May 17, 2003 -- Robin
Howard Theatre / London
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Please join the discussion
in our forum.