Elements at the Lillian Baylis 11 October 2003.
Elements is a collaboration between H Patten and F. Nii-Yartey’s Dancers of Noyam. Elements is contemporary Africanist dance expression that merges the sacred with the secular, drawing on African and Caribbean dance aesthetics. An episodic dance composition, the varied dances illustrate a host of signs and symbols from cultural experiences vested in the African Diaspora. Each episode portrays or gives poetic, metaphoric renditions inspired by wind, earth, fire, and water. The ensemble of dancers displayed the kind of conviction and intensity that could only have been gained through rigorous rehearsal to infuse each movement, each thrust of shoulder or hip, flip of hand, use of mask, and twist of cloth with significance.
As the audience entered, incense and muted lights created an ambience of sacredness. A host of musical instruments, drums, bells, calabashes, and xylophone were stretched across the upstage space. Bernard Nii Oduley Tetteh entered from the back of house. His recitation sets the tone and also called members of the ensemble who are both dancers and musicians who dance. As they entered there is supplication as well as tribute intended to connect the ensemble with spirits who reside in the earth of Africa. This is a pray for the ensemble to be recognised by their African ancestors, to touch in a liminal sense all that they can be. The ensemble move by touching the earth, laying on each other, jumping and calling out, or reaching with stretched hands. A video is presented on the cyc. This is the Dance for Camera video that was the starting point of the collaboration between H Patten and F. Nii-Yartey that fostered the dance work Elements. Complimenting each other, what is shown in the video are the dancers of Noyam, the Contemporary African Dance Institute and Performance Company run by Nii-Yartey. These dancers perform in the sand and grass the same choreography they perform here at the Lillian Baylis.
In Earth several moments affirm that this section is indicates initiation. Most memorable is the dance of four women moving wave like, perhaps yanvalou like, with pieces of kenti like fabric which is used in a number of ways; as lapa, to tease with, and then for three to wrap on the head of one making a wonderful gele. The sections of movement are emblematic of the theme containing varied bata like moves for men and women. When the ensemble moves as a group, they move as one, each hand exact, thrust of chest or hip, depth of bent leg, dynamic and facial expression. When a dancer takes a moment to improvise, the solo becomes an idiosyncratic expression and unique to that person. Sarah Naa Ayeley Okine is lithe but a powerhouse of dynamic energy and thrust. At points she hurls herself through space and is caught by Tetteh. This same courage laced with dramatic urgency is evidenced through out with both men and women as they jump seemingly to fly into each other’s arms or throw themselves full force into the floor to roll and stand. There is extraordinary technical skill required here to get the timing right to portray the exact expression. Water was a men’s dance beginning with four men carrying chrome caldrons containing dryed leaves and dragging a barrel of water. This men’s dance contained intricate as well as bombastic moves. It ended with the men drenching themselves with water upstage left while Okine poured sand out of a small earthen jug downstage right.
There was a point in the performance where the secular ness of the Jamaican dance hall moves had a certain banality, as if for that moment the ensemble were without a connection to their past, an acknowledgement of their origin in ritual, or remaining honest in the sacred ness of their ancestral legacy. This point may have been missed on some audience members. The ensembles’ movements feigned their disrespect and could have been interpreted with several significances. From the comic moments displayed in Jamaican dance hall moves to Fire where conflict and confrontation are portrayed with a simple gesture of a pointed finger to a woman carrying a man signified compassion, Elements stretched from the satirical to the tragic.
This work suffered from technical problems with video footage that eventually became a visual distraction taking away from the environment created by the ensemble. Also there were some spacing choices that didn’t compliment the action between ensemble and video image. Each element possessed an innate logic unique to it but transitions from one element to the next may have been elusive for audience members not experienced with components of African ritual or the non-linear ness of Africanist expressions. Given this, Elements is a exceptional work portraying varied rites of passage that left many lasting impressions.
THEA NERISSA BARNES