The drummers enter the empty stage.
They start a sparse yet strong beat, loading the air.
They sink into steadiness. Eventually pulling the dancers on stage, one by one.
The dancers walk through the space, out of time with the musicians and each other. Suddenly, they are caught. They sit, roll over. Lights out. Silence.
As the pulsing beat resumes, the dancers are slowly illuminated lying on their backs, rocking their hips from side to side, side to side, side to side. The persistent motion comes from deep in their stomachs, driven by the drumming. The tone of the piece settles. We are witnessing the mingling of music and movement, urging each other through time and space.
Originally choreographed in 1997 and remounted in 2014, Zab Maboungo describes Mozongi as a contemporary piece with African drums. Sections of relentless rhythms structure the piece. The dancers move as a well-oiled machine, trucking along, fueled by sound and glued together by time.
I spoke to Maboungo about her inspiration and creative process and she kept circling back to one idea: rhythm.
“People are really attached to what they see,” she says, “but they need to hear what they see.” When watching her choreography, she wants the audience to call on all of their senses.
The importance she places on rhythm stems from her Central-African background and her beliefs dive deep. “Rhythm is about breath,” she says, “and breath is about our capacity to sense our presence in time.” She explains how time just flows, and rhythm is a way of constructing a feeling of time.
When she tells me there is no counting in Mozongi, my shock is audible (over the phone) and she laughs.
I’m further shocked when she describes her creative process. She works separately with the musicians and dancers so they don’t rely on each other, bringing them together late. “I put them together so there is some kind of confrontation,” she says. Of when the dancers and musicians come together she says: “You access your movement, which means you access your capacity to relate. This is when the true conversation is happening.” The two musicians and six dancers are equal parts of the piece.
I’m now rethinking the performers as a well-oiled machine trucking along, fueled by sound and glued together by time. I think it’s more accurate to describe them as a pack moving through time, fueled by the confrontation Maboungo describes, glued together by power.
“People believe ‘I see therefore I know,’” she says, “I’m trying to counter this.”
Five months ago I had to write a speech. It was one of those sum-your-life-up-in-10-minutes-or-less kind of speeches. I wrestled with it: find a single common thread of my 47 years on the planet. No one was more surprised that me that I would eventually come to land on the word “shame.” I had grown up a gay kid, and at the height of the Greenpeace war on Newfoundland, a cultural war born of the seal hunt but transgressing well beyond it. At ten years old, it seemed the world would have me believe I was not only a sexual deviant but also a drunken murderer in the making.
I never delivered the speech. Turns out it was a bit too heavy for the occasion in question. But writing it did get me thinking about pride, the kind of pride that continues to rule my work and life, that particular brand of pride that only comes from the active and hard-won rejection of shame.
It’s been twenty plus years since I’ve seen the first incarnation of Roger Sinha’s Burning Skin, but I still remember it: details, moments. More than would be expected after such a long time. It is indeed – pardon the pun – burned into my memory.
And in that memory, at least, Burning Skin is all about shame. It is about the shame of simply being, othered and outside of a dominant culture. It is about being young, and how the young do and don’t process shame. And how they can act on it, in ways that are terrible and public and undeniably lasting, and in other ways that are subtler, more hidden, but no less indelible.
And ultimately, in a way, it’s about pride. The act of telling this story, in how it’s told, the physical risk to performer (implied or actual, I’m still not sure), is so deeply stoked with pride. It’s a heated, in every sense of the word, reclamation of what was taken, what was supressed.
Burning Skin was a marvel. It remains one of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen on LSPU Hall stage. Clearly. Here I am all these years later, in anticipation of its return, processing the memory of it, still grappling with its full meaning, finding my own tiny moments of communion with its blazing embodiment of that deep seeded shame.
THE NDN WAY
Megan Gail Coles
THE NDN WAY by Brian Solomon with Mariana Medellin draws inspiration from a 1974 CBC documentary wherein Metis storyteller Ron Evans shares Cree philosophies and knowledge through voiceover style storytelling. Evans' rhythmically patient yet confident manner of oration is effectively juxtaposed with the documentary narrator's firm authoritarian tone. This juxtaposition is at the heart of THE NDN WAY as Solomon and Medellin explore aspects of Indigineity through this expansive and provocative piece that in itself challenges our expectations of genre and identity. THE NDN WAY in the act is dance and performance art, it is visual storytelling and theatre. This reticence to be confined to a singular discipline defines the piece and is in keeping with the numerous and exciting juxtapositions of movement and emotion present.
THE NDN WAY swerves from contemporary pop soundscapes to traditional naturalistic soundscapes while the velocity and range of motion exhibited covers an invigorating stretch of human capacity. Solomon and Medellin flow organically from a tight frenzy to a liberal deliberation while balancing severity and humour. The piece is feverish and smoothing in the same measure which is a testament to the fluidity of Indigeneity and experience. Solomon's work challenges the notion of a singular Indian way as is outlined in the CBC documentary whereby Indigeneity is limited to a linear structural narrative. In fact, Evans explains in his gentle demeanour that this undeviating and exactly understanding of Indigeneity is in contrast to the cyclical, inter-connected teachings of various First Nations groups.
Solomon and Medellin are reverent and irreverent in their pursuit of artistic and cultural excellence. They surprise audiences in delightful and powerful executions of movement while posing difficult and necessary questions regarding knowledge, liberation and personhood.