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Sakoba Dance Theatre - 'Sango', 'Iyanu (Miracle)'

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

March 12, 2006 -- The Place, London

“Sango” and “Iyanu (Miracle)” was the double bill presentation for Sakoba Dance Theatre’s 2005-2006 tour presented at The Place’s Robin Howard Theatre in London on March 12, 2006. Program notes indicate that Bode Lawal’s dance works are extensions of his traditional Nigerian dance forms channelled through European contemporary and American modern dance forms. The works are then to reflect and comment on, through an African perspective, contemporary human condition.

Currently described as postmodern, Lawal’s experience allows an amalgamation of traditional African forms and Western theatre dance forms to re-interpret contemporary reality. Historically speaking, what is perceived as modern dance is an era or repertory that was particularly expressionistic, abstract in as much as dance is an abstraction of life.

The dancing body is a person who received adoration from audience members who are moved by familiar gestural significances and visceral semiotics. The expression conveyed was mimetic or metaphoric in its aesthetic choice of content provided through chosen form, composition, and movement vocabulary developed to serve the vision of the choreographer and his dancers.

Postmodern was a progression from this to metonym -- essence of things, not the portrayal of the thing itself, and non-literal; to becoming more abstract, with less of an interest in the portrayal of human endeavour, metaphorical or linear story telling. Postmodern inclined the dancing body to a designed and ephemeral object that emphasised form; composition and movement vocabulary became self-indulgent and for its own sake.

Lawal’s choice is to take his embodied knowledge of traditional African dance forms, particularly Nigerian forms, and extrapolate, manipulate, and amalgamate elements of rhythmical and physical form with Western contemporary dance compositional devices. The ensuing synergy in form, though, does not detract from Lawal’s intense beliefs in the significance embedded in his African expressions.

One can assume that by calling Lawal’s work postmodern, one is refereeing to the manipulation of form -- the elements that distinguish African from European embodiment and performance. Lawal’s choreographic efforts are drenched in human emotions and significance implicit in African dance practice. This is what is evidenced in the strong spirituality in both “Sango” and “Iyanu (Miracle)”, which utilise compositional devices and theatrical presentation of Western contemporary dance.

The backdrop for “Sango” is designed by Vicky Sweatman. Its red and white design represents the power of Sango and the grace his worshippers believe in. Within the design is an axe. In the Yoruba dialect, the axe is called “ose” and symbolises Sango’s authority. The life story of Sango or Shàngó has many versions, but within Nigeria where the Yoruba people reside, Shàngó is an Oyo deity (orisha).

Shàngó’s name has had several spellings over the years, depending on which part of the African Diaspora his worshipers reside. Examples of the different spellings are Yoruba, Shàngó, Haiti, Chango, Fon, Hebiosso -- that in their own way continue the belief that he is the Thunder God.

It is believed that Shàngó, a medieval king, perhaps the third or fourth of the Yoruba people, was endowed with supernatural powers. Most infamous of these powers was his ability to speak with fire coming out of his mouth, hence the connection of his control of the forces of nature, thunder and lighting.

It is believed that Shàngó’s death transformed him into an eternal moral presence that seeks out and chastises those who commit impure human acts. The power of Shàngó strikes down from the heavens, plummeting the earth, and is likened to a messenger delivering God’s word, God’s judgement. Shàngó’s name is feared and never spoken casually, for to speak his name is to bring forth the truth or suffer the consequences of his wrath.

This reverence and respect is evidenced throughout the performance of “Sango”. “Sango” begins with a traditional, ritualistic solo performed by Lawal. Lawal’s solo is from the Nigerian culture and includes subtle vibrations in the hands which progress to full body trembling at centre stage and travelling about the space. Lawal ends the solo with a shout, seemingly to call the deity Sango.

Drummers and dancers enter, not necessarily in answer to Lawal’s shout, as to signal the beginning of a theatrical event that epitomizes the spirituality begun by Lawal -- and not the representation or literal portrayal of a sacred event. Lawal’s dancers intermittently call “Sango!!” as they dance while drummers provide a driving polyrhythmic structure. The rhythm is sustained with the sounds of congos, Bata, and snare drums played masterfully by drummers, Andy Moses, Ayo Thomas and Samuel Maitland.

The composition is arranged in a typical ensemble for dancers Marie Lawrence, Natalie Hewitt, Kamara Gray, Dennis Addorsoh, and Zenith Blythe. The movement is traditional African, arranged astutely so that solos give way to duets and trios with movement performance ranging dynamically from bombastic to legato, sequential like execution.

An African dance form particularly identifiable is Bata. Bata is a sacred Yoruba form involving music, movement, and spirit and is most associated with the deity Shàngó. Characteristic of Bata is the percussive dynamic manifested in shoulders and pelvis. This characteristic was performed expertly by Lawal and his proficient dancers, who moved individually with power and grace. As an ensemble, the dancers moved in unison with each gesture refined and polished.

There is no story told in this dance, or is it an enactment of a bona fide, sacred ritual? Lawal’s entrances seemingly punctuate the spiritual/ritualistic characteristic of the dance, securing the sacredness associated with the worship of Shàngó. The dancers and drummers represent and celebrate the spirit of Shàngó through punched movement visualised in foot, torso, and shoulder or sequential, breathy, and wave-like moves.

The only indication of a brief narrative occurs with an interaction between Addorsoh, Blythe and Gray. Addorsoh and Blythe appear to bicker, and Gray intercedes. This brief encounter, though short, amounted to a distraction from the main thrust of this work and somewhat contradicted the postmodern stance set from the beginning of the work and philosophy described in the program. This particular interaction interrupted the non-literal-ness of the work’s assumed intent and continuum.

“Iyanu (Miracle)”

Performed in front a backdrop of shredded, beige strips of fabric, which provides a passage for dancers to progress, “Iyanu” is hypnotic in its own way, prioritising wave-like, sequential dynamics, even at the expense of traditional African performance prescriptions. The movement prioritises embodiment and performance of a chosen synergetic execution of Africanist expressions that have been transliterated to express the intent of “Iyanu”.

With the music of David Karagianis providing the soundscape for Lawal’s vocalizations, “Iyanu” invokes a world of spirits for audience members to contemplate. Figures enter and leave the space, contributing to a sparse visual landscape that allows audience members to “ride” the rhythm and the visceral-ness of the movement mentally.

It is a dreamy world with the dancers and Lawal making mysterious entrances and exits through the shredded fabric. There are also several choreographed progressions upstage of the drape across theback. Lawal enters as the drummers go across the floor. Eventually the hypnotic sound track and Lawal’s voice disappear as the dancers’ ensemble works with its particular kind of undulations. Dancers and drummers soon progress and surround each other downstage centre. With vibration of arms singing and swirling of the head, “Iyanu” ends with a blackout.

“Iyanu”, unlike “Sango”, is a metonym for “miracle”, with scant emotional interactions between its protagonists. Individual performative acts are the only definition of character, relationship, or personality. The dancers are well trained and the choreography well rehearsed. The company bow ischoreographed with each dancer performing his or her signature move, including Lawal.

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