some contemporary. Throughout the dance, lighting design with specials on the floor emphasised solos or offered shading for clarification. The drummers not only provided a metronome for the dancers but also coloured the mood of a section. Without the drummers the audience may not have been able to follow punctuation or manipulation of meaning. Towards the end the dancers performed polyrhythmic movements, laid on the floor and then travelling through this landscape.

”SILK” seemed a metonym for fragility, for a certain opaqueness; a veil with a transparency that shielded chosen fragments but allowed seepage, some inkling of essence to pass through. There is much African symbology here; but there is also the intertextuality, modern dance cross-breeding and transliteration that gives this work its own particular landscape, its own peculiar language. A discussion of these altered approaches to African dance making were what was missed from casual conversations and printed reviews. Adzido’s dancing body is “black,” and for that reason is saddled with a host of connotations that harbour social/political ambiguity, ambivalence and fabrications of supposed cultural identity and practice. Its hybridity does not however make it any less African or unable to represent the current synthesis of African dance legacies or unable to participate in the contemporaneous African dance making exhibited by the choreographers of Moving Africa or 651 ARTS.

No dance practice is ever about the form itself. Embodiment and apprehension of that embodiment can and invariably does contradict each other. Adzido Dance like the choreographers of Moving Africa and 651 ARTS illustrate their dance making practices are the result of contemporaneous approaches to African dance. Perhaps these choreographers are the sign of post traditional affiliations that have enabled creative use of the current cultural equity embodied by African dance practitioners. These alternative approaches seem an appropriate re-presentation of African dance because they have the potential of being more prolific, inclusive of the varied multicultural dance legacies of past and present Africa. The works are testimony of the palette from which some present dance makers from the African Diaspora are using: diverse materials, inspirations and root sources available to them to redefine “African dance”.


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Edited by Azlan Ezaddin and Jeff.

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