Bloom 2017 – Blogs

Dissecting Principles: Lab Exchange – African Heritage UK and Funmi ‘Adewole


By Emily Labhart

Dissecting Principles took place on Monday 19th June at Moonshot Centre (home of Irie! Dance Theatre) as part of a wider research project funded by The Exchange, which supports short investigative collaborations between artists and academics. The collaborators for this project were Judith Palmer, Director of African Heritage UK(the artist) and ‘Funmi Adewole, Early Career Fellow in Dance at De Montfort University (the academic).

The workshop was based on the Agbadza dance from Ghana. Judith taught us the core step followed by two variations. ‘Funmi then led a somatic inquiry into the step, leading on to improvisation tasks to engage with how anatomy informs the dance.

I was already familiar with Agbadza through my training with ‘H’ Patten at University of Surrey, however, since graduating it’s been increasingly difficult to find regular classes that explore traditional forms. With the growth of popular dances in recent years, including Afrobeats and Dancehall, there is (or should be) a further need to understand their roots, origins, and correct techniques for making sense of the mechanics in the body.

Dissecting Principles then, was a rare opportunity to focus on the form itself, the movement, how it works anatomically, how it can be translated and developed. I felt a clear difference in my execution of the step after ‘Funmi’s somatic exploration, so much so that it made me question why I’ve never been through that process before. Contemporary practices are often taught with a somatic focus – why not for African Dance forms?

The second part of the event was a panel discussion, inviting three contemporary dance artists to talk about their practices and their interest and engagement with traditional African dances. These panellists were Mbulelo NdabeniRacheal Nanyonjo and Avatara Ayuso.

Ayuso spoke about technique being separate from practice – technique informs practice, and practice is a way of thinking. She went on to discuss that where a technique is learnt impacts your practice, and the importance of understanding the cultural location of where that technique develops.

Ndabeni went into some detail about his dance journey, from growing up in Eastern Cape, South Africa to attending London Studio Centre, before performing with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures for two years followed by Rambert Dance Company for seven years. Ndabeni discussed Africa as being judged Eurocentrically – he points his toes and is celebrated, he flexes his ankle he becomes less interesting. He went on to comment that to be Eurocentric is to be ‘more easily digested’, he is perceived to be less of a ‘threat’ because he ‘can do that thing (Europeans) know’. Ndabeni also shared that he feels he had ‘forgotten the connectivity to the earth that African dance has’, and questions whether as an artist, he has evolved or developed.

Lastly, Nanyonjo spoke about the dangers of a solely-European discourse for African dance practices, and the importance of giving space for voices from those countries and cultures to shape how they are presented abroad. ‘As a Ugandan British, I struggle to see how I can use the forms in my European discourse’, the answer: ‘not appropriation but appreciation’.

Dissecting Principles was an important event in the dance calendar – as evidenced by the 30+ strong artists and researchers who took part. The structure of: learning steps, then engaging in somatic inquiry, back to steps, into improvisation (all accompanied by Master Drummer, Charles James) followed by the panel discussion, is a format that should be used more widely. Giving space for artists to explore traditional forms in detail, to spend nearly an hour understanding the centre of one movement in the body, is something rare and valuable – it has to happen again.

Read more about the workshop here and be sure to stay up to date with future events from Judith and ‘Funmi.


Sun, smiles and dance: How Urban Carnival Roadshow brought a seaside community together

By Jessica Eades

It’s Saturday 8th July. A glorious blue sky is cloudless overhead, and the sun pours down over the picturesque grounds of Pavilion Dance South West. Between the scorching heat, fresh juice bar and urban music, it’s a perfect holiday feeling.

What better day for a carnival.

As a chapter of One Dance UK’s Bloom National Festival, and a feature of Discover, Play, Dream: Dance! hosted by Pavilion Dance South West, Urban Carnival Roadshow was born. The lead artist of the event was Natasha Z Player, who seamlessly performed, directed, and drove the performance, inviting new audience members from start to finish with her infectious smile. Featuring several community dance groups of various ages and ethnicities, Natasha created an event that celebrated Dance of the African Diaspora – the primary goal of Bloom National Festival since 2009.

The carnival began with a brief introduction from Natasha Z Player, welcoming us to the event. “Give us all your energy, and we’ll give it all back”, she promised as she beckoned the first young dancers from UMOJA Unite; and as soon as the beat kicked in their energy was undeniable. Clad in loud, carnival-esque wings and tassels, these mini movers put on a brilliant show.

They finished their performance partying down the grand stairway, faultlessly directing our gaze from the Pavilion’s patio to the grass below. The entire performance travelled effortlessly through the Pavilion’s surrounding gardens, encouraging an active and thoroughly engaged audience. Thus the “Roadshow” began!

Natasha performed next, accompanied by her community dance class from PDSW. As a small group, it seemed that these dancers were destined to become lost in the large open space, but they soon found their stride. Their performance was an aesthetic feast of colourful face paints and patterned costumes, and their movement featured detail and clarity. I was lucky enough to speak with Natasha about her work, and the emphasis she placed on the “nuances” of different African dance styles was evident in this performance. “A hand movement from Senegal or Guinea Conakry… to Cameroon or Ghanaian dances varies, as does the emphasis on the hip or the spin depending on the region of the dance”. This small troupe did their teacher proud, delivering these nuances with precision, and drawing the attention of the sun burnt, ice cream-clutching passers by.

Alongside one particularly eye catching performer, dressed in a spectacular carnival costume designed and created by students at Arts University Bournemouth, the dancers continued their journey back up the stairs to the Pavilion’s terrace.

Here we were met with yet another energetic performance by dancers from a local school: The Bourne Academy. Unlike UMOJA Unite, these children were not used to performing African dance styles. Despite their contemporary background, Natasha had trained the dancers to an impressive standard, as their performance was controlled and confident. When interviewing Natasha, I felt it was important to touch upon the debate surrounding postcolonial “cultural appropriation”. Did Natasha consider ethnicity relevant in terms of the development and recognition of African dance styles? “I believe it is important to cite the origins of a dance style” she explained, “[as well as the] route to where it sits today… Yes, it is important to consider ethnicity but I don’t think it is the deciding factor.” This forward thinking, inclusive attitude is extremely important to the promotion of BAME communities (Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups) within traditionally white British culture. It was beautiful to see such inclusivity throughout the event.

Urban Carnival Roadshow continued to impress it’s ever changing audience, as we saw further performances from UMOJA Unite and Dance Afrika. These community groups were comprised primarily of adults performing in unison, with subtle individuality developed throughout their methodic training with Natasha. The technique she focuses on is ‘Loketo’, pioneered by Zab Maboungou, whom Natasha trained with prior to developing her own codified technique over fifteen years of professional practice. This Afrocentric approach to posture, alignment and movement vocabulary highlights the value of African dance styles to the current landscape of dance in the UK.

As a contemporary dancer with very little experience of these styles myself, I was stunned to realise just how technical the performances were. Whilst the afternoon was undeniably exciting and colourful, full of glitter, smiles and toe-tapping rhythms, it also reinforced the worth of Dance of the African Disapora.

Once the performers had taken their final bows, it was our turn to dance.

Members of the audience were initially hesitant to join Natasha, but it wasn’t long before children, teenagers, parents and grandparents of all genders and ethnicities were up on the floor. We were handed colourful scraps of material to wave as we jumped and grooved around the space. Even unwitting passers by grabbed a scarf and joined the party, making this event the most genuinely participatory and inclusive I have ever seen. Natasha led the group, dancing and instructing without ever seeming to lose her breath – or her smile. She encouraged us to “use the ground” and to “dig up the energy” as we moved with our spines as the “life force” of our bodies. What struck me most about Natasha’s instruction were the many similarities with contemporary body-mind centering. It was important to know where our movements were coming from, to allow them to flow honestly from our bodies into the earth and the people around us.

I asked for Natasha’s opinion on dance in the community, and whether she thought art and culture could bring us together: “Through providing a safe space to explore the body in motion, people connect with their true self and with others in the room creating a euphoric feeling.” I couldn’t have put it better myself, Natasha.

Dance is everywhere, in today’s culture and in cultures past. Urban Carnival Roadshow was designed to support Dance of the African Diaspora, and to celebrate inclusion and dance in everyday places. I’d consider that three boxes ticked.