April 1, 2009

Dance Review Places Unfair Political Burden on Performers

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The following is a guest column written in response to “Dancing the Diaspora,” a review by Will Cordeiro published on Mar. 12.

I admire The Sun for many reasons and especially for its reviews of dance, music, painting, theater and the many other performances and exhibitions at Cornell. The Sun’s reviewers are serving the purposes of art in addressing the deep forces within our social and historical moment.
Sometimes critics take a negative view of a performance that the audience has loved. This is not unusual in the popular arts when a critic may find that an audience’s worst prejudices have been flattered and exploited. But it is unusual to find a critic challenging an audience to reconsider its approval of a concert as beautiful, ambitious and moving as the work of Duna, performed by Kongo Ba Teria/Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project on March 10, 2009 in the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.
The dancers are West African, and the very power of their dancing raised the question: How could so many strengths, equally physical and spiritual, ever have been denied or appropriated? How do those of us who have profited in a material way from imperialism look at black bodies performing on a Western stage? These are fair and even necessary issues for a Western audience. As we address them, however, it is important to allow that the dancers themselves may have a different agenda.
While some of the dancers have lived and worked in Los Angeles for the past four years, all of them remain deeply committed to their culture and its history. As the dancers explained in the post-performance discussion, they grew up within the African traditions of dance and as young adults came to be interested in ideas of dance from the West. These new ideas were not proposed to them as “other” ways of thinking; they were shared as performances on the stage. We can think of such arrangements, including the Duna performance at Cornell, either as cultural imperialism or as a framework for cultural engagement.
It is difficult and very complicated to understand another culture, to see dance from Burkina Faso, for example, without prejudice. Perhaps it is impossible. But what is possible is the attempt to look self-critically and with openness. For centuries we have been in the habit of using such words as primitive and exotic to describe the unfamiliar. It was dismaying to find these words in The Sun, even if the reviewer’s purpose was to determine to what extent Duna did not appear primitive or exotic. Why assume that black dancers inevitably engage these prejudices? Why does the work of these artists need to address a specifically Western audience’s perception of what should be important in African dance?
The political context of art can be articulated in countless ways. One strategy is to alienate the audience, forcing it to confront the strangeness of its own position. But there are other, more hopeful and also more tragic ways which call upon the complexities of grief, sorrow and enduring pain. As I watched Duna, I felt both agonized and grateful that the dancers were embodying our differences and working to overcome them for all our sakes. The beautiful in dance is always charged with political significance. We have only to recognize that dance is a choice, that it happens in time and that dancers shape their bodies to articulate the present moment, brutal as it might otherwise seem, in human terms.
Of course the concert was political. In the first dance, a solo, Lacina Coulibaly points at his own body, showing the marks of history. That the dance is a solo makes the same extraordinary point: that an African body carries an entire history as it is brought to the West. Midway through the solo Coulibaly turns from West Africa to America, and we discover that the one place is the same as the other, turned inside out. The second dance begins in the dark with white lanterns. They light only the dancers’ legs, and only the lights are dancing. We are in a well or tunnel and also on a landing strip, nowhere certain. In a breathtaking contrast, Olivier Tarpaga performs in solo as though he were in a company of dancers, and Coulibaly watches him steadily, unmoving — except in sudden figures when he moves two lanterns quick as light into new patterns. He is kneeling all the while, prepared to move as the coordinates keep changing, the same and not the same minute by minute.
These are first impressions and only a beginning. But I am sure it is important to begin with the work itself and not with our own preconceptions of the artists’ responsibilities. Who are we to dictate this or that program to them, or to say how any work of art should address its audience? We need to allow them the freedom to express what they mean in the context of their own experience. It is for us to try to understand the difference.

Jumay Chu is a senior lecturer in the Department of Film, Theatre and Dance. He can be reached at jrc24@cornell.edu