Here in the United Kingdom, The Association of Dance of the African Diaspora (ADAD) forms a partnership with Dance UK to enhance support for dance makers, both choreographers and dancers who choose from a plethora of forms and techniques within theatre dance to make their work. African, Jazz, Afro-fusion, Caribbean, Hip-hop, Afro-Latin are just some of the descriptions these dance makers can use as starting points for cross cultural expressions. On June 26, 2008 ADAD presented Open Stage, an informal platform for young dance makers interested in having their work seen and critiqued by audience members. Held at the De Valois Studio Theatre at London Studio Centre included in the audience were a selected panel of experienced dance makers; Jackie Guy, international choreographer and leading authority on Afro-Caribbean dance forms including West End production The Harder They Come, Corrine Bougaard, Artistic Director of contemporary dance company Union Dance, and Thea Nerissa Barnes, dance and dance researcher currently Resident Dance Supervisor for London’s West End production of The Lion King.
All the works shown had at the very least a beginning, middle, and end. Each one though could do with further experimentation then refining. This particular forum provided very candid responses for the work but how instrumental were the comments for these dance makers, young choreographers and dancers, is the question. With both the audience and the chairperson providing responses to the work, the dance makers were alienated; left to be vilified or complimented while considering and/or defending in most cases, very vulnerable and precious creative choices; maybe the only possible choices to be made for these dance makers at this point in their growth and training. This situation provided some initial reactions but only from those who spoke; what might the others be thinking? It was also a forum for a community of dance supporters to have a “debate” stirred by their diverse reactions to very nascent work. Whether this was beneficial for these young choreographers only time will tell.
Hope – choreographed by Suzette Rocca; performed by Simone Foster
Though this was a warm dance its meaning was diffused. The programme notes indicate that coupled with her own hopes, Rocca was inspired by the struggles of two women in a novel by Khaled Hossieni. Given this, if movement is intended to be the metaphor for this inspiration the dance revealed only a few moments that accomplished this; in particular a few gestures done in the upstage corner towards the later 3rd of the dance. The music played a creative role for both the choreographer and performer but in hind sight perhaps this reliance on music did not assist the choreographer to structure the dance to portray the emotion she wanted to illustrate.
Movement if intended to be a metaphor i.e. portray an emotion such as “Hope” can use space and the dancer’s relationship to space to infuse emotional meaning. Focus also has an important role to play in reinforcing the dancer’s relationship to space and what she wants the audience to see-feel emotionally. Foster’s clean body design, a mixture of Africanist and conventional movement, was delicate and heart felt but the dramatic line of the dance was scattered and indeterminate.
There were meaningful moments towards the end but perhaps a re-think of how a strategic use of space coupled with experimentation with movement and gesture to portray varied emotional dynamics, like low-down vs. hope, for this dancer might prove rewarding.
Esthrel’s Choice – choreographed and performed by Lola Adodo
Programme notes indicate this solo is part of a larger work about fictional African clans, the Tatula and Kumala written by Adodo. Esthrel is the queen of the Tatula clan and Adodo’s dancing intends to portray the woman’s culture and strength. Drawing from African history, mysticism and various dance styles Adodo gives an admirable performance; her presence is strong, her dancing good. The dance has form but seemed somehow inconclusive.
The use of space was not strategic; at moments Adodo was so close to the blacks there was no visual frame for Adodo’s movement expression. The movement vocabulary was dynamically simplistic and the music collage a burden the dance did not succeed against. This served to give emphasis for those moments when Adodo was still, motionless. These were the moments that worked; long stares at the audience when what proceeded and followed seemed only a transition to these special tableaus. This also had the effect of making Adodo’s facial expressions pretentious instead of as programme notes indicate dealing with pride and peacefulness.
Adodo’s queen is a protagonist in a story not shared with us so we can’t feel or empathise with her. If this solo is to be a stand alone entity then it must encapsulate the telling of why as much as how the queen deals with pride and peacefulness. The dance needs to illustrate how the queen as protagonist deals antagonist/s. This could provide more dynamic clarity and tension to the dance that currently seems one dimensional.
Sister – choreographed and performed by Christina Oshunniyi
Oshunniyi’s opening dance is intended to set a mood; a softener for telling a story that for some is horrific; for others a fact of culture. The dance seems a collection of African moves which Oshunniyi performs aptly enough but there are moments when she seems distracted and winded; not truly present. The movements suggest no story telling or discernible metaphorical meaning. Here subtlety works against Oshunniyi because other than being just a dance, a moment of personal satisfaction, a “watch me” kind of dance, one can dismiss any value or importance for this dance.
Oshunniyi ends the dance by taking a few steps into the audience space, breaking the 4th wall. This breaks the audience/performer relationship and begins the section that is important to Oshunniyi. This is what Oshunniyi really wants her audience to “hear” as opposed to watch. Oshunniyi stops “dancing” and starts speaking, telling a story of female circumcision in which a sister is killed and another scared physically and mentally for life. The story in its telling is handled well enough but sensationalised via the manner of presentation. The opening dance lulls audience members to relax in preparation for the shock of the story telling.
Good choices but is it good dance? This is left for the choreographer/performer to decide. My suggestion is if you want to tell stories of such emotional magnitude do not use dance as camouflage. If you want to tell the story through dance take the time to discover how to tell this same story through movement, gesture and voice. Also the current strategy may not be as successful in a theatre setting where interaction with the audience is impossible. Story telling may not be a good choice for a young, inexperienced actress on a stage where the audience is hidden behind spot lights. The current strategy also speaks to Oshunniyi’s experience as a dancer. There is a way to tell this story through movement and without speaking a word. A suggestion for Oshunniyi is experiment to discover what movements and gestures to portray this story. This would make this solo a piece of “dance theatre” instead of just an incendiary speech.
Welcome Africa Welcome – choreographed and performed by Catherine Wheeler-Kentish
Wheeler-Kentish dances and speaks in this solo with Trevor Antonio Kentish providing Bira Live Percussion. Programme notes indicate that Wheeler-Kentish intends through movement to portray through poetry and African dance, a journey of the spirit from its African home to Brazil. Wheeler-Kentish is skilled but her performance seemed under rehearsed. The choice of music inconclusive for it doesn’t support her story telling and the drummer seemed only tangential.
Poetry has its own dynamic but a trained dramatist with a skilled voice can convey nuances to seduce any audience to take the journey Wheeler-Kentish intended. Wheeler-Kentish could do with practice to accomplish this. Similarly the movement used the space aptly enough with its use of Africanist like and contemporary like body design. The movement though was one dimensional not discernibly a distinct African or Brazilian vocabulary. Reading the program notes perhaps it was not Wheeler-Kentish’s intention to show the “journey” or “evolution” of movement vocabularies from the African continent to the Brazilian shores. This would be a thesis which I do not believe Wheeler-Kentish has the training or experience to achieve. If she does it was not evident in this dance. To eliminate any confusion perhaps Wheeler-Kentish should reconsider what she wants her programme notes to say about her dance.
The “spirit” can take any form the dancer desires. Illustrating “spirit” through movement can be complicated because it requires the dancer to use imagery and her ability to embody and portray through movement metaphors and metonyms that most people no matter what their experience of dance will understand. A spiritual journey needs much introspection and experimentation to design meaningful movement and gesture. This needs hours of improvisation. I suggest Wheeler-Kentish reconsider everything; not to throw away her work but to decide what works for her and where to go from there.
What place does the drummer have in this equation? Having him stand in the corner and play occasionally is one idea but why have recorded music also in a seven minute solo? If you are speaking and dancing why have the drummer or recorded music at all? Dance can be many things to many people including a story telling tool. A suggestion is do some editing and orchestrate movement and voice as the “sound” that takes your audience on this particular journey. If your movement and voice do not “tell the story” don’t add things like hair, cloth on arm, canned music, and drummer to help. They only become distractions.
Stranded on an Island – choreographed by Richard Boon; performed by Richard Boon and Christina Connors
This story, the protagonist finds a genie and gets three wishes, is simply stated in the programme notes and the dance is straightforward. Using lyrical street dance movement Boon presents great movement ideas of finding a genie in a bottle and the outcome of three wishes. Both Boon and Connors’ dancing together doing the same movement illustrated a commonality in rhythm, body design and use of space. There were approximately two duets which though brief were good but much too short. I personally wanted to see more of these duets. The characterisations were also nicely portrayed.
Given this the dance could do with further work. It needs more clarity to insure the dynamic distinctions between the three wishes are clear. The structure is already solid. The dance could do with further experimentation with the material that’s there. The duets can be developed and should to assist in building varied characterisations of the relationship between Boon and Connors.
One can say that a good performance is one that stirs debate and leaves an impression. It is good to cause people to consider not just the dance but the world they live in and their place in that world. Taking in all that was discussed, the dance makers will have to reflect on their performance and reactions to their work and then decide how to proceed. It is true that any work can draw as many responses as there are individuals watching it. Having heard the varied responses at this occasion, the dance makers will have to choose what to consider and what to discard. They will then have to find a way forward and ultimately how to get the support they will need to continue their growth as dance makers.
THEA NERISSA BARNES