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Badejo Arts
Photo: Atinuke Olumekun Badejo Arts

'Elemental Passions'

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

May 17, 2003 -- Robin Howard Theatre / London

Africa is not one people but thousands of peoples each with their own sense and sensibilities of dance and music. For example, Wolof to Zulu, to Nigerian, to Zimbabwe, the foot has a specified relationship to earth, each people with their own intrepretation of how the foot leaves the floor and returns and the music that accompanies it. Each movement and accompanying sound has a community behind it; a separate history a separate significance attached to its learning, performance and meaning. There is no one Africanist aesthetic. Badejo Arts ‘Elemental Passions’ presented at the Robin Howard Theatre May 17, 2003, is a 2-act movement and music narrative told mainly through bata, a particular kind of Africanist aesthetic. The dance work of Badejo Arts presented the telling of the Yoruba legend that has many sacred and secular variations. Badejo Arts telling though takes place within the proscenium arch and intends to illustrate how bata, this particular Africanist way of knowing dance art, permeates today’s dance making.

The visual image of a lightening bolt on the backdrop and the sound of a thunderclap open the work. Darkness then leads to low amber like lighting. Our protagonist, Sango, laying in the fetal position is surrounded by a metal garden placed centre stage with musicians, Sikiru Alabi, Ayan Ayahdosu and Badejo himself, sitting downstage left. The Set design is intended to portray an anthill. Looking deeply the first image is one of containment. Sango, portrayed by Odey Anthony, is resting or is it confined within the anthill. Sango struggles to come alive, to unfold, to stand, to transform the visceral in order to transcend boundaries. There seems to be an inner power radiating from the centre of his body that clamps his thighs shut when they creep to open. As this violent gesture closes his legs, the drummer emphasises that closure with a loud rap on the bata drum. This compositional choice occurs throughout the work where gesture of movement is accompanied by gesture of drum. Sango explores this small space first by twisting his torso and sending his legs on a walk around himself using his shoulders as the pivot point. This movement reveals flexibility as well as strength alluding to contrasts that also are a recurring theme through out the work. With inner strength gained, Sango forces the garden open and it rolls away in 2 halves to either side of the stage. Once freed from containment, our dancer is masterful with both subtle and bombastic dynamics, which are distinctive to the bata aesthetic.

Bata was and is a sacred Yoruba form involving music, movement and spirit and is most associated with the deity, Sango or Shàngó. As with most legends, the life story of Shàngó has many tellings but there are similarities through out them. Within Nigeria is the land of the Yoruba people. Within the land of the Yoruba are many cities, the largest of which is the kingdom of Oyo. Sango or Shàngó is an Oyo deity (orisha) whose 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, was endowed with supernatural powers. Most infamous of these powers was his ability to speak with fire coming out of his month, hence the connection of his control of the forces of nature, thunder and lighting. It is said that the Thunder God metaphorically met himself in a failed attempt to summon the forces of nature to earth. The attempt resulted in the death of his wife and child. Distraught over this indiscretion, Shàngó hanged himself from an ayan tree. Shàngó’s death transforms 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. Like the pounding of Shàngó’s favourite yams and maize ground to yield nourishment, so Shàngó’s chastisement brings about change and new growth in the accused. 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.

In portraying Sango, Anthony’s stomp resonates, reverberating to the back of the house up to the raisers. There is sophistication here where bombastic moves are intermingled with subtle gestures; an aerial lay out accompanies strikingly percussive variations of shoulder isolations that alternate with wave movements in arms and torso. A leg gesture is a playful striking instrument that then stretches into a well-grounded lunge with a posture that is as solid as a rock. Shàngó has a particular way of dressing and an enviable attraction of women. At one point in act one Josepine Okonji portrays Oya, one of Shàngó’s many wives and a powerful orisha in her own right. Okonji also demonstrates her expertise of the percussive and the lyrical giving way to both isolation and full body movements. With every gesture Oya’s dance of seduction chastises as well as consoles the varied antics of Shàngó. Once freed from his surroundings Shàngó’s restless exploring movements lead him to discover wood. Through exploration with the wood Shàngó hears the particular sound the wood makes. The sound influences and encourages him to move, to dance in a particular way. This sequence is Badejo’s way of illustrating the process of how bata movements and music are embodied.

Originating in Nigeria, bata was spread to Cuba, Bahia in South America, Caribbean and America with the Atlantic slave trade. It is said that Bata drums were made during the reign of Shàngó who used it for his coronation. Bata is a distinct technique of movement and sound that in its sacred form is specifically for the appeasement of Shàngó. Bata drums were used to call the people to the king, announcing visitors, sending messages and warnings for those within hearing range, and used in rituals and poetry (orikis). Metaphorical descriptions of kings and gods can be relayed through praise poetry conveyed through a series of carefully performed tones from bata drums. Having lived among the people and demonstrated his power over natural forces Shàngó was deified when he died. Honouring him became a sacred form that today has both sacred and secular derivatives shared throughout the African Diaspora. What you can admire about Badejo’s choreographic portrayal of Shàngó is the contrast. A reflection on Elemental Passions though removes the veil that simultaneously compels and conceals deeper readings of dance work made and performed in the African Diaspora.

What is achieved in Badejo’s work is a recasting of legend to illustrate a metaphor for today’s Africanist dance practice. Badejo suggest there are possible borrowings at present in urban dance forms like hip hop with its body waves and locking that have the same dynamic and visceral characteristics as bata. Badejo believes the movement characteristics evidenced in urban dance forms are derivatives of Africanist aesthetic and that aesthetic is bata. Bata, as well as urban dance forms and forms of jazz dance exhibit several Africanist traits. A predominance of percussive performance style accompanied with complex layering of rhythms that are compounded by complimentary use of accentuation suspended above what is already being executed.

There is also social commentary or connotation of lived experience. Elemental Passions illustrates the nature of Shàngó’s character or as Badejo puts it, Shàngó’s coolness. Coolness (itutu) is certainty of truth and an assuredness that permeates a person’s spirit demonstrating gentleness and eloquent generosity. Coolness in Yoruba aesthetic illustrates a choice to calm or pacify orisha forces and is a deliberate action to focus manifest power of an orisha for acts of worship or be illustrative of idealised action. Badejo states that Shàngó’s coolness is attributable to his being multi-tribal; his mother is from Nupe and his father from Yoruba, southwest of Nigeria. This dual ethnicity provided an open mindedness for art practice that influenced Shàngó’s drumming and dancing. Dual ethnicity made it possible for Shàngó to be open to different cultures. Badejo believes Shàngó’s range of creativity is due to his dual nationality and is reflected in his particular sensibility and his worshipers’ modality preferences in drumming and dancing throughout the African Diaspora.

In ‘Elemental Passions’, Shango’s movement vocabulary varies from the traditional to the contemporary, from the African to European, angular body design follows linear balances on one foot. Every move acknowledges the embodiment of consensual movement vocabularies. Solos, duets, and trios in composition and virtuosity for its own sake illustrate that the canon of European ballet is not the only purveyor of typical contemporary dance-making devices. Shàngó in this sense is a model or is it Badejo’s idealisation of what it is to be genealogically connected to the African Diaspora. Elemental Passions illustrates hybridisation; the deliberate or consequential mixing and fusion of disparate modalities that strive or is it thrive in the mist of transformation. The shifting space of Diaspora dance practice is the wellspring of transliterated dance practice. This is the global landscape where the canons of European dance are decentred and inspired by the margins. Nationality fragments and the combination of ethnicities become the starting point to complex renderings of what it is or is it how to live in this world.

A forceful but focused passage of weight is the basis upon which one of the dances is done with a hatchet, an effectual symbol of Shàngó’s power. This power is further emphasised through a distribution of staccato and legato moves. The strong, crack sound of bata drum accompanied a thrust move that brings hip and shoulder blade forward and back which is followed succinctly with ripples of the stomach. Presence is not without resonance in this work where it is apparent the idea of power from thunder is not without its relation to the strength of the earth. Mzo Gasa, and Isioma Williams accompany Anthony in this telling of the legendary life of Shàngó that in act two transforms legend into parallel dance affectations from today’s African Diaspora movement vocabularies.

The anthill is transformed into an urban landscape of high rises and skyscrapers. Oyo or New York our protagonists is now cast in the city doing urban dance moves; each dancer doing a solo illustrating that bata informs her or his coolness. From the dance I get the sense that coolness is endowed with a confidence to endure the tribulations of trying circumstances. It is a metaphor that alludes to those character traits that provide the ability to withstand trying as well as oppressive life experiences. The metaphor also illustrates the seemingly boundless wellspring of creativity available to those who seek to embody the skills required of disparate African, European and American movement vocabularies. Coolness is an attitude in movement, in disposition; it is bold and fresh as well as resolute. The movement is polyrhythmic as well as poly centred with facial expressions that are calm almost angelic at one point, stern or wild the next. The ritualistic characterisations of Shàngó are transformed in Elemental Passions as the sacred is transformed into the secular within the proscenium arch. Strategies for living are revealed as well as varied strategies for how dance is made within the African Diaspora.

Edited by Stuart Sweeney

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