Category Archives: African and Diasporic dance

Parameters of dance innovation



The British dance artist and researcher Emily Claid has identified a weariness that sometimes occurs within contemporary dance that she calls ‘middle mush’. This, she wrote in 2006, is ‘the fixed, thick, solid place that dancing can become when movement is predictable and watching is endless … It is the dynamic I fear most in British contemporary dance’. The cure to this malaise is innovation.
Being innovative in dance is not just something done for the sake of it. It is more than just dancers trying to be different. Innovation is part of the processes of social and political change.

The Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci explained the need for innovation in the notebooks he kept while in prison in the 1920s and 1930s, writing:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear
but, he goes on, this nevertheless creates the possibility and necessity of creating a new culture.

Gramsci’s interregnum is surely a relation of Claid’s middle mush. Gramsci’s idea has gained currency recently because it seems to describe the current state of disillusionment with austerity, and a widespread sense of the failure of neoliberal politics and economics.

Artistic innovation – including innovation in theatre dance – is a field that has a potential to respond to shifts in social experience. Artists can pick up on feelings that some aspects of contemporary life can no longer be explained by dominant narratives. Dancers can sometimes embody tensions between the status quo and what is actually happening before these feelings can be put into words. This is a phenomenon that the Marxist scholar and literary critic Raymond Williams called a ‘structure of feeling’. This, he wrote,

is firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it is based in the deepest and often least tangible elements of our experience. … Its means, its elements, are not propositions or techniques; they are embodied, related feelings. (1973, p. 10).

Innovative theatre dance has a potential to create a time space in which it becomes possible to express or draw attention to these embodied feelings. My aim in this video essay is to discuss three different categories of innovation that can be identified in late twentieth and twenty-first century theatre dance, sketching some of the ways in which these are rooted in social and political experience. These three are: path-finding, disruption, and claiming space for progressive alternatives.

Path-finding is discovering new ways of creating movement or choreography. One example of this is the development of Contact Improvisation by Steve Paxton and others. Another is Pina Bausch’s development of tanztheater. If I describe a piece by a choreographer as Bauschian, you probably know what I mean.

Disruption in dance often lies in saying no, in an avant-garde way, to conventions that up until then had been considered essential to the creation or performance of theatre dance. The best known example is Yvonne Rainer’s so called ‘No!’ manifesto from 1965, which begins ‘NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformaions and magic and make-believe’ and so on.
[no to glamour and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved].
Rainer and her fellow dance artists in Judson Dance Theatre embraced this negativity in a way that was not nihilistic but was intended to unlock potentials for new kinds of aesthetic experience.

What I have in mind for my third category of innovation are works that demand an inclusive space within the centre ground of contemporary dance for groups or points of view that are hidden or marginalised. Examples here include works by queer artists, artists of colour, artists with disabilities, or elders still dancing beyond the age when it is expected that they should retire. I am also thinking of post-colonial dance works that intentionally dance back against dominant colonial ideologies and the expectations they produce, and works that take on European high culture by rethinking it with an African or Asian sensibility.

Dance works are often, of course, innovative in ways that touch on more than one category. For instance, the contemporary African dance technique that Germaine Acogny has developed is both path-finding and claims a space for progressive ideas. It draws on dance movements from West African vernacular and ritual dancing, codifying them into a comprehensive vocabulary and technique. By doing so, this way of dancing demands a space for African experiences, challenging assumptions that only white Western culture and society are modern while all others, particularly those in the global South, are still essentially trying to catch up.

In the rest of this video, I briefly explore some of the interconnections between these three kinds of innovation by briefly reviewing the context around Trajal Harrell’s well known piece 20 Looks or Paris Is Burning at Judson Church.

This work, first performed in 2009, takes as its starting point the thought experiment “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?”.
 The twenty looks are the twenty titled sections of the piece.

LOOK 1 West Coast Preppy School Boy
LOOK 2 East Coast Preppy School Boy
LOOK 3 Old School Post-Modern
LOOK 4 American Casual Sport
LOOK 5 Sporty Contemporary
LOOK 6 Sporty Contemporary with a Twist
 and so on
[LOOK 7 New School Hokey Pokey
LOOK 8 Serving Old School Runway
LOOK 9 Serving
LOOK 10 Serving Superhero
LOOK 11 _________________
LOOK 12 Legendary
LOOK 13 Legendary Face
LOOK 14 Icon
LOOK 15 Eau de Jean Michel
LOOK 16 Basquiat Realness
LOOK 17 Runway Performance with Face and Effects
LOOK 18 Moderne
LOOK 19 Legendary with a Twist
LOOK 20 Alt-Moderne feeling the French Lieutenant’s Woman ]

Directly or indirectly, these titles nod in the direction of the different categories and concepts presented in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. She filmed this in and around the Black and Latino, gay and transsexual drag balls in Harlem run by Paris Dupree.

The vogue dancer who features most prominently in Livingstone’s film is Willi Ninja, whose career took off so that by the end of the film he had appeared in Madonna’s music video Vogue and gone on an international tour with her. Dorian Corey, an elder drag queen whose on-camera interviews offer a highly informative, wry commentary on the balls, remembers a time when Black and Latino drag queens used to go down town to compete in drag balls run by white impresarios. However good they were, they never won any prizes and felt unwelcome, so they started their own drag balls up in Harlem.

While there would therefore have been drag balls in Harlem in 1963, it doesn’t really matter whether or not people were already voguing around that time. Harrell’s clever proposition is to choreograph some movement sequences, that are based on the kinds of competitive categories at Paris Dupree’s drag balls, but which he has transformed into the kind of pedestrian, minimalist choreography for which Judson Dance Theatre became known.

I’ve already mentioned Yvonne Rainer’s ‘No!’ manifesto. Her minimalism arose from a critique of balletic virtuosity. A grande jété, she wrote, needs to be invested ‘with all the necessary nuances of energy distribution that will produce the look of climax together with a still, suspended extension in the middle of the movement’. Her choreography, however, needs ‘a control that seems geared to the actual time it takes the actual weight of the body to go through the prescribed motions’.

Most of the 20 Looks in Harrell’s piece consist of tasks danced in the actual time they need without hiding the body’s actual weight and effort. Some of the Looks, however, like the ‘Runway’ walking, are done in a knowing way that transgresses Rainer’s stipulations ‘no to camp’ and ‘no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer’. But part of what is exciting about Harrell’s piece is the way it claims the conceptually sophisticated space of minimalist dance for the kinds of Black and Latino performers that walked the balls.

Returning to my three categories of innovation, I suggest that Paris Dupree was a socially progressive innovator claiming space for alternative identities and experiences. Willi Ninja was a pathfinder, Yvonne Rainer a disruptor, and Trajal Harrel a disruptor and a socially progressive innovator.

There is a quotation from the British socialist politician Tony Benn about political progress that can also be applied to innovation in dance: ‘First’ he said ‘they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you’. The scene in Paris is Burning when Willi Ninja talks about his recent success reveals the moment when voguing was no longer mad or dangerous but was becoming monetisable.

My point is to try not to ignore or condemn the first signs of a development in dance that is troubling because it breaks with the middle mush of what is conventionally acceptable. Instead, where dance artists seem to be mining signs of still unarticulated shifts and changes, we need to do what we can to help and support the new that is trying to be born.

Germaine Acogny’s ‘Somewhere at the Beginning’

Germaine Acogny’s 2016 solo Somewhere at the Beginning (À un endroit du début) which she created with Mikaël Serre, was the highlight of this year’s Let’s Dance International Frontiers festival in Leicester. It is an extraordinarily powerful piece in which Acogny looks back at the events of her life, her combative relationship with her father Togoun Servais Acogny, and her feeling of connection with her grandmother Aloopho who died two years before Germaine was born. Aloopho is the name of the famous open air dance studio with clean raked sand and a modernist canvas awning at the school École des Sables in Senegal that Germaine founded with her husband Helmut Vogt. Dancers come to the school from across Africa and around the world to take classes in Acogny technique and contemporary African dance. Germaine is widely known as ‘la mère de la danse contemporaine Africaine’.


[photo by Thomas Dorn]

Somewhere at the Beginning explains why Aloopho is so important to Germaine, while at the same time giving audiences a personal view of Germaine’s experience of the history of colonisation and decolonisation. It is also a strongly feminist work and reflects on the relationship of francophone West Africa with Europe today. Indeed it is a piece commissioned by a group of French theatres and institutions and in many ways is made for black and white European audiences.

Most of the previews and reviews of this solo that I have found on the internet mention how old Germaine is, as if it is remarkable that someone her age is still making and performing such challenging new works. My response to this is that she is exactly the right age to dance this piece. I’m sure there are younger dancers who would love to be able to perform in this resonantly powerful and deeply emotional way, but they would just not have either the experience or the maturity to dance it convincingly.

The central dynamic of Somewhere at the Beginning is Germaine’s accusations against her father Togoun. She was born in Dahomey (now Benin) in 1944. Her mother died when she was six and her father, who must have been clever, was picked out to train to be part of the French colonial administration. He and Germaine moved to Senegal when he enrolled at the École Primaire Supérieure William Ponty in Sébikotane. At this time, there were close links between all the French colonies in West Africa so that students at Ponty came from several different francophone countries to receive an elite education. As a French West African governor at the time pronounced, the aim of Ponty was to ‘take its inspiration from the purest French traditions while plunging its roots in native life’. Art historian Joshua Cohen points out that its role was to cultivate ‘a group of school teachers and administrators who could function effectively as mediators between colonials and their majority population’.


[Germaine and Togoun – screenshot]

Togoun became a colonial administrator. The solo begins with Germaine reading from his autobiography while a photograph of him wearing an impressive militaristic uniform and peaked cap is projected behind her. He also wrote a popular children’s book Les Récits d’Aloopho, parts of which are also read out during the performance. Germaine’s chief complaints against Togoun are that he converted to Catholicism, renouncing the African spiritual beliefs of his mother Aloopho, and that he never gave her Aloopho’s two sacred copper knives. Aloopho was a West African Voodoo priestess. Execution of her sacred duties would have involved singing, storytelling and dancing, a kind of African total theatre. When Germaine was born on the Christian festival of Pentecost, she tells us, a dove settled on the windowsill of her room every morning for a month. The women looking after her and her mother took this as a sign that she was the reincarnation of her grandmother Aloopho. Several times during the piece she tells her father forcefully ‘je suis la mère de ton mari’ (I am your wife’s mother).

mere de ton mari

[la mère de ton mari – screenshot]

The solo narrates Germaine’s task, as a modern African woman, of realising a decolonised African identity through repudiating everything her father stood for, and reconnecting in a modern way with the African knowledge and experience of his wife’s mother and with the African natural environment as a whole in which this knowledge is grounded. In the performance this environment is represented by a recurring projection of shimmering images of Baobab trees.


[Aloopho’s knives: photo by Thomas Dorn]

If the journey from Aloopho to Togoun is the story of cultural colonisation through the internalisation of European, Christian values, then the journey from Togoun to Germaine is one of decolonisation through reconnecting with West African culture and beliefs in a modern, secular way. Germaine’s choreography, like the dance technique that so many dancers have now learnt from her, is one that is aligned to the idea of negritude. Léopold Senghor, poet and first president of Senegal and in the 1970s Germaine’s patron, was one of the founders of the negritude movement which is a largely francophone phenomenon. It posits a common African aesthetic underlying the artistic production of African peoples in the region if not across the continent and African diaspora as a whole. The notion of the nation state with demarcated borders is, after all, a legacy of colonialism. As such, negritude responds to a modern need for decolonised sensibilities. However it is by no means an aspiration to return to a simpler wholesome uncontaminated pre-colonial state of grace, but a modern, abstracted and secularised revitalisation of what are again recognised as valued cultural forms and traditions.

While Somewhere at the Beginning draws on these forms and traditions, it does so while using them in an unmistakably contemporary context. There are videos by Sébastien Dupouey of provincial Senegalese scenes in the present day. A man, driving a van down a dusty country lane reveals his somewhat patriarchal attitudes towards women and marriage. At an all women social event there is dancing and laughter. We listen to one of Les Contes d’Aloopho in which Tiviglititi, a court functionary who keeps repeating an inconvenient prophesy about the King’s death, is placed alive in a sealed coffin and set to float down the river. At the same time we are shown a video of a small, overcrowded fishing boat in rough seas carrying African refugees across the Mediterranean that seems in constant danger of sinking. Another shimmering handheld video that seems to refer to Aloopho’s fairy tales shows Germaine in a distinctively West African headdress walking towards the fairy tale castle in Disneyland Paris. Contemporary experience, Germaine is telling us, is one of fragmentation and disjuncture, whether from an African or European point of view.


Mikaël Serre explains that he and Germaine decided to introduce parts of the ancient Greek tragedy of Medea into Somewhere at the Beginning. This produces two moments of extreme emotional intensity. Whereas the Greek Medea takes her revenge on her husband for taking a second wife by killing her own children, this African Medea begins by auctioning them. Who will give me a Euro for this baby? she repeatedly asks in French, gesturing to us in the audience. Because we in Leicester up until now have been following the spoken French text on the sur-titled translation above the stage, this was at last a moment when we could look directly at Germaine while she was talking, and understand exactly what she was doing. There was some laughter at her engaging performance … and yet. She had just been talking about Gorée, a little island off the peninsula that is now the capital, Dakar, but which was settled by Europeans and was from the C15th to the C19th a port for the embarkation of slaves. It only occurred to me afterwards that this Medea was holding a slave auction.


[photo by Thomas Dorn]

Later in another emotional climax, Germaine flings a feather cushion forcefully and repeatedly to the floor saying it is her children until it bursts spectacularly in a cloud of white feathers. All the while she shouts accusatorily at her father. The video projections and Fabrice Bouillon’s sound score prolong and intensify this painful moment building to a climax and then finally ebbing away. Sometimes screaming can be a necessary, symptomatic expression of the violent legacy of colonialism and slavery.

bird masquerade


Following this a strange, masked, bird-like figure appears. It is like something from a picture by the surrealist artist Max Ernst, or from an African masquerade. Germaine sloughs off this costume and begins slow, repetitive ritualistic movements that still maintain the former intensity, marking out anti-clockwise circuits of the stage as she stoically moves on beyond her anger and pain. Finally a resolution through movement is offered to the intense performative experience that Germaine offers through her solo. It is one that asks us in the audience to face up to the disjointed nature of contemporary life expressed through the exemplary energy of a dancer strong enough to confront it with a lifetime’s knowledge and experience.



On École Primaire Supérieure William Ponty, see Joshua Cohen (2012) Stages in transition: Les Ballets Africans and independence 1959 to 1960. Journal of Black Studies 43(1) pp. 11–48.

Rhythm machines old and new.

I recently watched a short made-for-television film of Boy Blue Entertainment dancing Emancipation of Expressionism. I’d seen Boy Blue last summer perform Blak Whyte Gray at the Edinburgh Festival. I thought the company was impressive but, maybe because I was sitting too far back in the theatre, I didn’t find the choreography particularly exciting. Emancipation of Expressionism, in the short film that Danny Boyle has made for the BBC, seemed to be more ambitious in terms of its choreography.

[Danny Boyle’s film of Boy Blue’s Emancipation of Expressionism]

Dancers form blocks, moving in unison, out of which each dancer seems to emerge for a brief solo moment before sinking back into unison again. Often two very different blocks share the stage dancing moves with contrasting qualities. Sometimes a tight group performs clear, low key gestural material while another explodes across the stage beside them acrobatically. At one moment one side of the stage, lit in blue, contains a tight knot of angry dancers rhythmically punching the air while on the other side, in white light, dancers progress in a line out of the wings with softer more lyrical movements. It is like a symphony of movement.


[screen capture from Emancipation of Expressionism]

Watching it I found myself thinking about the way Boy Blue use hip hop movement and comparing it with my memories of break dancing in the 1980s. Somewhere in my room an old VHS tape of Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 film Wild Style is gathering dust, but it was easier just to look on youtube where I found I very useful extract from it.

[extract from Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 film Wild Style]

For the Rock Steady Crew who appear in it, break dance is a solo form, whereas Boy Blue, in comparison, are an ensemble whose unison execution of their hybrid vocabulary of street dance moves is immaculate.

Boy Blue have developed a vocabulary drawn from a wide range of styles – breaking, popping and locking and related robotic moves, waves, bits of crumping, waacking. No vogueing however as their choreography is formal and abstract, tells no stories, throws no shade. The Rock Steady Crew are all individuals each with their specialities, pulling out sensational new moves they’ve just been perfecting at home. At one moment in Wild Style, two dancers crouch in the same crab-like pose mirroring each other briefly before bouncing up lightly to go on dancing, jamming with one another, not competitively, but egging each other on to do more tricks.


[screen capture from Wild Style]

There is a rough, excitingly unpredictable, improvised quality to their dancing that makes them exciting to watch. The dancers in Boy Blue are individuals as well but dance together as a close-knit group. They are superbly rehearsed and almost effortlessly synchronised; but what is exciting about their work comes from the choreography, the lighting, and crucially, of course, from the interdependence of their dance and the music.

I was going to say that just as Boy Blue follows on in the movement tradition that the Rock Steady Crew did so much to establish, there are also continuities between Grand Master Flash’s scratching and mixing and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s music. Kodwo Eshun, however, rejects the idea of continuities, genealogies and inheritance in black music, arguing instead that a ‘fluidarity’ is ‘maintained and exacerbated by sound machines’.


[Grand Master Flash: screen capture from Wild Style]


[Grand Master Flash scratching: screen capture from Wild Style]

Dancers, musicians, and the music they scratch, mix, and sample all combine together to make a rhythm machine. Eshun says scratching isn’t just an effect or a rhythmic accompaniment to the music but part of a process of rhythmic layering. The Rock Steady Crew and Boy Blue aren’t just dancing to the music. Their aim is not a musical visualisation or a subtle interpretation that makes us hear the music differently (although that does of course happen). Being part of a community that is dedicated to this black cultural form requires total solidarity with the musical rhythm. The dancers are the rhythm, totally committed to hearing it and faithfully receptive to it, sensitively responsive to its subtle shifts and changes. This commitment to the rhythm machine is what unites the artists in the extract from Wild Style with Boy Blue.

What the machine does is to recombine found material – different styles of dance move, different musical tracks, and different aesthetic sensibilities. I’d like to call it a fusion, although I know this is a much contested term within the street dance community. The music for Emancipation of Expressionism includes ‘Til enda’ by the Icelandic musician Olafur Arnalds which itself combines, or is a fusion of, techno rhythms with the plaintive melodic sensibility of Nordic music (to me it sounds a bit like Arvo Pärt or a folk lament with techno rhythms). ‘Til enda’ gives a melancholy colouring to the choreography, which allows the dancers to express a strong sense of yearning.


[screen capture from Emancipation of Expressionism]

The title Emancipation of Expressionism suggests this yearning. But it also hints at an emancipation of street dance, an assertion that when lit, costumed, and well rehearsed it has a right to the same serious consideration as other forms of contemporary dance. And of course emancipation, like jubilee, has particular resonances for people whose ancestors suffered slavery. They are dancing a yearning for a joyful, brilliant future at one with the eloquence of the rhythm machine.


quotes from Kodwo Eshun (1999) More Brilliant Than The Sun. London: Quartet Books

details of original broadcast

On Trajal Harrell’s ‘Hoochie Koochie’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, August 2017.

The first thing I found at the Barbican Art Gallery after I got my ticket was a scrum of people, over whose shoulders I got a glimpse of Trajal Harrell doing something repetitive and slightly ritualistic with a soup plate and spoon [part of The Return of La Argentina of which more shortly].


I found a slightly better viewpoint but the piece ended shortly afterwards and everyone dispersed, most seeming to know just where to go. I didn’t and ended up with a few others watching a very leisurely solo, It Is Thus, in which a male dancer took vogueing movements and performed them very slowly and evenly with a lot of concentration on the gradual, deep articulation in the transition from one movement to the next. It was all executed in a strangely un-emphatic way, like a vogue version of Trio A.

Harrell’s now well known starting point for all his choreography was the question, what would have happened if voguers from the drag balls in Harlem had performed at Judson Memorial Church alongside members of the Judson group. I’ve been looking on line at interviews with Harrell who often points out that he’s not a voguer but someone who was educated within the Judson tradition which he think of in terms of minimalism and repetition. Minimalist vogueing like It Is Thus is a way of saying no to, and moving on from Rainer’s iconic pronouncement ‘no to spectacle’.

Some people stayed for a bit of It is thus and then walked away. In performative exhibitions like Hoochie Koochie this always seems to me to be in bad faith. If someone is concentrating on dancing like that – in a rehearsal or live – I feel I must give them my attention. But in an art gallery, one stays as long or as briefly as one likes in front of a painting and then moves on. That’s what people often seem to do with dance works in performative exhibitions. It must be hard for the dancers. But, on the other hand, I noticed here and elsewhere that people don’t seem to pay any attention to any artworks or projections on the wall or any sculptural pieces displayed alongside the performative elements. No one seems interested in the inanimate stuff, but are continually alert, keen not to miss anything live that’s happening.

What I’m describing here is the behaviour of twenty-first century consumerism. As markets get saturated with things to buy, they start selling us experiences instead, manipulating our desire for something new and different. And art galleries and museums are following or responding to this by exhibiting immaterial art, like Harrell’s Hoochie Koochie. They’re doing what the market does, which is to capture excess surplus value. And, to be honest, we all recognise now that’s what always happened. That’s a key difference between the counterculture in the 1960s, of which the Judson group were a part, and the art scene today. People have no illusions any more about the possibility of escaping capture. The question is, while they are following and responding to the consumerist modus operandi, are they maybe also on another level doing something else that might not be entirely capturable?

When Jennie Livingstone’s film Paris Is Burning was first released in 1990 and was immediately ‘the’ thing that ‘everybody’ wanted to talk about, Paris Dupree – whose balls are referred to in the film’s title – and others who appeared in the film, suddenly felt ripped off. They’d let this white Jewish lesbian from Yale into the balls, performed for her and let her interview them for nothing. What they had been doing had been captured through vogue’s suddenly fashionable exploitation by Madonna and the big international music corporations. In 2017 we are all always already captured all of the time. Our data is mined by Google and Facebook and the other mega-rich tech corporations, and our personal communications harvested on an industrial scale in the name of the security of our homelands. To attempt to avoid capture is to run the risk of attracting the wrong kind of attention. What some of us need to understand better is how to pass.


[still from Paris Is Burning]

I’ve been showing extracts from Livingston’s wonderful film to my wonderful undergraduate students more or less every year since the early 1990s. The ball walkers documented in it knew all about passing. As gay men and transsexuals, the film makes clear, the ability to pass can be a life-saving skill outside the safe community of the balls. There is an element within this skill that is fundamental to theatrical self-presentation in general – an ability to make the audience see what it is you are presenting to them in the way you want to be seen.

If it is unlikely that any of the black or Latino drag queens ever attended any of the concerts of dance at Judson Church, it is possible that the gay performance artist and underground filmmaker Jack Smith might have done. And some of the dancers from the church and some of their audience probably went to see the fabulously outrageous and shambolic performances that he put on in his downtown loft a few blocks south of the church.


[Jack Smith. still from Normal Love.]

Smith knew about passing. His essay on the 1940s Hollywood B starlet Maria Montez begins:

At least in American a Maria Montez could believe she was the Cobra woman, the Siren of Atlantis, Scheherazade etc. She believed and thereby made the people who went to her movies believe. Those who could believe, did. Those who saw the World’s Worst Actress just couldn’t and missed the magic.

Passing is about making the spectator believe in magic. Some of the pieces I saw in the time I was able to spend in Hoochie Koochie didn’t use any obvious vogueing movements but drew on the kinds of expressive modern dance movement vocabulary that Rainer, Paxton and their fellow avant-gardists reacted against. Harrell seemed to me to use these modern movements in an unrelieved minimalist way inflected with a butoh-like intensity. I’m thinking of Creon’s Solo and one or two other of Harrell’s Greek pieces. Again it seemed that people would watch for a bit and then leave in the middle. You could say that, here as elsewhere, I believed in what the dancer wanted me to believe while others, who lost interest and moved on, couldn’t, and missed the magic.

As I said earlier, when I entered the gallery, Harrell was in the middle of his solo The Return of La Argentina, one of his many references to dance history in general and Butoh in particular. I was lucky enough to see Kazuo Ohno performing a series of short solos, together with other solos danced by his son Yoshito, at the Japan Society in New York in December 1999. Kazuo was then 93. Yoshito was 61 and lurked in the wings while his father danced, rushing out at one moment when his father stumbled and seemed about to fall. The father’s entire performance was extremely shaky, including the extract he showed us from the signature work about La Argentina that Tatsumi Hijikata made for him. This drew on Ohno’s memories of seeing her perform in 1926. He was 20, she was 36. As with Maria Montez, Kazuo Ohno believed and thereby made the people in the auditorium at the Japan Society believe that the fingers and wrists and legs of this 93 year old man were not shaking uncontrollably but performing the movements of a young Spanish star at the height of her fame dancing with joy.


[Kazuo Ohno in Remembering La Argentina. photo: Emídio Luisi]

Kazuo Ohno was wearing a white hat with faded flowers in it and a white lace dress, all rather distressed. Harrell, in his solo, was wearing shorts and t-shirt and holding a dress (that I later read was by the legendary Japanese couturier Reu Kawakubo). The dancers at Paris Dupree’s balls who competed in the high fashion categories were supposed to have ‘mopped’ their designer frocks. I don’t know if Jack Smith is one of Harrell’s points of reference but parts of his solo seemed to me more Smith than Ohno. But that’s not quite fair. It could be both, just as the 93 year old Japanese man could be himself and a younger woman and somehow, magically, make you believe in the joy he still shared with someone he had seen 73 years previously. Harrell too, in one section of this solo, seemed to project joy.


[Trajal Harrell in The Return of La Argentina. photoTristan Fewings, Getty images]

I was fascinated by Hoochie Koochie and stayed as long as I could before I had to rush to catch my train for the long journey back to North Yorkshire. I now realise there were longer, more recent pieces and older acclaimed ones in the exhibition that I missed. However from what I did see, it was great to see this kind of conceptually intriguing work danced by such strong, skilled and sophisticated dancers. And when I got home I went to the bookcase. That is what a lot of the interviews with Harrell and reviews of his work almost encourage one to do. So I found my copy of Jack Smith’s writings and also something by Judith Butler. Not her well known essay ‘Gender Is Burning’ about Livingston’s film, but, to check out something about Harrell’s Greek pieces, Butler’s lectures about the first of Sophocles’ Theban plays reprinted in Antigone’s Claim.

To make my point, I need now to make a brief digression into the story of Antigone. She was one of Oedpius and Jocasta’s children along with her sister Ismene and her brothers Polynices and Eteocles. After Oedipus realised he’d committed incest by unknowingly having children with his own mother, he blinded himself and left Thebes. Polynices and Eteocles succeeded him to the throne, agreeing to each be the king for half the year. But when Eteocles’ six months were up, he refused to let his brother take over. Polynices went off, came back with an army, and, in the ensuing battle, both brothers were killed. The new king Creon – Jocasta’s brother – decreed a law that, because Polynices was an enemy of Thebes, no one should bury him on pain of death. Antigone promptly scattered soil on her brother’s body and then admitted to Creon that she’d done so and thus had broken his law. It was, she said, the law of the gods to respect the dead and bury them. After this, you know it is going to end badly. And here’s the thing I was trying to remember after I saw Harrell’s Greek pieces. In Sophocles’ play, Creon announces ‘No woman is going to lord it over me’ and later adds ‘I am not the man, not now; she [Antigone] is the man if this victory goes to her and she goes free’.

Here’s Judith Butler’s commentary on these lines.

Antigone comes, then, to act in ways that are called manly not only because she acts in defiance of the law but also because she assumes the voice of the law in committing the act against the law. … [Creon] expects that his word will govern her deeds, and she speaks back to him, countering his sovereign speech act by asserting her own sovereignty.

Creon’s performative speech is to make the law by announcing it. Antigone asserts her own sovereignty by the performative act of scattering soil over her brother’s body. I’ve already mentioned Creon’s solo which I saw in the ‘Solos and Duets’ corner of the gallery. Another piece I saw there, Wall Dance from the evening length piece Antigone Jr, was based on the dialogiue between Antigone and her sister Ismene at the opening of Sophocles’ play. Rereading Butler reminded me of the ways in which Antigone and Creon trouble gender norms – Antigone acting like a male, sovereign law-maker, and Creon as someone feminised by her defiance.


[Creon’s Solo. photo: Tristan Fewings, Getty images]

There is a lot of gender troubling in Harrell’s work. To be clear, I’m not arguing that these are queer pieces, but pointing out how they problematize heteronormativity. There are the men dancing material drawn from the ball walkers who were performing like women on the runway of a fashion show. Then there is Harrell dancing with a Japanese designer dress, citing a solo by an old Japanese man who was dancing the role of a young woman. It is a generally accepted convention in some Japanese theatre forms that experienced male actors perform female roles. In an interview, Harrell points out that, in the Greek theatre of Sophocles’ era, men played female roles. So the role of Antigone would have been played by a man, as it is in Harrell’s Wall Dance.

Wall Dance is probably the piece I most enjoyed in the exhibition. It consists of two men walking rhythmically back and forth, one a few paces behind the other, along a horizontal track in front of a wall. Occasionally one would make a vogue gesture and the other might respond. From time to time, without missing a beat they somehow manage deftly to change so that they walk towards each other but turn before they meet. In the play, Antigone asks Ismene to help her bury their brother’s corpse and Ismene in effect tells her she’s crazy. I saw Wall Dance performed twice while I was at the Barbican and it seemed to me to be partly improvised around a tight structure. Mostly they just walk, quite minimalist, but it is somehow also electric. It is a sort of battle with each intensely aware of what the other is doing, braced to respond gesture for gesture, inflection with inflection.


[Wall Dance. photo: Tristan Fewings, Getty images]

Reading the notes afterwards I found that Harrell was also thinking of the duet in the film version of de Keersmaeker’s Fase where the two women also perform a minimalist stepping sequence repetitively while going back and forth along a horizontal track in front of a wall. The more I find out about Harrell’s work, the more I appreciate his dance literacy – the range of references on which he draws and the smart, ironic but convincing and sometimes moving uses he makes of them.

I’ve talked a lot about the identity politics in Harrell’s work because that’s something I’m always interested in. But I don’t want to imply that that is what his work is all about. There is an inclusive diversity in Hoochie Koochie that hints at a transnational circulation of cultural values. One last example: Harrell has been working on material about Dominique Bagouet, the much loved Cunninghamesque French choreographer who sadly died of AIDs related illness in 1992. But Harrell is learning French and is only working with information about Bagouet that people tell him in French. (Félicitations! quelle bonne idée!) What, Harrell asks in Ghost Trio, might have happened if Bagouet had met Hijikata late one night in a New York bar?

There is a need to embrace diversity on this international scale and be open to wider frames of reference about planetary needs. Hoochie Koochie offers spaces for looking outside our usual frames of reference by making us believe in the expanded range of possibilities that the dancers offer, and see the magic.


Patrick Acogny’s class – École des Sables, Monday 20th March 2017

This class gave me my first experience of dancing with drums. It started in silence with slow centering, focusing on breathing, then, after a while, a little contraction in the stomach on the outbreath – all very internally focused. Then a slow simple patting the ground with alternate feet. We were told to feel the vibration of the stamp reverberate in our spine. Simple steps, simple patterns, gently accelerating. Then the drums started. At first I couldn’t find the rhythm of what I was doing with my feet within the drumming. It seemed to be in between beats, I lost it, got confused about left and right. I’ve never had a professional training, and haven’t been doing any classes for over a decade. I had decided that the only way to understand these classes was to go in and try. I got back into it by watching the feet of the dancers in front of me and, doing so, realised I was somehow back with the drums anyway. I listened to the drums for changes that signalled a change in the movement. Patrick was silently and elegantly introducing new moments, new stepping patterns, adding arms, building complexity. He was gently guiding the growing intensity – the dancers and the drummers going faster and faster.


Then, as I struggle to keep up, I find great shouts and cheers coming from the dancers around and behind me towards the drummers, dancers showing them their appreciation. Then I’m confused to find one of the dancers from the back is dancing along in front of my row, face to face with the dancers at my side, sharing the energy of the moment with one another. That’s the moment when I decide it is probably a good moment to drop out, find my water bottle, and watch the rest of the class.


Sitting there I felt my heart and lungs subsiding from their peak, and became aware of the glow of my exertion. The experience was not quite one of trance but was definitely that of an altered state of consciousness, a letting go but at the same time a becoming intensely involved within this group of dancers and drummers. In front and behind me all focused on the same things as me, all in process of becoming intensely together.

Urban Bush Women The Curve Theatre, Leicester, 12th May 2016.

This was the best performance I’ve seen for quite a while. I don’t know when Urban Bush Women last performed in the UK but it must be a long time. It was a coup for LETS Dance International Festival to have brought them over, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar was keynote speaker at a conference on Black women and dance that was part of the festival earlier in the week. There were two choreographies in their programme: Walking with ‘Trane created by Zollar and company members, and Dark Swan by Nora Chipaumire.


I can think of several pieces by African American choreographers that use serious jazz music such as Ailey’s pieces with Ellington, or pieces by Talley Beatty, or Eleo Pomare: jazz steps set closely to jazz rhythms in glorious, powerful phrases that make us see the music in a flowing, energetic way.

This is not what happens in Walking with ‘Trane. Instead it uses music composed by Philip White and then by George Caldwell that is inspired by the life and music of John Coltrane. It builds slowly, is very dense, seems to be avoiding the obvious in a search for new affective forms. This is, of course, what Coltrane and other bebop musicians were doing in the 1950s and 1960s.

Choreographically, Zollar almost seems to be taking African American dance movement vocabularies apart in a way that resembles what William Forsythe does with the ballet vocabulary. Fred Moten, in his book In The Break shows how bebop deconstructs the African American jazz tradition. Walking with ‘Trane deconstructs dancing.

11BUSHWOMEN- Credit Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

[Urban Bush Women in Walking with ‘Trane. photo by Julieta Cervantes for the New York Times]

apart playing

I was having a conversation recently about African and diasporic polyrhythms with someone who said some dancers can beat as many as five different rhythms at once using different centres in their body. I suggested that one wouldn’t be able to see this clearly and he replied no, you’d just think what an amazing dancer they were.

The dancers in Walking with ‘Trane are performing such dense rhythms that they just look what they are … amazing dancers.

Robert Farris Thompson, from his research in Ghana and Nigeria, has discussed the differences between European classical music and the complex polyrhythms of dance and drumming traditions.

Members of a drum chorus of three do not strike the skins of their instruments in unison. At least one – normally the master drummer – creates pleasing clashes  with the rhythmic structure of his helpers. He departs from their text, as it were, and improvises illuminations. ‘Apart playing’ defines much of the music of the West (…) Africans unite music and dance but play apart. Europeans separate dance and music but play together.

The dancers in Walking with ‘Trane are united but paradoxically dance apart. There is hardly any unison until very late in the piece, and hardly any duets. All the dancers seem to be slightly separate from one another. Early on, they each introduce themselves one after another, by dancing a solo, but when they have all done this it is almost as if they continue dancing solos but all at the same time.

Each is very individual. They are all very different but dance to the same music and that’s what makes them seem united, sharing a common purpose but finding unexpected new way of expressing this unity.

dark swan

dark swan is by the New York-based Zimbabwean choreographer Nora Chipaumire. It was initially a solo that she made for herself celebrating the centenary of Fokine’s classic Dying Swan made famous by Pavlova.

To Saint-Saens’ The Swan in a recording by YoYo Ma with piano accompaniment, Pavlova’s delicate ballet point work is turned into powerful, African, rhythmic stamping, the women dancers on the spot facing diagonally towards the rear of the stage.

The music ends and starts again, and they start vibrating their heels again and a few of them travel backwards gliding with fast percussive stamps that have the same effect of Pavolva’s graceful travelling on point, but translated into something with an unmistakeably African feeling. Then they dance to a famous opera aria sung by Maria Callas – this bit is on YouTube.

During this their movements become more sensual but then to the next piece of music they put their hands into their pants to touch themselves and sway and wind in an explicitly erotic way, sensually sliding their hands over their thighs and breasts, and so on. Then in the next bit they dance while giving the audience the finger – it continued in this challengingly confrontational way.

[dark swan, photo by Micheal Zirkle]


I’ve found a couple of review on line of dark swan by writers who strongly disliked the piece. In the after-show Q&A the explicit nature of this came up so I asked a question.

I said I’d enjoyed the ironically African subversion of European high culture but then felt that once they’d got me smiling they twisted the knife. As a white man looking at Black women I felt uncomfortable watching them touching themselves although I knew it was meant to be critical. How did they feel performing it?

One of the dancers more or less said she felt that through it she was reclaiming her sexuality. It didn’t bother her if I found it arousing but she saw it as positive and celebratory.

On the way out a couple of audience members stopped me and said they thought it was my problem and to do with my own male gaze. I agreed and pointed out it was also about my white privilege, and then I realized that I didn’t see the dancers as eroticized, exoticised Black female bodies. What is so powerful about the company is that they are all different, all individuals, and that was what made this NSFW section of dark swan celebratory.

I haven’t come across any review of the Curve performance. I don’t think any of the London-based national dance/ballet critics came to Leicester to see it, which seems to me a shame. And I’m sorry for them because Urban Bush Women are such an excellent company, Zollar is such an important choreographer, Chipaumire was for me a revelation, and the dancers were jaw-droppingly amazing. They got a standing ovation. The critics missed something.