CA: Carol Anderson
BL: BaKari Lindsay
Q: Questions and comments
CA: I'm very pleased to welcome BaKari Lindsay back to York today.
BL: I never left!
CA: BaKari has a Master's in Dance from York.
BL: Yes, I completed it in 2004.
CA: Now BaKari is teaching …
BL: I teach math, language, history, geography and science. No dance. Well, having said that, we dance all the time – I'm always doing something strange and the kids are always saying, “What are you doing?”
CA: Apart from his teaching career, BaKari is one of the founders of Collective of Black Artists (COBA) and a fantastically dynamic dancer and choreographer. I asked BaKari if he would, in talking about his work, touch on the notions of what he means by the words “tradition” and “contemporaneity”. BaKari's company, and his choreography, are both traditional and innovative – these are equally pure and important streams in the company's work.
BL: When Carol called me months ago this seemed a very simple task to handle. Then last night I was preparing to talk to you today and I thought, “Oh my God, this is huge.” Then I thought, well, I have an hour and this is a topic I could go on about for five days and so I tried to condense what I want to say to you. But every time I thought “I'll just say this much” it opened fifty other questions. So, hopefully we can have some interesting dialogue – and you can understand some of the perspective of creating within a traditional context, and what “contemporary” means within that context.
I will start with a little about my history as a dancer. I think that will help you understand how I come by what's contemporary and how that notion exists in North America. I was born in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, which is in the Caribbean, and started dancing at age nineteen, and I'm close to fifty, mid-stream now. My early introduction to dance was with Caribbean folk dance, which has deep roots in African tradition but has several layers of colonialist charm. Britain, France and Spain were the three main powers that colonized Trinidad and Tobago at that time. But we also had an influx of South Asians who came as labourers; we had Chinese, Syrian, Lebanese – altogether a really rich, diverse country to be living in.
I think I should describe a little bit about that diversity. I know we hear about Toronto being a very diverse city and, for me, diversity in Canada and diversity there are very different things. First of all, every single culture had a national holiday. So, the kind of engagement you had was legislated, but it was very hands-on. When I went to school, I learned about Hinduism and Islam because there was always a holiday coming up at some point, and it was part of the culture. That kind of engagement was very rich for me, and therefore the beginnings of the framework for me actively engaging in tradition and looking at it in contemporary society. Without even knowing it, that was my introduction to diversity.
I did Caribbean dance for three or four years before starting what I would call my formal dance training – which was North American-based training. After four years of doing folk dance, I thought I'd take a stab at actually going to dance class. I started taking modern dance classes, got hooked, and decided that I wanted to become a dancer. In a nutshell, that was what led to me discovering the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, and immigrating to Canada to study there. I did a small stint with Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT), and danced with the Danny Grossman Dance Company for seven years. Within that time I founded COBA and have been creating a body of work here in Toronto.
In my own experiences and my research, I work primarily in African tradition, both continental African tradition and diasporic African tradition. Anywhere Africans have settled in the world and are doing works based on African traditions is what I call “diasporic”, and “continental” means anything that's done in the specific continent of Africa. When I think about tradition and my experience, first of all if I look at the definition of “contemporary” as “living in the present” then the work is already contemporary. Even the traditional work, as I see it, is reflective of the times that people are living in. I've learned traditional dances when the person teaching has made distinctions. For instance, “This is the Bush version” or “This is how we do it now.”
So for today's chat we will assume that anything that comes in a ritual or specific form, related to a very specific occasion within an African context, is tradition; while the work that I create based on those rituals or based on that movement aesthetic is contemporary. That's making it very basic because it's a lot more complex than that.
I was very fortunate, in my early dance life, to have studied most of the tradition from teachers I regard as gurus and mentors. I think most dancers of my age have rarely experienced the kind of engagement or investment in preserving tradition the way that I have – and that's speaking solely from a Trinidadian, Caribbean base. Most people of my generation were taught second-hand and therefore they were very quick to move away from the preservation of tradition and understanding it from ethnographic, physical and historical perspectives. Most dancers of my generation don't care about that. For me it's been a blessing, and I am fortunate to have that grounding in Caribbean dance in my own beginnings; therefore, I am very much concerned with tradition.
These early teachers, so steeped in tradition, were also concerned about the longevity of this tradition they were handing over to me. And I guess I must have been blessed because they were concerned about longevity but did not expect the dance to be static. Early in my dance career I was getting indications that, while they appreciated and wanted certain aesthetic values and value systems to be preserved, they felt that the only way this tradition could have life is if it were reflective and responsive of the time it was in. So early in my dance experiences, I had permission to look at the work with very different eyes. Even as I was doing it in a traditional context, I was given permission to investigate that work. This, in turn, inspired me to look at the notion of seeing different things embedded in the same physical material.
One of the notions is that a particular vocabulary, a particular aesthetic, should only say one thing. My excitement and rationale in investigating traditional form is that I feel it is a physical language first of all. The body is used to speaking and therefore that physical language can be moved out of a ritual or a social context to say other things. That was the genesis of my investigation of tradition, and the platform and the springboard for me to move off into creating works that we pursue as contemporary. Mary Jane [Warner – BaKari's MA thesis supervisor] will tell you that, through my Master's program, I spent quite a long time investigating and developing a physical language based on researching the African aesthetic. It by no means encompasses the entire African continent, which, last I checked, included at least fifty-seven countries, at least 800 ethnic groups with at least 700,000 languages – and the math goes on with how many dances they have.
The system that I have created is by no means a template or bible for training in that particular aesthetic, but there are some things that are evident in most African traditions including rhythmic pulse, the body attitude, the shapes that are inherent to the body, which are inherent in their lifestyle. They don't have traditional dance classes, but their movements certainly evolve out of their lifestyle. Through my research and observations looking at several ethnic groups and different lifestyles, for example fishermen versus women, I got a clearer understanding for particular physical movements. Often anthropologists classified African dance as “sexy” because there's a lot of hip movement in the women's dancing. Simple investigation told me that they were carrying babies, and they would shift constantly to soothe the babies. So innately, when the women began dancing they were used to doing a certain type of movement and that's what they would go to first. Therefore, there were particular clear explanations for certain physical aesthetics that were recorded and stated as fact for several years through anthropological research.
For me, looking at those aesthetics gave me a way to begin to develop a movement aesthetic that I can use as a vocabulary for creating contemporary work. In essence, a lot of the work I create has a very strong rhythmic base, whether it's done to drumming or not. People tell me: “I can see the rhythm, I can see the rhythm.” I spend a lot of time looking at shapes that are very rich in physical stance – by that means, I defy the laws of physical gravity and what the body is naturally supposed to do. For the dancers who have to learn it, it's not always the greatest to rehearse it constantly, but I think we've learned to create so that it becomes almost aesthetically pleasurable for a dancer. After rhythm and shape, the next essence of my work is repetition. When I look at those three things, and I look at my contemporary dance experiences with Grossman, they're very much inherent – Danny's work is very rhythmic. I can tell you, having danced his works, the shapes were not always the most aesthetically pleasing for the dancing body. Repetition is a big part of choreographic works that we deem straight-laced; Balanchine used repetition, and a lot of great choreographic modern dance, including Martha Graham's dances, have used repetition as a very strong choreographic tool.
When I put these elements together I don't feel that I'm doing anything ground-breaking, or unearthing a new style. I think I'm just looking at the same material with very different eyes. I'm dancing about different things; I'm putting a different aesthetic focus on the same movement. Therefore, for me, that is the base of where I begin to create contemporary work.
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