BL: [continues] What I am showing is the opening to the DVD I submitted with my Master's thesis. It gives a brief introduction to two primary styles of dance of West Africa – “djembe” style – which is done to the ice-cream shaped drums and “sabar”. I chose these two styles because, although they come primarily from regions close to one another, they're very different in aesthetic. The djembe primarily focusses on the upper torso and rhythmic syncopation, while sabar is strongly based on the legs. I'm sure we can look at contemporary dance in the same way – which choreographer works with the upper body and which choreographer works with the legs? This is just to give you a sampling of what African dance aesthetic looks like, body position, etc.
[Plays video excerpt] That was a small example of what traditional West African dance from the Senegambian region would look like. The Senegambian region includes countries like Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Gambia – most of the countries that border the Senegal and the Gambian River. That's only a very minute bit of Africa, and the physicalities are endless in terms of a range of differences in how they use the rhythm. I chose these styles because, in terms of a more North American context, the djembe and sabar styles are the ones that are most popularly and traditionally used. Many of you will be familiar with Les Ballets Africains, a Senegalese company that has toured most of North America; a lot of the members have since emigrated and are living in North America. So those are the styles that have stayed.
Seeing that kind of physicality from dancers who had never had a class in their life spurred me to think, “There must be a reason why they can dance that fast and have their legs going a mile a minute without a dance class.” My primary investigation was to figure out where all this dance comes from? They don't spend time doing it as often as we do – they certainly don't take eight classes a week. From the youngest baby to the oldest mother, all are quite physically capable. The woman that I stayed with was eighty-two and the compound that she lived in was about this size (points to the studio theatre space around him). She had a little broom about two feet long and every day she would spend the entire morning bent down, sweeping the whole compound. Once in awhile she would get up to chat with her friend, and then go back down.
How many of you have done a Horton class in your lifetime? (audience laughter) You know exactly how you feel after the third flat back right? She was in flat back for a good – I sat down and watched her – forty-five minutes one morning. She didn't come up, didn't shake her legs out, didn't move. Then I started matching that kind of everyday physicality to the dances. And it made perfect sense to me how they are able to marry the way they live to that physical exuberance in dance. For me, when I begin to create, it's that same notion – I need to know my dancers, beyond the training and what we do in the studio. I need to understand my dancer's physicality, their lifestyle and how that manifests itself into the work I create.
I have the pleasure of having two very rich dance cultures. My Western training gives me a very specific kind of direction for creating work, but I have all this freedom and richness from a different culture. And I don't marry the two in a context of fusion. I tend to think that all of these experiences live in my body naturally and therefore it's not an intellectual process of saying, “I want to create this new idea of movement and moving, to create something that's called a fusion.” I get very nit-picky when people call my work “fusion”. In a Webster's dictionary sense it probably is fusion, but for me, in a physical sense, it isn't because it's movement that has become part of my existence as a mover and, therefore, when I create it comes out. Dancers who work with me will tell you, you had better be on my heels when I'm creating because I don't stop to say it's five of these or it's put your foot here, or whatever. You have to be with my body to get the shape. As the years go by, the process of learning work from me is getting harder and harder, because I'm a lot less clear – because I'm really depending on the physicality and the natural movement aesthetic that comes out of my body through having studied Horton, Graham, ballet, Limón, Skinner classes/workshops now and again, and what those things mean to me as a dancer, along with dancing with Grossman and TDT, and dancing many works. That range of dance just comes out of me now.
From the outside it may look like I'm creating within a particular context, but I don't think that I actually spend time worrying too much about it. I know I spent a lot of time researching and training in African aesthetic and I would be damned if it doesn't come out in my body naturally – but I honestly don't spend time thinking about that particular aesthetic when I create. When I walk into a studio and want to say something, I choose the best physicality to say that. That's the base of what I do.
That said, in total contradiction, I'm also highly motivated in finding out how I can extend that physicality and movement aesthetic. How can I respect the reasons why African dancers move the way they do – as I've understood them – and bring this into a North American context?
Q: With all of these different dance traditions living in your physical self, does any part of your process involve you improvising?
BL: Usually I'm very much a person of the moment so I cannot stay at home and think about it all and then go in to the studio to teach the dancers. I do that very rarely. I have basic ideas of what I want to say with the work and sometimes I go in with physical ideas, sometimes with intellectual ideas; it varies from work to work, but I go with the energy of that day. Some days we get a big chunk done because I'm really moving and I'm going, and some days we get relatively little done.
Q: When you say you're really moving and you're going …?
BL: I'm improvising. I'm trusting that …
Q: That your ideas/concepts are going to flow through?
BL: Flow through – yes.
Q: And your body will come out in …
BL: Movement. Yes. That's my new process – and I have to find a way to harness that part of the process, because in moving from me to the dancers we can lose a lot. If I'm moving and creating, when I turn around, sometimes the dancers say, “That was so good!” and they didn't get anything. It's getting to the point, though, where we're able to be a little more resourceful in capturing all that I give. Within any one given process, if we were to have a camera on the wall and record, you would see how much material we actually lose because people are so in awe or they're just looking and trying to feel where I go before they investigate.
The second phase of my process is to get the dancers involved right from the get-go because they often still have that mentality of: “He'll create it and then he'll teach it to us.” And it doesn't happen for every work. For some works they are right there, and for other works they say, “That was good. Show it to us now.” Or the famous phrase, “What was that again?” I find that I'm going into the studio trusting more and more what I want to say and what I innately, physically feel, and putting it out there, and hoping …
Another point is that movement changes between my body and the dancers' bodies. There's a whole other layer that comes into play because we're not the same, we're not living the same experiences. COBA has dancers who are in their early twenties and my most recent work, Inner Voice, which is about trusting the unknown, ironically enough, worked on several levels; it was about trusting the unknown physically and intuitively. To ask a twenty-year-old what that means, and to get to the place that I am physically, was full of challenges. Some things did transpose very differently to the younger dancers, and I have to be okay with that. Hopefully the work will grow and evolve, and as we keep remounting it, will have a life of its own, maybe when some of these young dancers are forty or forty-five. That's a big thing for me, creating in a contemporary sensibility.
CA: Do you have some of your work for us to look at?
BL: I do. We can look at Inner Voice – the most recent of the lot.
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