Théâtre de la Bastille, Paris. November 2016. All I can make out at the beginning of Robyn Orlin’s new solo, made with and for Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza, and so you see… our honourable blue sky and ever enduring sun… can only be consumed slice by slice…, is a huge white caul, doubled and magnified as a projection on the screen upstage. When unshrouded by a stagehand, it reveals a humanoid cocoon inside, wrapped – unrecognisably, unbearably – tight with cellophane, who then cuts himself out of layers and layers of second skin, the knife slashing so perilously close to flesh that the mandatory “first-five-minute noises” in the audience (the sniffles, the coughs, the mysterious rustles from cloth and footwear…) morph into a collective, heightened heartbeat. Khoza emerges, clothed in little other than white briefs and an irresistible, irreverent flamboyance; his voluptuous frame underlining both a celebration of the self and its immense fragility in the face of all the post-Apartheid oppressions, the real dangers to so many of those who could still be labelled different in South Africa. And Khoza – dancer, homosexual, Christian and also “sangoma” (a traditional healer) – blazons the multiplicity, the irreducibility of the individual, whatever the social and legal strictures in place, as well as the inevitability of human, and artistic, transgression when confronted with such repression.
Orlin and Khoza, through and so you see…, do not just upend religious preconceptions and skewer sexual taboos (most memorably in the sequence featuring Khoza’s preparations for a date with the world’s most renowned homophobe, Vladimir Putin, for whom he dresses up as a Nubian queen), they also rib us about the persistence of racial tropes in our modern, ‘evolved’ everyday lives. After ridding himself of his cling-wrap chrysalis, Khoza proceeds to gorge on an entire bowl of oranges (spearing them with the same knife, which now becomes an instrument of pleasure, flirting just as closely – and recklessly – with the flesh), his palate as overjoyed to receive the fruit as his body is to be drenched in its juice. He then picks two members of the audience to sponge him clean. A random selection as in many of Orlin’s work, I think initially, but the choice does not appear innocuous anymore in the sequence that follows: Khoza hectors them continually, rueing their lack of attention, their constitutional laziness, their slovenliness, through a hilarious, wicked soliloquy that appropriates every burning cliché on the black/ethnic employee, and redeploys them on his new white “help”. It is a brief but highly effective reversal of prevalent bromides about the colonial divide that unnerves almost everyone in the audience, as evidenced by the flurry of uneasy titters, the clearing of throats, and the few hurried departures accompanied by murmurs of “this is really not funny”. For whatever our ranking on the colour and privilege spectra, we may all have either faced, witnessed or maintained such outrageous positions, perhaps all three to varying degrees, at some time or the other.
Dancing to Tell the Tale
Through the early and mid-2000s, which were my first years in France, performance art – later, more specifically, contemporary dance – became my city of refuge. Perhaps it was only natural, for dance, here, could be defined a sanctuary movement where otherness was so high a common denominator that it held neither surprise nor reproof. Out here, otherness was not a thing to disguise, repair or endure; it was that which you questioned, stripped bare and dissected – a scrutiny turned just as mercilessly on the gaze that othered, whether that of audience, programmer, authority or self – but also embraced. Otherness which dance recognises as first projected, then inscribed on the body: on hair, on skin, in the larynx. Confronted as I was, each day, by reminders of how different – how alien – my unpronounceable name, my disabled immigrant status, the hopelessly unhardened ‘r’ rolling off my tongue branded me, the existence of this rare, safe, zone was a talisman that I held on to for hope, for affirmation.
Out here [in dance], otherness was not a thing to disguise, repair or endure; it was that which you questioned, stripped bare, dissected … but also embraced.”
These dances resonated – deeply, personally – in ways that few other artistic expressions did, even fiction with its cavernous depths. They would revisit me during unwelcome, yet unavoidable, encounters with the world ‘outside’. Through endless winter mornings of waiting and elbowing, of waning hope and waxing rain and sleet, in open-air queues for an appointment at the prefecture to renew a work permit, for instance. On one such day, after being ejected beyond the barricades into the street by security personnel – along with thirty-odd applicants most of whom had been waiting since 7am – for being ‘excess’ to the allotted daily quota, I began to grasp why, perhaps, a French-Moroccan municipal worker had wept on seeing Théâtre de la Ville’s posters of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Tempus Fugit[i] (2004) festooning metro stations. Why he had wept with bitter-sweet pride in seeing his surname – this time donned by a stranger – fêted for once, after a lifetime of indignities borne by his person.
And after yet another rebuff from Parisian housing agents within 20 seconds of a phone call – the time it took for me to state a patronymic and for them to dismiss it as unsuitable – I would recall Gregory Maqoma[ii] dancing out his incomprehension and distress in Beautiful Me (2005) at Centre national de la danse (CND), dancing to tell the tale of his lost Xhosa name, of his childhood difficulty in pronouncing the colonial handle ‘Gre-go-ry’ that apartheid South Africa had imposed on him. For his friend and sometime associate, Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula[iii], early struggles with the forename were just as real, though inverted: under the Mobuto Sese Seko regime, all European names were banned as a vestige of subjugation and ‘Faustin’ had no legal validity. Linyekula himself best summed up the geopolitical environment that shaped his artistic ethos: “I’m not trying to suggest how we can inscribe ourselves into the history of this country, but to tell how this history has marked and changed our lives… How this collective history of the country has decided the directions of each individual? Today my dance is an effort to remember my name. That which one presupposes at each instance, I’ve had to lose or forget. And I return to the history of this country, which keeps changing its name.”[iv]
They were not the only ones to refract shards of the fraught actuality in newish nations with old, old memories, scars, and, often, unchosen, inextirpable cords with the Continent. There were many, many others who knew, all too well, “what it means to wear a color and believe the embrace of its touch” as Claudia Rankine states in Sound & Fury. If in the 1980s, Robyn Orlin had emerged as one of most vocal anti-apartheid choreographers in Johannesburg, by the early 2000s her pieces – nearly always blessed with deliciously interminable titles[v] – were mordant, often convoluted, biopsies of the new South African society, rifts, triumphs, dimples, warts and all; something that continues to this day, most recently with and so you see…
“I found ambivalence, even resistance, to naming the creative act as fuelled by a political conviction prevailed among many choreographers – even those who delve into the variegated landscapes of otherness”
Meanwhile, with Incarnat (2005), Lia Rodrigues painted a prescient, bloodied world in the throes of disasters, whether earthquakes or terrorist attacks, and our varying responses to those disasters. When did someone’s loss stop being a statistic and enter our lives? How is the distance between the atrocities seen on television or in the newspaper ever bridged? And should we allow them to matter, or is avoidance of discomfort a human instinct? Rodrigues – whose company is located in Maré, Nova Holanda, one of the largest favelas around Rio de Janeiro, and whose work as maker, curator, teacher and enabler is firmly anchored in her community – never attempts easy answers but the questions, and her works, themselves remain essential, urgent. Especially in the winter of 2005, in a France riven by racial and migrant riots, exacerbated by a minister of the interior who saw nothing amiss in referring to an entire section of the population as ‘scum’.
While these choreographers danced their realities, in their countries and France/Europe, others – like Nacera Belaza, Bernardo Montet, Héla Fattoumi (with Eric Lamoureux), José Montalvo, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and seminal hip-hopper Kader Attou – were grappling with the grime and glory of double inheritances (French-Algerian, Flemish-Moroccan, French-Spanish, Vietnamese-French-Guyanese…) through much of their work; with most probing the brittleness of portmanteau identities in societies both enriched and fissured by an unnameable multiculturalism, and, increasingly, a global environment that demanded an immutable, preferably unquestioning, identity, especially in relation to authority.
Rachid Ouramdane’s Loin (2008) was a lacerating, deeply affecting, study of the dual nature of otherness; of how we could easily – sometimes unknowingly – be other and ‘otherer’, both victim and oppressor in the larger global political equations. Ouramdane’s solo – the movement electric, convulsive in parts, numb and introspective in others – was traversed by his mother’s voice reliving the French occupation of Algeria and Vietnam. As the chronicles unfolded, we discovered – as the choreographer himself did, not long before – how his father, first tortured by the French in Algeria, witness to the murder of their relatives, was later sent to Vietnam to fight as a colonial soldier for France and perpetuate the cycle of brutality. Through Loin, Ouramdane seared our consciousness with reflections on volition and complicity in our covenant with the established order. For all my new vulnerability as immigrant, I had – Loin reminded me – grown up with immense, undeserved privilege as a caste Hindu in India, privilege that could not be shed overnight, however much one fled or denied it. A necessary reminder, say, that the very name whose morphemes made me anathema to conservative French housing agents had been brandished by my ancestors as a pennant of their entitlement.
Contemporary dance had not only been probing the otherness of colour, origin or language; it was busy exploring the echelons in gender, health and movement aesthetics as well. In the average season, you could see these pieces mushrooming across the performance platforms of Paris and its suburbs, not just the edgier venues like the CND or the Rencontres Chorégraphiques de Seine-Saint-Denis but the larger ones, Théâtre de la Bastille, Théâtre de la Ville, the Villette, and, sometimes, even further. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Nienke Reehorst’s Ook (2002), made with the differently-abled actors of Theater Stap, delved into the power and consequences of visual overload from media, and how they shaped the desires and fantasies of viewers and readers — whether able-bodied or otherwise. Ook, which means ‘also’ in Dutch, a term exhorting inclusion and acceptance, defended freedom of the imagination and equality of aspirations, especially unrealisable ones: whether to sing brilliantly, to have a baby, to become a film star or to juggle expertly. It was soon sweeping its way all across Europe, touring state theatres, contemporary dance hubs and health fests. When Ook ended its seven-year tour with a jubilatory run at the Palais Royal – right beneath the offices of the French Minister for Culture – as a highlight of the 2009 Paris Quartier d’été festival, it had been performed 99 times.
Unexpectedly, at the Opéra Garnier, Jérôme Bel – after having vivisected many of the canons of performance in his previous works – was also after something similar: the poignancy, the resilience of the unfulfilled dreams of those lower in the pecking order in the ballet world, the others who exist to enhance the greatness of the principals. With the eponymous Véronique Doisneau (2003), Bel put the spotlight on a sujet a few months away from retirement; he chose to highlight a life spent at the Paris Opera Ballet as a middle-rung dancer. Together, Doisneau and Bel delivered an unforgettable portrait of a dancer, a person, who lived with the knowledge she would never occupy centre-stage, limning the joys and satisfactions she sought in the corners, and the indignities in the steep hierarchy of ballet.
Bel himself, though, seems reticent[vi] to ascribe too much political weight to his work, and dubious about the artist’s desire or need for a civic positioning in his or her explorations. And as the years passed and I began working more across the Channel, I found ambivalence, even resistance, to naming the creative act as fuelled by a political conviction prevailed among many choreographers — even those who delve into the variegated landscapes of otherness, those whose lives, artistic and otherwise, are often predicated by that very otherness. Where does this stem from? Is it a fear that the thematic crux might take precedence over content, that the subject or the self might overshadow dance itself (and is that even possible, with the body the immediately recognised vector of otherness)? Or concern that their work will be circumscribed solely by their primary ascribed identity? The frequency with which I heard the cautionary words, “We don’t need to be DV8” in rehearsal studios in London initially startled, then intrigued me: in my neck of the woods, quite a few choreographers would give an arm and a leg and the odd vital organ to be so unabashedly, sharply, engaged, whatever the resulting Achilles’ heels.
“Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: “I am an Arab, homosexual and vegan. Whatever I do would be a political act. … But my reality is dual.”
Luke Jennings’s review[vii] of Akram Khan and Nitin Sawhney’s Confluence, which expressed the fervent hope that Khan would soon finish his “mining of the politics of identity”, was perhaps exemplar of this undertow of suspicion about ‘political art’. To be fair, I could easily sympathise with Jennings’s exasperation over certain elements of the series of duets that he had cannily observed as problematic, and his clear-sighted admonition – earlier – that the searing honesty of one part-biographical piece could swiftly descend into twee-ness and a harbinger of entitlement if taken as some sort of automatic template is germane for any artist. But the conclusion he came to remained disturbing for many reasons, not the least of which was the underlying assumption that works of dance by ‘un-Othered’ (for instance: straight, white, male) choreographers were in no way affected by their own identity!
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s answer in a recent interview to the reflection “One would say there is a political dimension to your work?” is probably the counterpoint to the Jennings-ian apprehension over the “politics of identity” being mined for “diminishing returns” in dance; it is also alive with self-awareness of one’s ineluctable multiplicity, of how almost every other can further generate Otherness and inflict it on another. Replying to Belinda Mathieu in Telerama Sortir[viii], Cherkaoui wrote “I am an Arab, homosexual and vegan. Whatever I do would be a political act. That is inevitably the case when one is bound to minorities, in one way or the other. But my reality is dual. On the one hand, I am part of a majority because I am male, white and European. It is very easy for me to move about in the world. It is often more difficult as a woman. I am privileged and it is very important to be conscious of that. In that sense, I am deeply engaged, politically. Nonetheless, my work remains an expression of my own demons. My creations are very personal, they allude to the evolution of our world, and also my own evolution.”
[ii] Most recently programmed by Dance Umbrella in 2015 at Shaw Theatre with Exit/Exist.
[iii] Most recently programmed by Dance Umbrella in 2010 at Queen Elizabeth Hall with More more more… future.
[iv] As quoted in Sabine Sörgel’s chapter The Global Politics of Faustin Linyekula’s Dance Theatre from the book Moving (Across) Borders: Performing, Translation, Intervention, Participation edited by Gabriele Brandstetter and Holger Hartung (Transcript-Verlag, 2017).
[v] Daddy, I’ve seen this piece six times before and I still don’t know why they’re hurting each other (winner of the 2003 Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance), When I take off my skin and touch the sky with my nose, only then can I see little voices amuse themselves (2005), Beauty remained for just a moment then returned gently to her starting position…(2012).