Bode Lawal's Post Modern African Dance
by Thea Nerissa Barnes
Bode Lawal is an exponent of traditional African dance but is currently devising alternative, syncretic dance making strategies for his company, Sakoba. Lawal moved to Britain and formed Sakoba in 1987 and has recently returned from sabbatical in the United States. Lawal’s revived artistic vision presents what he calls “post modern” African dance.
Post modern means being radical. The word “post modern” was developed when I researched at UCLA with people like David Roussève and Victoria Marks. I’m creating my own dance language; which is being radical. Changing the spirit of people, changing the technique, changing the way people feel the music. Like the music is doing bump bump bump now, the movement might be slower than that. I’m manipulating the music and the dance together at the same time. This new piece is going to question the approach to our work. The music has been questioned; African dance music tells the dancer what to do but now with Sakoba the dance is on its own, the music is on its own, but at the point the two meet together.
Lawal’s post modern African dance proposes innovative and original choreography inspired by the confluence of dance within the world while remaining true to African cultural traditions. Lawal’s proclamation is provocative in this British dance culture, a context that sets classical ballet at the top of the canon while teeming with traditional, hybrid, and syncretic expressions. One wonders though when African dance was ever a "modern" dance form to warrant Lawal’s "post modern" stance. Also, one might ask when was the Africanist presence acknowledged as a viable dance aesthetic choice in this British context?
Reflecting on varied expressions in dance theatre in Britain since the 1940s, the dancing body whether black or white has represented one or both of the following: as an entity of individual propensity and as a representative of ethnically specific artistic expression. The propensity of dance makers, either America’s modern or post modern or what were Britain’s early moderns then liberated New Dance practitioners, and current contemporary dance practitioners is to challenge audience expectations and sensibilities with unsettling commentaries and images of contemporary life.
Each dance maker has the need to reveal h/er “vision of what dance means in the world and how the world reveals itself in dance” . Each vision is a particular kind of dance making with its own movement vocabulary and site of presentation that seeks to challenge the boundaries of what is interpreted and expected as dance theatre. It is this challenge of conventionality, rupture from the norm, that has made the dancing body that privileges Africanist expressions, particularly traditional Africanist expressions, an object of controversy as much as an agent of social change in Britain. An entity of ambivalence attributed numerous cultural identities; the dancing body performing distinct Africanist expressions has been an object of contradiction and never holding a secure position within the British dance culture.
I’ve gone beyond calling Sakoba African contemporary which to most everybody means “fusion”; we don’t do that any more. What I’m trying to do now is A) create my own dance language and make it more assessable to what’s happening today, B) not focusing mainly on stories. "Aseju!" There’s a theme about it but the next piece I’m creating which is called "Sango/Iyanu (Miracle)" is abstract. I will not forget my tradition, which is African Nigerian technique; but what I’m doing with African Nigerian technique is taking it with me and trying to make it look more clean and polished for what is happening today without loosing the source or root of what is happening. African dance today is not just about jumping around like a monkey: its believing in yourself, dealing with what is happening around you but using the aesthetic of African traditional dance.
In 2005 the dancing body that privileges recognisable traditional Africanist expressions in its use of bent knees, flexed feet, broken lines, poly centre and poly rhythmical movement vocabularies, earth bond affinities, buxom women and men with robust muscularity remains an awe inspiring and mystifying entity. It has also been a denigrated and dismissed entity admired, invisiblised and misunderstood in this British dance culture at least since its emergence with Berto Pasuka’s Les Ballets Negres in 1946. The Sunday Times, 5 May 1946 stated Ballet Negres impressed the audience with its vitality and sincerity introducing English theatre to a new kind of dance drama while the East Anglian Daily Times printed 22 December 1948: "Pasuko, displays to even greater advantage his virtuosity as a dancer and actor; his mime compares with that of any dancer known to us"  . Les Ballets Negres though was excluded from the 1951 Festival of Britain because it was believed to have represented colonial not British culture. Exotica, Les Ballet Negres Africanist expressions were marginalised, credited for their innovations but excluded because of their Otherness.
Berto Pasuka’s choreographies expressed human emotion through African dance forms and idioms. Les Ballet Negres is considered “a highly successful British repertory company performing in an African dance idiom” though not considered a member of Britain’s early modern dance canon because of its lack of European modern dance elements . This recognition of existence but exclusion from the canon relegated African and Caribbean forms and idioms to the margins, illegitimate and not credible. Pasuka and fellow founder member, Richie Riley's, motives for making dance were no different than any other early modern dance exponents working in Britain at the time. The language they used, though, was not recognised as viable modern dance material.
British dance culture with its long established traditions of classical ballet includes the emergence of British, European and American modern dance making. From early British dance maker and teacher, Margaret Morris, developing her work from 1910 to the arrival of European dance makers Kurt Jooss, Sigurd Leeder, Rudolf Laban at Dartington Hall in Devon in the 1930s and 1940s, dance makers drew from their surroundings to cultivate distinctive aesthetics that chose alternative or revitalised movement vocabularies distinct from classical ballet’s tenets. The strands of dance expression included in Britain’s early twentieth century genealogies stretches between musical theatre and modernist, expressionistic dance forms from Germany and America. Within this confluence though was an Africanist presence.
During the 1940s and 1950s ad hoc Caribbean and African groups presenting cabaret performances in Britain held a presence but not a substantial profile. With British audiences having no previous experience in seeing bare foot dance and a context that regarded traditional Africanist dance expressions as wild, lascivious, uninhibited, and exotic, Pasuka and Katherine Dunham presented innovative applications of Caribbean and African forms to modern dance: Pasuka in Britain and Europe and Dunham, America, Britain and Europe. Dunham’s anthropological research in Africa and Haiti provided the foundation for her choreographic works performed in London and Paris in 1948. Dunham’s "Caribbean Rhapsody" presented at Prince of Wales Theatre impressed British critics of The Times and Observer with the Dancing Times complimenting Dunham and her dancers’ particular use of traditional Africanist dance expressions.
Pasuka’s choreographies along with Dunham and other dance makers utilising Africanist expressions ruptured not only classical ballet tenets but also altered approaches to European modern dance practices with their Africanist movements and revitalised compositional devices. They presented dance spectacles as well as emotional dramas that countered the popular plantation, minstrel, and revue presentations of the 1940s and cabaret of the 1950s otherwise most associated with Africanist expressions. These dance makers weren’t just vivifying the Africanist presence in Britain’s dance culture, their particular kind of expression was radical, an indication of new possibilities -- the presentation of alternative choices that countered the norm.
Kurt Jooss’ "Green Table" was a movement metaphor commenting on the politics of World War II. Pasuka’s "They Came" commented on the tribulations of racial tension aside the equalising effects of a World War that affected all races. What was the difference that excluded Pasuka but included Jooss in the British dance canon? The liberalness upon which critics and dance supporters appreciated early modern dance practitioners and at present British New Dance and contemporary dance making exponents seemed then as now unable to apprehend the alternative expressions posed by dance makers who choose Africanist idioms. This context professes tolerance but in actuality is limited in its capability to apprehend overt Africanist expressions.
Most traditional African dance is considered cultural tourism, wearing grass skirts or just does something very simplistic. We’re not just doing the same thing which the dance lobbyists call cultural tourism. In post modern African dance theatre we do not have to wear African costumes to show that we’re Africans. The body, the movement will depict the traditional aspect of what we’re trying to do.
Lawal’s post modern stance is a further development of the use of Africanist expressions to express world views practiced in the 1940s, 1950s and the related genealogies seen in the 1970s and 1980s. A fair number of African, African Caribbean and British born African descent dance makers of the 1980s face the same ambivalence with economic, political and social ramifications conflating their ability to secure a credible place in Britain’s dance culture. MAAS Movers, a group of traditional and contemporary trained dancers that developed with support from the governmental arts agency, Minority Arts Advisory Service, is an example. Artistic Director, American trained dancer, Ray Collins, and Associate Directors, Evrol Puckerin and Greta Mendez both from Trinidad and Tobago, chose themes inspired by dance practices that drew on Africanist forms and expressions. These practitioners presented cross cultural, syncretic works that were a mixture of contemporary and traditional forms using music and dance from India, Africa and the Caribbean.
George Dzikunu heralded a new era in traditional African Dance practice in Britain with the founding of Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble in 1984. Dzikunu’s mission statement for Adzido was to promote the appreciation, understanding and practice of original African peoples dance in Britain and abroad. Adzido and MAAS Movers began in a time when professionals, teachers, probation officers, and social workers joined forces with professional performing artists in community initiatives to reclaim cultural heritages of Africa and the Caribbean. The largest building-based African dance company of its time, Adzido’s noteworthy accomplishments were the positioning of an Artistic Director from the African continent with a vision to produce the best possible “large scale” Africanist dance and music that focused on original material.
The 80s proliferation of Africanist practices appeared during a time of social and political revival and reclamation within African and African Caribbean communities in Britain. The post war immigration of the 1940s that fostered Britain’s polycultural society of the 1980s also fostered a need for ethnically disparate communities to enliven cultural identities. Kokuma in Brimingham, Ekome in Bristol, Delado in Liverpool, Lanzel in Wolverhampton, Steel and Skin and Irie! in London with MAAS Movers and Adzido used Africanist expressions in numerous ways -- from representing tradition to syncretic expressions that brought traditional African dance forms to the forefront with their varied idiosyncratic expressions. The disappearance of these companies had as much to do with infrastructural disputes and mismanagement as lack of value in a context ambivalent in its appreciation of Africanist expressions.
In Britain, African dance seems to have its own variety of hurdles to jump. Its numerous genealogies give evidence of manic growth spurts then disjuncture satisfying or dissatisfying the cultural and social/political needs of its root community and the cultural canon that marginalizes it. Adzido was made to cease trading by the Arts Council of England (ACE) who cut revue funding in 2005. Irreconcilable differences regarding proposed business plans and ambivalence concerning aesthetic credibility were two major contributing factors. From its beginnings, Adzido was positioned to dilute the homogenizing and denigrating effects of England’s culture canon but ultimately its Africanness mitigated its ability to operate beyond its position of Other. Lawal’s believes his post modern stance will resist these kinds of repercussions. Lawal believes his post modern African dance is not only a way of making dance but also a counter strategy for the kinds of conflicting, often duplicitous efforts by critics and stakeholders to support, but in actuality, deprive the form of its value and its place.
I’m sure you’ve seen my work in the past, when you watch this new show you will see the journey. This is what it’s saying now because I’m following myself now, I’m not listening to what the Arts Council wants me to do. This is what I encountered at UCLA, believing in yourself as an artist, being honest with your work. This is my own dance language, what we discovered in dance lab but in this lab we are processing African dance, making it more accessible, making it more original, making it more unique without losing the essence of the African ness of what we are trying to do. That’s why the word post modern; it’s coming to mean a dance theatre. Let’s say a Chinese person comes to see the show, an Indian person, an African person or Bengalese or any body who comes to see "Aseju" they will like the work because the movement idea behind the theme is very universal. It’s what is happening now.
Lawal’s post modern African dance is as much about his awareness of the politics in making dance in Britain as it is how he chooses to jump, turn, and indicate significance with a particular head or arm gesture. Overwhelmingly, though, dance makers that use Africanist expressions seem to be burdened with cultural obligation. Bourn out of social benevolence and initiatives to provide British communities with diverse, alternative art presentations, Africanist expressions are used for social reform, educational strategies and fortification of identity. These initiatives, though, are not enough to sustain these practices. African dance as public art is vested in charity; its art practice not validated nor considered serious art. The problems are manifold and this history with its tragic consequences is destined to repeat itself as viewed by Bill Harpe, artist, administrator, critiquing dance and cultural issues for "The Guardian". Harpe in discussion with Peter Blackman, formerly the officer responsible for cultural diversity at ACE, offers a metaphor. The demise of Adzido is exemplary of the “Size 2 Shoe” and “Management Attrition” phenomenon . Victimised instead of validated, the cycle of marginalisation or annihilation seems inevitable. With the current influx of cross cultural dance making and new additions of small and middle scale BME dance organisations to ACE 2006-2008 portfolio it is vital to articulate what are continuing faults in the genealogies of Africanist dance expressions in Britain, and why Lawal’s post modern African dance has such resonance.
"Aseju", Lawal’s latest production, received mixed reviews but the work has evidence of modernist approaches. "Aseju" fractures and disintegrates traditional African idioms to divine an expression that tells a traditional metaphorical story in an altered manner. Lawal essentially deconstructs form by using recognisable Africanist expressions explored for alternative movement possibilities and significances. Portraying a reflection of current social/political and personal circumstances, the gestures with their overt traditional African lineage speak of an urban crisis. Lawal presents unsettling commentaries and images of contemporary life with virtuosity facilitating a contemporaneous variation on traditional African movement vocabularies.
The drummers’ poly rhythms counter the rhythms to the dancers’ movements. Overt facial expressions camouflage the true nature of that being portrayed. An outrageous laugh, grimace, curt smiles and manner of walk present other rhetorical significances offering contradiction and parody. All these characteristics are recognisable traits within Africanist dance expressions. These strategies are also used in contemporary dance but with Lawal there is a difference. Lawal seeks to revitalise these traits, reviving what is known while retaining the dignity traditional African dance forms receive in America and African continent but is still sought after here in Britain.
I’m moulding myself like Alvin Ailey: this man is gone now, but he’s got his legacy behind him - look at Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham; people still talking about Martha Graham up to today. In African Peoples Dance we don’t have that. This is what I’m trying to do for African traditional dance. African Peoples dance is not dead. Not dead at all. If you watch "Aseju" there’s ritual dance there, there’s social dance. You will see traditional African dance but it’s been cleaned, it’s been polished.
Current cross cultural dance making in Britain invariably chooses compositional and inspirational strategies that favour more Europeanist or politically acceptable expressions. Lawal’s pontificating alludes to an implication that traditional African dance needs to be more clean and polished to achieve appreciable British acceptance. Sanjoy Roy in The Guardian, 9 March 2005, states in his review of Sakoba Dance Theatre's performance of "Aseju" at the Robin Howard Dance Theatre 4 March 2005, "If you think African dance is all about traditional rituals, talking drums and dynamic energy, think again” . These reflections are evidence of erasure and reclamation that leads to the ambivalence surrounding African dance expressions here in Britain.
When you talk about African dance class, the notion is that they’re going to be jumping around; there’s no motivation behind it and if they really study this technique they will find there is motivation behind African dance technique and again people might think its being practiced by people from Africa which is a problem with APD in London today… When you watch "Aseju" you will see all this element of African traditional in the work, everything. Some people still talking about “What?” using this technique and the old choreography…
I prefer what I’m doing now with my work, my language, I prefer post modern African dance theatre. African dance theatre means total theatre, which involves music, dance, drama, sets, visuals, like you do dance drama, that’s what African dance theatre means; its total theatre, it combines all this. I like the words African dance of today or post modern.
Africanist expressions in Britain are multifarious. There is no one way of moving or no one type of dancing body. Bawren Tavaziva is a new recipient of substantial ACE funding. Tavaziva “combines traditional dance forms of Africa within a contemporary Western base” . Although having experience in traditional Zimbabwean dance practices, Tavaziva amalgamates this embodied knowledge to devise contemporaneous dance works that have an urban post colonial edge. Traditional in this aesthetic is syncretic - a previously distinct tradition dissolved into a single new expression. Tavaziva's syncretic expression, though, is distinct from Lawal’s post modern African dance. Tavaziva may be inspired by traditional forms of Zimbabwe, but his dance making is not the re-presentation of these forms.
Nii Tagoe of Frititi does specialise in the re-presentation of original African dance forms. Tagoe does not receive support from ACE but has managed to sustain his company and his dance practices that find their origin in several African countries, Gambia, Ghana, Benin Tagoe, Tanzania, South Africa to name a few. Tagoe has a good profile having recently presented his company for the Enthronement of the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury on 27 February 2003 at the Canterbury Cathedral and the Nelson Mandela Make Poverty History Campaign held on 2 February 2005 at Trafalgar Square, London. Tagoe believes “African dance is bigger than us and can be bigger than what it is now” (6). Tagoe having worked with Adzido between 1990-1996 believed Adzido was in the right place but did not succeed because of intra and inter understandings of Adzido’s place and value of “original” African dance forms here in Britain.
This level of disparity makes the apprehension and cataloguing of Africanist expressions complicated when one seeks to validate these practices in this context. This is further complicated by post colonial contemporaneous ness and western, Europeanist theatre appropriation in dance making by South and West African choreographers from the continent of Africa appearing in Britain in the last three years. Africanist expressions in Britain whether traditional or not, do not re present some form of cultural nationalism but they do amass specific ethnic allegiance. African indigenous, traditional forms that are geographically specific but reconstructed and practiced in Britain face ghettoisation; considered stereotypical and dismissed. Pasuka’s 1940’s vision and Lawal’s current post modern stance reflect this dilemma of credibility and need to legitimise Africanist dance expressions here in Britain. Printed in the Manchester City News, 22 July 1949 Pasuka’s states: The world has seen us comedians and dancers in musical comedy and revue, and in comic roles on the screen, but we are trying to interpret the Negro language seriously in dance form. Negro ballet must take its place with Javanese, Indian and Western ballet. Lawal’s statement also a proposal for recognition: “'Aseju' will show that African dance does not have to be limited by its own stereotypes and I hope to make post-modern African dance more accessible to a wider audience”.
In Britain Africanist dance expressions, whether privileging traditions or syncretic, is a history of disjuncture with Lawal’s post modern African dance a continuation of cross cultural dance making seeking legitimisation in a context no less ambivalent towards Africanist dance expression than it was with Les Ballet Negres in the 1940’s. The same questions are asked. Will that which is being produced serve its intended artistic, social, and political functions, will it appease the critics with its aesthetic practices, and most importantly will it return monetary value for that which is spent especially if it is government funded. The answers to these questions vacillate in response to the times and compliance with truths held by those who practice and those who support.
With the closure of Adzido, £1,011,000 became available for investment by ACE. An invitation only process was initiated by ACE intending the investment be spent to meet cultural diversity targets. The selection process was intended to insure the revenue would go back into the African Peoples' Dance (APD) sector. This would serve ACE desired profile of cultural diversity. Currently though, the discourse within British dance culture indicates APD is more a bureaucratic term having little relation to the character of the sector it was designed to represent. The recipients afforded opportunities to establish themselves may face the same tribulations their predecessors have faced in Britain for at least the last fifty nine years. Despite these disadvantages Lawal is determined to cultivate his own post modern African dance aesthetic. Lawal chooses to infuse the dancing body with palpable Africanist idioms; with discreet culturally specific African movement languages. Lawal, who has chosen overt Africanist expressions, will continue his journey.
When I teach my technique, I say my name is Bode Lawal from Sakoba. I’m going to teach you dances from Nigeria, which is the west of Africa. Of course I know Ghanaian dance, I know Senegalese. My technique is rooted in Nigeria which is the west of Nigeria, the Yoruba, from the east the Igbo, and northerner, which is the Housa from the north. My dance is what I learned, what I’ve seen in Yoruba land; social dance, ritual dance and then cultural dance. The Igbo, I learned the courtship dance and I learned Atilogun dance; they dance on their toes a lot with a long cow bell. I learned War Dance from Yoruba which is the Shango; it’s a ritualistic dance with Shango and Ogun; Ogun is the god of iron, Shango is the god of thunder; I know about Oshun, the river goddess, I learnt specific movements from that as well. It’s my roots, I’m not going to throw my roots away. My ancestors will not forgive me; they coming with me for the rest of my life. But what I’m doing, I’m creating my own language with it.
1: Jowitt, Deborah. Introduction. Fifty Contemporary Choreographers. Ed. Martha Bremser. London: Routledge, 1999.
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