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Dance Africa Seminar

Africanist dance arts in the age of video reproduction

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

December 6, 2004 -- London

Dance Africa is a building-based project intended to be a centre of excellence for African & Caribbean dance practice in London. According to its many orchestrators including Peter Badejo and Robert Ramdhanie, the centre will support the practice of African dance: the music and dance, drama and storytelling found within performance on the African continent and the African Diaspora. Dance Africa also intends to be an emissary for African and Caribbean culture affording the access to associated cultural activities and products to include fashion and textiles, arts & crafts, information technology, archive and resource facilities, film/video/editing facilities, arts management & business planning.

Dance Africa boasts an international support system of notable African dance performers and scholars that includes Koffi Kokko (Benin/France), Professor Rex Nettleford (Jamaica), Francis Nii Yartey (Ghana) and Kariamu Welsh Asante (America).

Beginning Thursday, 21 October Dance Africa Kick-off Autumn 2004 offered nine seminars designed to provide a forum of discussion on major issues facing African dance practitioners here in Britain. Arts, education and marketing management strategies to innovations by some of Britain’s notable African dance practitioners was on offer. On 6 December Jackie Guy, director and choreographer, discussed Kokuma’s video documentation of "Spirit of Carnival". Andy Pag, freelance videographer also provided advice on the use of video recording for African dance. The seminar also discussed the politics behind recording dance be it for a performance or in a studio. Guy’s video presentation provided an insider’s perspective on taping studio and stage performance and the value and faults of each. Pag, who recently recorded Adzido Dance Theatre’s artistic process and a performance of Gregory Maqoma’s "Silk", provided the videographer’s perspective on shooting a performance, and gave a basic introduction to the technology involved.

Guy spoke eloquently and passionately about his creative process in the making of "Spirit of Carnival" for the now disbanded Kokuma Dance Company. Guy began with a discussion of the dance practices in Jamaica. It has been Guy’s experience that the dances done in the dance halls are very revivalist in their manner of performance. His estimation is based on an analysis of the effort, flow, shape, and dynamic seen in the performance of these dances. Guy explained that the merger of the sacred and secular in these social dance practices is due to their Africanist root source. The circumstance within Jamaica can be a very violent place but this dynamic retains its religious inclinations. Guy believes these two dynamics, violence and religious, have fostered dance hall expressions with music and movement that resonates with the experiences of the people.

This direct connection to the people and their ability to transform lived experiences and to transcend self and circumstance is a trait found in Jamaica, indeed in many Africanist dance practices whether populist, sacred, or theatrical. Guy spoke of an African derived form performed at Jamaican wakes called Dinki Mini which is a celebration of death that is both sacred and secular. It is done to “cheer up” the bereaved with comical songs and sensuous movement; the sensuous in this instance believed to be that of procreation and thus a force of goodness against the forces of evil.

As the Artistic Director of Kokuma, Guy would commission performance art specialists from the African Diaspora to collaborate in the making of new productions. Guy would bring a writer, a choreographer or director to develop a language that would be entertaining, but communicate significances and be relevant to Kokuma members. Guy would essentially coordinate movement language, costumes, and staging to convey a joint vision. Kokuma had its root source in the dances of Ghana, West Africa, but Guy also took opportunities to enrich and enhance Kokuma’s Caribbean knowledge, especially the Jamaican aspect. Guy made this artistic choice because for him the obvious connections between the religious practices of Kumina, Shango and Voodum from Jamaica, Trinidad and Haiti aligned with their root sources in West Africa and the Congo. It was logical and necessary that the dancers of Kokuma, who were also trained in contemporary dance forms, be exposed to the genealogy of the African forms they would perform as well. The dancers shown on the video had also been instructed by Koffi Koko, famed West African master teacher.

"Spirit of Carnival" is a production written by Jean Binta Breeze. Guy also commissioned H Patten to design the costumes and Geraldine Connor to write the libretto. Guy presented two videos: one a perspective of the dance performed in a brightly lit studio with the dancers in rehearsal clothes and the other a wide angle shot allowing a panoramic view of the dance in full costume and theatrical lighting.

The studio showing is very intimate allowing attention to many performance details like the dancers’ facial expressions and performative muscularity. This kind of detail would not have been seen had they been in costume. Details of their facial expressions were not seen in the wide angle shot taken a great distance from the stage. The music heard on the video was a layered sound of drums, bass guitar providing a melody, clavis, wind instruments and an assortment of other percussion sounds. The movement language was evocative with its moments of stillness and bombastic dynamics, yonvalou movement in the spine with rotating as well as percussive hip moves.

A slow section developed into a fast boisterous section with the men doing flips and barrel jumps and the women performing percussive hip movements. This beginning section seemed a non literal illustration of the dichotomy between Jamaican secular and sacred dance sensibilities. Guy stated that this beginning section led to the more narrative sections of the dance. The third section was also ritualistic, complete with Africanist influenced movement, music and the dancers singing. Choreographically there were circular and ensemble spatial arrangements, repetition in movement as a requisite strategy for creating trance characteristics, percussive West African bata like full body moves, head rolls, and group movement on the knees that developed into traveling movements on the feet.

Guy discussed the symbolism and making of "Spirit of Carnival" explaining the basis upon which some of the characters and movement were chosen. One insight discussed by Guy was Breeze’s observation of the twentieth century transformation of iron into steel; a modern innovation that enabled the material necessary for the Trinidad’s development of the steel pan drum. This incitement of modernity also embellished the religious symbolism attaching Ogun the Yoruba god for iron and war with the element of steel. In the narration, the lead man was the son of a pan man called Steel. This was to provide the symbolistic connection necessary for the ritualistic preparation in the dance for the entrance and manifestation of Ogun. There is also a section of music that associates the connection between Africanist religious sensibilities and Catholicism. Connor layered the sound during one section with drums and Gregorian-like chants. The dancers’ movement while dressed in ruffled white skirts is textured combining the reverence of ritual with lyrical hip moves done to the rhythmical sequences of the drums. The dance is a cross cultural expression merging African and Catholic ritualistic influences.

Video taping a work in the studio allows for the archiving of dance practice for future reference for company members as well as researchers canvassing the aesthetic repository of a company. Guy’s presentation providing analysis of the video revealing choreographic and performance strategies also highlighted the perils of reconstruction. Success would depend on familiarity with the form and content of Kokuma’s dance practices. There is the potential the work would be bastardised if the meaning behind the movement were misconstrued or lost because Guy or those who were part of the creative process were not present during reconstruction. Video taping any dance poses these positive and negative dilemmas. A dance can be recorded and saved for viewing or reconstruction but without explanations of the practice, the inherent significances explained through a familiarity with the culture and context of practice, the meaning of the dance would be lost.

The last section presented a carnival event adding the pan man, police man and the main characters of the narrative. The script written by Breeze envisioned a journey through the seasons beginning with winter. There is a ritualistic contact with mother earth at the beginning, then movement metonyms indicating spring, summer, and then carnival. The dance indicates that carnival is a time to transform the mundane and encapsulate the phantasm where characters portray gods and transcend routine circumstances. At the end of this section the protagonists return as flower seller, street cleaner, policeman, mother, daughter, and young man. With the video presentation Guy also explained the context and time of practice in which Kokuma’s presentation of "Spirit of Carnival" was performed. Guy spoke of the strategies put in place to educate the audiences of Kokuma. Simple strategies like providing program notes that explained the work for all to read since most would not buy a program. This was an effort to provide the education needed for audiences to access "Spirit", a full evening’s presentation steeped in both Africanist and Europeanist dance making devices and meanings. There was still confusion, Guy believed, because Kokuma’s audience’s expectations weren’t met and critics were unfamiliar with the movement vocabulary or Africanist expressions and symbolism.

Andy Pag discussed the intricacies of documenting a dance on video, particularly the difference between stage performance of a dance and a video presentation of the same dance. Pag discussed camera technique and editing strategies: wide shots, close ups, jump cut, cut aways, pans, the pros and cons of zoom, fades and pace, use of light to create mood and the advantages of colour in creating varied moods. Pag’s presentation of his video of Adzido’s "Silk" was used as an example of what can be accomplished with four cameras.

The four camera positions consisted of one static camera located in the center providing a wide angle shot, two operator cameras at angles in the theatre able to focus on individual dancers and one camera mounted on a jib operated by Pag. Pag explained the intention of the camera operators was to concentrate on specific views with the wide angle static camera used to balance off the edits from the other three vantage points. Pag also discussed the difference between presentation strategies for an hour documentation of a dance and a three minute presentation meant to grab interest quickly. For the three minute presentation Pag showed a video done for Greta Mendez that was used as a proposal to fund a dance project.

The discussion after Pag’s presentation revolved around what aesthetic is seen in the video presentation of an African dance. Pag believes that to make a video of a theatre dance work into “art” involves an abundance of technology. It was soon agreed that the videographer becomes the artist whose choices, whether he or she uses an extensive amount of technology or not, make a video presentation of any dance “art”. The notion of “art” is fulfilled by an appraisal of the resultant product not necessarily the level of technology. The videographer, with his editing choices, and whether he or she is also the choreographer or in consultation with the choreographer or not, provides on video a re-presentation of the dance.

The re-presentation becomes the manifestation of his or her aesthetic choices, his or her interpretation of the dance. This is what makes the documentation of African dance problematic for Peter Badejo. Lack of education of Africanist practices leads to misconstrued interpretations, ill advised aesthetic choices, and consequently inappropriate and ill advised presentations. Guy also added that what was achieved in the education of Africanist aesthetics over the years by Ekome, Kokuma, and Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble lacked the validation needed to reach a wider population of dance enthusiasts. It took a long time to educate and inform audiences of Britain and the entire British dance community what true West African and Caribbean traditions were. This process has yet to succeed with its self imposed obligation and mandate to appraise Britain of the efficacy of Africanist dance practices in all its manifestations. The avenues to learn and teach Africanist expressions in Britain were ill equipped, not substantiated nor supported and are beginning to dwindle into non existence.

Edited by Jeff.

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