Big Mission Festival
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by Thea Nerissa Barnes
Thoughts on the Debate: Cultural Fusions
There is a notion of sharing within this idea given opportunities in training. A dancer’s embodied knowledge can develop into an inclusive entity - an entity able to perform several movement languages well. In a context that forces Black dance practice to the margins, the black dancing body becomes the Other expression, marking an alterity pronounced by skin colour as much as form and content. It seems the British canon desires the black dancing body as a peripheral, marginal expression to claim as well as repel bits of its own identity. In this sense, exclusion from the canon is an asset making Black dance alterity a form of cultural equity. The canon tolerates this presence, cherishing its Otherness yet does not fully legitimise the practice.
Black dance and African Peoples’ Dance have their meanings and significances replicated in the notion of cultural fusions. The word “fusion” on its own indicates a motion, an action something one does but not the thing itself. Attached to “cultural”, “fusion” is another strategy to designate difference. This difference though does not acknowledge the transliteration or amalgamation of movement vocabularies that this process of dance making entails. For whose benefit is this label designed? Is the idea to create a category that distinguishes these practices so one can better identify the practice? Is the activism associated with these labels meant to eradicate the obstacles, racism, discrimination and limited access these practices confront?
These labels may have had an advantage in the past but currently the label enforces the tribulations it was designed to eradicate. It is proclaiming a separation, reinforcing difference and not confronting the ambivalence these works conjure in the eyes of white and black spectators. The connotations denote limited perceptions when the practices have evolved and contributed in so many ways to Britain’s dance legacy. From the view of the practitioners present in this debate, these labels were legitimate tags in the past but at present is losing credibility. The significance of these labels resides within the discourse of bureaucracy and political agendas not with the people and practices they supposedly represent. Funding body and sponsorship staff, prompters and venue managers would do well to listen to and note that these labels are not fully representative nor reflect what these dance makers are doing.
Performances: Lunchtime Platform for New Works by the Next Generation of Black choreographers & Evening Performances
Deborah Baddoo states “The aim of the Mission is to get black dance groups integrated into mainstream programs and venues and anybody that promotes or programs dance to stop marginalizing it”. The work presented by choreographers in the evening and new choreographers in the Platforms was good, even exceptional. Yet there is need as Baddoo points out to celebrate the alterity that Black dance making offers, and to make a space within the Britain’s dance canon that will not only acknowledge presence but participate in recognizing the legacy and credibility of these forms. The ideologies behind concepts within cultural diversity, and labels like Black dance and African Peoples’ Dance have been a double edged sword continuing white and black mythologies that malign these forms. Baddoo states “So it’s about getting venues to be educated about the range and the diversity of black dance forms that are around and to see them, to demystify them; that they are for everybody, not just for black audiences, they’re not just for a sort of tokenistic thing”.
The new choreographers presenting work in the Lunchtime Platforms illustrated dance making choices similar to all young British contemporary dance choreographers. Each presented individual choices to make work relevant and express ideas derived from individual lived experiences. These works gave a sense of what currently influences young choreographers. Contemplations on identity were seen in Cidinha Fursan Bendixen’s "Black Wings", an interdisciplinary work utilizing video projections and a solo dancer and Karensa Louis's, "Laughing To Stop Myself Crying", a solo that showcased this young dancer’s performance power illustrating her personal tribulation expressed through hypermobile physicality.
Leonard Jackson's lyrical jazz solo, inspired by 1950’s American beat poets from Jack Kerouac to Satya Dunning’s "Untitled", works that harked back to the early American post modern fascination with mundane, minimalist movement vocabularies were works that investigated the act of dance making and the choices one can make. Temitope Ajose-Cutting's "Shedding Light" and Garry Tomlinson's "Quench" testified to these young choreographers' Western, British approach to contemporary dance making while Gerrard Martin's "Rainbow In My Cloud" exhibited his musical theatre inspirations. Maria Ghoumrassi's "Mortar and Pestle" offered syncretism in embodied knowledge that drew from her contemporary dance and African/Caribbean experiences to illustrate a person’s breakaway from communal structures while Landing Mané's "Costs Nothing, Worth a Lot" presented a metisse of traditional African dance forms to illustrate how these forms removed from their context of origin can be used metaphorically to present the effects of a smile.
The dance works presented in the Evening Performances were viewed by prompters, regional arts organizations, and aficionados. Diverse expressions were in evidence in the content while some of the form seemed similar. Martin Robinson's "Yin & Yang" with its martial arts, body sequencing, and machismo inferences confirmed stereotypical expectations of the male black dancing body. Irven Lewis's "Ignite" is also an adept display of the use of urban dance expressions in a theatrical context. Colin Poole’s controversial "The Box Office" explores the ambivalence associated with the black dancing body deconstructing stereotypical expectations and exploitative strategies. Poole’s solo problematises myths regarding the black dancing body by presenting various perspectives on its fetishisation. Bawren Tavaziva's "Kumusha - I am Home”, a sixty minute presentation presenting Tavaziva works of prominence so far offered vivacious transliterations of African movement and rhythms linking with contemporaneous dance practices.
Kwesi Johnson's "Single Reflex" and Maria Ryan and Joanne Moven's collaboration with Rommi Smith, "Locks, Crops and Two Smoking Hot Combs," presented theatre based works that incorporated spoken text offering perspectives on identity. Donald Edwards' "Silent Caves" also used an actor, Taharka Ekundayo, speaking before and during the movement. Edwards work sets out to fuse contemporary dance with Black dance styles. Edwards’s perspective on life was poetically displayed by dancers whose reified contemporary dance skill only hinted at Africanist dance sources. Jeannette Brooks' "Orbital" also incorporated the poet Lennox Carty speaking while interacting with the dancers. Brooks' work with Zezé L S Kolstad's, "Many Faces" and Menelva Harry's "Changing Waters" also only hinted at Africanist dance sources with their pronounced use of Western contemporary dance composition and movement vocabularies.
The Jiving Lindy Hoppers presented their rendition of 1930/40’s style of jazz dancing. Established companies, Union Dance's eighty five minute presentation, "Permanent Revolution Virtual to Reality" with its eclectic mix of contemporary, martial arts and street dance forms with video projection and Jonzi D Lyrikal Fearta defining the syncretism of hip hop culture with contemporary theatre rounded up the week reiterating the current breath implicit in Black dance making in Britain.
Conversations with some of the spectators varied in appreciation and in where to place these expressions. It was even alluded that some of the work presenting dancing bodies trained in conventional Western contemporary and ballet techniques was perceived as old fashion and bland. One has to remember, though, this is what is being taught in dance institutions in Britain and perceptions that consider these young choreographers’ efforts old fashion and bland sabotages efforts to address their needs. Also, the artistry offered by choreographers who tap hip hop culture and urban sources hold a position of privilege. These innovative practices instead of being heralded for their ingenuity are unwittingly made tokens of the canon perpetuating the discernible difference that keeps Black dance on the margins.
The works presented at The Big Mission do not exhibit the same passions or the same formulas for making dance. If African Peoples’ Dance or Black Dance is used to designate dance making and aesthetics then the Big Mission practitioners defy all efforts to designate a category, set boundaries or define singularity. If the moniker is designed to summon advocacy, education and marketing tools then there is much work to do to first apprehend what the artists are doing. Baddoo believes those with the power to assist these artists are not listening, not seeing what these artists are proclaiming with their work: “I don’t really think they know what the needs of the artists are. Just talking to people like Jonzi and Irven… they fail to understand or see what direction the artists are going in”.
Perspectives of The Big Mission
The discourse surrounding the support and advocacy of Black British Dance seems a racialised ideology designed to gurney assess for those who feel tolerated or ignored by the canon of Britain’s dance community. Alterity apparent in aesthetic preferences and body narratives, these forms have been used as social and political tools for signifying difference, misunderstood and maligned by critics as much as celebrated by the audiences that attend their performances. Currently, Black British Dance practitioners and their particular dance making strategies confront the canon and its mythologies regarding who makes what dance and who proposes cultural relevance. These practitioners comment on the canon’s immobility, its imposed hierarchy of high and low art, and lateral tolerance of popular and culturally specific expressions.
Deborah Baddoo’s State of Emergency Ltd in partnership with David Massingham’s DanceXchange presented The Big Mission Festival to celebrate the new face of Black British Dance. Black British Dance has distinct practices within it but to continue to position these forms outside the mainstream of Britain’s dance community seems nonsensical. Baddoo’s strategy now is “integration” and this poses an alternative approach for positioning these dance practices at the centre of Britain’s dance community. Integration is a revisionist response to allow for a process of inclusion that requires abandoning labels and categories and focusing on people: focusing on the choreographer as a person with a distinct notion for making dance and the dancer a translator of that ideal, not a person with brown skin or flexed foot or ninety degree arabesque.
Black dance forms and practitioners require this context to acknowledge their presence and the efficacy of their individual practices. Integration means a revision, a letting go of previously held structures of appraisal to allow for alterity in body narrative and approach to dance making. Integration aims to challenge cherished beliefs of what makes a dance and what persons are suitable. It is an inclusive approach counting within its remit dance makers who choose and select from African, Caribbean, Asian, and Oceanic sources as well as Eurocentric, Western sources. These dance makers use the material for retrievals, discoveries, reclamations, and exchanging of information to embody and manifest authenticated and innovative similar and dissimilar dance expressions.
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