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Bode Lawal Sakoba Dance Theatre

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

November 30, 2007 -- Robin Howard Dance Theatre, London, UK

Bode Lawal Sakoba Dance Theatre was seen 30 November 2007 at The Robin Howard Dance Theatre here in London, England. It was a pleasure to see that in Britain the Africanist tradition can be represented astutely and creatively in a contemporary manner. It was also a pleasure to see this contemporary approach includes inclusive educational projects that introduce Yoruba dance practices to aspiring young British dancers of varying ethnic backgrounds.

The program began with dances created for Sakoba Connect, an educational project started in 2000 working with youth ranging in age from 11 to 18. The project offered an opportunity for BME [ed: Black and Minority Ethnicities. See footnote 1 below] youth of several ethnic backgrounds from Holy Cross School in Kingston Surrey and Exetable School in Swanley to study Sakoba’s post traditional African dance. This kind of education work enables Sakoba to build its audiences and train future members for the company; current members of Sakoba, Joao Ferreira and Ria Uttridge, received their training through the project. Movement sensibilities sourced from Lawal dance technique accompanied by signatures from Lawal’s research along with singing and chanting were presented by the first group and least experienced while the second and third group showed more command of dynamic shifts and performance attitude.

Bode Lawal Sakoba Dance Theatre is post traditional and as such utilises traditional movement expression in a contemporary manner. Company members also illustrate the diversity that is British society – their dancing bodies a kaleidoscope of ethnicity representing several cultures: Irish, English, West and South African, Japanese and Brazilian. Embodiment of alternative cultural expressions assist in the eradication of ambivalence often associated with Africanist dance practices. No matter the heritage, the dancing body performing distinct Africanist expressions viscerally and proficiently fragments spectatorship circumscribed by racism and curves a space in this often duplicitous context which touts diversity and tolerance while marginalising and subjugating alternative expressions.

In reflection, the whole evening defined Bode Lawal’s vision of contemporary dance making that draws from African dance forms. It could be discerned from the youngest neophyte in the education work to Bode Lawal Sakoba Dance Theatre dancers and musicians. Lawal envisions his dance making pushes contemporary dance beyond cultural tourism and eliminates vapid use of Africanist expressions. Lawal does this by refining technical practice grounded on the ritualistic and symbolic dance of Yoruba traditions.

Bode Lawal dance technique is referred to as post traditional. Program notes describe the genealogy that fosters Lawal’s creative perspective; his expertise in traditional Yoruba dance forms, international renown and numerous awards. Post traditional indicates manipulation of Yoruba source material to achieve an assortment of contemporary sensibilities.

This present tour for Sakoba Dance Theatre is called “Okan’ Nijo” (One) and is comprised of three works: “Aiduronijo” (Clockwork), “Ogo” (Glory) and “Okan’ Nijo” (One) New Work. Except for “Ogo”, “Aiduronijo” and “Okan’ Nijo” are abstract, non literal works. For “Okan’ Nijo” further research was taken by Bode Lawal, Artistic Director and choreographer for Sakoba, in China with Willy Tsao, Artistic Director of City Contemporary Dance Company and Guangdong Modern Dance Company, Rosangela Silvestre founder of the Silvestre Technique and Silvestre Link in Brazil, Indian choreographer/Guru, Usha Venkateswaran and Indian Surupa Sen, Director of Nrityagram Dance Ensemble and Cultural Festival.

With this experience and the Lawal technique, the works have specific characteristics. The works contained movement ideas within ideas; a solo dancer is more a force, a specific dynamic that replicas or counters rhythms created by a drummer or of recorded music. Duets, quartets, trios have their particular rhythmical expressions or introduce ensemble expressions. There is no story; only encounters or cause and effect. “Ogo” (Glory) takes an expressionistic approach offering a dance rich in its representation of spiritual beliefs of a benevolent, omnipresent force. “God Won’t Fail” is the spiritual heard for this modern dance piece performed passionately in the traditional expressionistic manner by Lawal, and rehearsal assistant, Kristin Kelly.

Lawal’s post traditional practice has its cultural politics, as do those who watch the performance. Lawal savours the spiritual and ritualistic while stressing and perfecting movement proficiency. Similar to post modern practices that moved away from modern dance’s expressionism, Lawal seeks the manipulation of the movement imbued with spirit but devoid of narrative. It is a challenge for those who watch if the dancing body is subjugated by difference and cloaked with the burden of “Other” ness. It is even more a challenge when the dancing body embodies with clarity and prowess the movement language of difference.

Aiduronijo” begins with a birds-like motif with twitching percussive-ness accompanied by fluid sequential moves, introducing dancers who lead musicians while holding instruments. Upstage right there is a still figure posed on the floor. As the musicians position themselves and the dancers exit, the figure rises and travels downstage on skittering feet and trembling body in a column of white light. Lawal is dressed in a white lace unitard wearing a white bird mask moving in contrast to his dancers’ more virtuosic moves; commanding the stage with his presence, not his prowess. His exit signals the dancers to enter and perform nuanced variations on bata, a Yoruba traditional dance practice that has sacred, religious elements.

Bata is a sacred Yoruba form involving music, movement and spirit and is most associated with the Yoruba orisha (deity), Sango or Shàngó. Yoruba dance practice though, is comprised of several elements that signify each one of the orichas in the Yoruba pantheon. Shàngó, Ochún, and Yemayá seem the preferred orichas for Lawal’s choreography. Yoruba expressions range from the female-like sequential, sensual water-like moves most associated with Ochún and Yemayá to the bombastic, male punch-like moves associated with Shàngó. The moves though are performed by all and are not gender specific. Originating in Nigeria, bata spread to Cuba, Bahia in South America, Caribbean, America and presently Britain during Atlantic migrations. Bata is a distinct technique of drum sounds made by one or several drums that in its sacred form appeases any one of the deities. Honouring these deities forms the sacred dance practice that today has both sacred and secular derivatives shared throughout the African Diaspora.

In “Aiduronijo” and the new work “Okan’ Nijo”, bata informs a non-literal execution of physicality and spirit to illustrate the profundity and proficiency required to perform the Bode Lawal technique. Lawal has choreographed a moving lecture for spectators to relish characteristic bata movement qualities: percussive, ballistic, isolations in chest, hips and assorted appendages (arms, hands, legs, head) that mirror the varied sounds the bata drummer makes on djembe and conga.

The soundscape is vital for this work because it shapes the space in which the dancers move. Musicians Henri Gaobi, Gerald N’Guijoel and Tim Garland are the integral aspect that provides the base line for all the polyrhythmical movements. A master drummer from West Africa, Gaobi played the djembe; its textured high, low and mid-range sounds fore grounding the elaborate soundscape to emphasize the punch dynamic seen in the dancers’ torsos and limbs.

The linearity of contemporary moves, long lunges, lots of angularity in legs and arms, frenetic jumps, parallel bourrees are interspersed with strutting, percussive chest moves and isolated hip lifts that typify bata. A quartet performed by Kirstin Kelly, Rebecca Wong, Ria Uttridge and Bonita Macrae is an elaborate sequence of florid, undulating chest and arm moves with subtle hip sways which can be associated with the deity Ochún. In “Okan’ Nijo,” Jackson Pinto’s performance on a diagonal of aerials and slicing jetes could be associated with Shàngó.

The performative act in these two works is also typically bata. The performer eludes a cool acknowledgement of spectators, performing moves as if the audience is not present. The performer can also become quite brazen, breaking the 4th wall with her or his ferocity in physical prowess that doesn’t confront as much as it emphasises an embodied agency and confidence. One can easily see how this Africanist practice, noted within the fabric of today’s street dance facilitated the subjugated dancing body to “dance” her self out of subjugation.

In “Okan’ Nijo” (New Work), the cyc is white with shredded shards of green cloth. Seated behind the fabric are the musicians. This work needs added performance time for the dancers to perfect with clarity from beginning to end the dexterity evidenced in their performance of “Aiduronijo”. Given this, the work was performed with conviction. This section began with a frenetic solo performed by Jackson Pinto. Pinto’s polycentric movements hurdle him around the stage with occasional balances done effortlessly while other times quick kicks of foot accompanying jerks of leg aligned with the percussive rhythms of drummers.

The other dancers enter and exit with slow movements that include balances in attitude. An oriental characteristic is quoted in the movement of a walk done with the knees held close and the foot rolled through. Pinto and Bonita Macrae dance a duet in which the man surrounds the woman, illustrating a sense of protection/possession. This was the only movement metaphor that alluded to a narrative telling. At the end, the dancers formed a group downstage centre; a final characteristic bata performative signature of focus and concentration evidenced in head, torso and arms.

(1) The acronym BME (Black and Minority Ethnicities) and the phrase BME communities are commonly used by Voluntary and Community Sectors and other assorted government agencies. It is a catch-all term to include all those who wouldn’t or who don’t describe themselves as “White British” on an ethnicity questionnaire. I use the term here to describe all ethnicities, particularity those disadvantaged and disenfranchised “White British”, which reside under the auspices of the British government. It must be said that the demographics of Sakoba’s education group included “White British” as well as a variety of other ethnicities.

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