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ACE (African Cultural Exchange)


by Thea Nerissa Barnes

November 23, 2004 -- Purcell Room, London

As stated in the program notes, ACE’s, African Cultural Exchange, vision is to “promote the understanding of African and Caribbean cultural, dance and music”. Gail Parmel, the Artistic Director of ACE, intends to use her experience of traditional and contemporary choreographic methods to create works that are relevant to British audiences. Parmel intends to build into her work inspirations that will encourage her audiences to dance spiritually and physically even before they applaud her works. Growing up in Britain , Parmel had never visited the Caribbean . Her Grandmother is from Antigua so Parmel’s reminiscences of the Caribbean are collected from oral stories heard as a child growing up in Leeds . These stories served as inspiration for Parmel to make up dances with her friends for local queen shows or community centre events. The imagery, stereotypical Caribbean icons like “women with big bottoms, big bellies and got their hair wrapped and always having conversation chatting over the fence”, served as the initial fodder for Parmel to investigate her Caribbean-ness. Currently these initial interests have evolved into a quest to develop choreographic expressions that draw on African and Caribbean sensibilities that have distinctive British influences. Parmel explains:

For ACE it’s about keeping Africa and Caribbean as the foundation for what we do. On top of that I draw all my experiences of being here in Britain and what’s around me and also what dance I trained in: bring them together instead of it being a bit of this and a bit of that. I’m trying to create seamless-ness not just in the approach but the work being visually seamless. So you can still visualise the African-ness of the work and the Caribbean-ness but then you can also understand where that’s coming from because of its contemporariness.

ACE’s performance at the Purcell Room 23 November 2004 was the latest endeavour for this young choreographer, accompanied by her musical director husband Ian Parmel, to evolve ACE’s aesthetic. “En-trance”, though, presented a mixed bag of influences and intentions. An invitation from Koffi Koko to visit Africa and witness a Vodun ceremony led to the investigation of trance. Parmel’s discovery was that trance was an outward manifestation of traditional African religious zeal. Parmel then realised a semblance between Africanist spirituality and urban club and rave dancers who use movement to embody the sense of freedom in spirit and mind that seems to have been vanquished from their urban existence. The observer type experience of the Vodun ceremony chosen by Parmel eluded her embodied sense of it but it did provoke empathy for the significance of trance. Ian Parmel has participated in Vodun ceremonies and thus has an embodied as well as practical knowledge of the intricacies of this religion. With Ian’s assistance and a working notion of trance Parmel choreographed and directed a work that became a mimetic response of her experience in Africa . This is not to denigrate the work because it was a good effort. “En-trance” does make the connection that trance as a strategy to release and succumb to music is as valid an approach within African religious practices as it is within contemporary British youth culture.

The work opens with thatched huts upstage right. Three dancers enter, Mirjam Gurtner, Zezé L S Kolstad and Dee Ovens. With their arms knitted to their torsos the dancers progress across the stage with sentry like moves. Guard-like, these dancers throughout this first section seem to represent centennials that protect the sanctity of a ceremony held within the thatched huts the audience is not allowed to see. As the work progresses a powerful solo is given by Josephine Okonji danced with brushes with yanvalou arms and back. There is also a strong sequence of phrases danced by the women dressed in white turbans and aprons presenting familiar Vodun ceremonial dress. The movement is performed in a circle creating its own particular sacred space. Each woman in her own way with vibrating body and varied poly centric arm and leg gestures dances with a ferocity beyond natural capabilities in order to manifest spiritual embodiment. At the end of this, Okonji immersed in her trance state exits behind the guards. This section seemed the most fulfilled, drawing on Parmel’s experience in Africa and her already acquired knowledge of African and Caribbean dance practices and movement vocabulary. There is also a predominance of conventional contemporary dance movement vocabulary evidenced in Parmel’s spatial arrangements and linearity within the movement for the centennials. This section though is a paraphrase of Parmel’s experience in Africa and presents what is usually believed to be characteristic of trance.

The second section choreographed by Bawren Tavaziva presents another understanding of trance that might have faired better as a work on its own, not sandwiched between Parmel’s abridged traditional presentation in the first section and urban club culture presentation with its amalgamation of contemporary dance and popular expressions as the closer. We are taken through a movement landscape that offers Tavaziva’s understanding of trance. His movement world presents a movement vocabulary that ACE dancers are not quite astute in. ACE dancers do not quite capture Tavaziva’s full body idiosyncratic way of moving. As the dance develops two dancers confront each other and a feigned battle ensues. The reason behind the confrontation though is not clear even though the protagonist Joanne Moven portrays does allude to a trickster-type spirit. Moven’s character was present in the first section as a participant and comforter in the ritualistic activities and in this second section is an instigator of ill will who is eventually repelled. Moven embodies trance as do the other dancers in the performance in the last section that has more to do with stirring up the audience to join in the tribe-like trance dance associated with urban rave dances than culminating the visual and visceral manifestations presented by the previous two sections.

Parmel’s research revealed that prescribed repetitious rhythms delineated in beats per minute encourage trance states in both African and urban dance activities like raves and house music. With original music by Andy Garbi, live percussion from Ian Parmel and the recorded voice of Monique Reid, beats for the work created a sacred space in the beginning, a dream world in the second and the pulsating club music for the last. The appearance of the vocalist Denice Gordon adds another textural layer to the wealth of sounds in the first section and her appearance in the third section assists in inspiring those who would dare in the audience to get up and rock with the dancers. There is also a video to begin the third section. It is Parmel’s choice to use new technologies in her dance works and the making of music and video are meant to support her choreographies. For “En-trance” though the video is a backdrop indicating an urban location and hinting at the repetition that causes trance states already set by the music. The video is decorative, adding another layer to the work that, however, doesn’t necessarily deepen an understanding of the work.

There is a difference between making a dance and making art. A dance practitioner can make a dance by regurgitating past dance movement experiences and their associated compositional structures or can challenge herself into distilling those experiences into memorable dance expressions. How to recollect past experience on stage so that a memory is relevant to others may fair better if it is not burdened with self-imposed social obligations. To make a dance a work of art takes insight and time to develop an individual voice that is evidenced in the nexus of the movement. From there an aesthetic expression becomes the summation of past and present life and dance experiences revised and shaped to reveal the ruminations of a unique voice. Given this Gail Parmel’s “En-Trance” is a work of note if it only serves to cause this young choreographer to contemplate what it is she intends to say with her dance works in the future.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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