FUTURE OF DANCE
By: Enimil Ashon
In less than two hours, the graduate students of the School of Performing Arts wrote the history dance. They recalled the traditional Adowa, Atsiagbekor Damba, Naglia and Bamaaya through ballet, rock ‘n roll, twist and (American) modern dance via the poly-rhythmic sounds of ancient Africa played with atumpan, cowbells and rattles. They also used the melodies, chants and symphonies from foreign lands. The students proved that were worthy to be called the generation that was mentored by Professor Nii Yartey and Oh! Nii Kwesi Sowah.
If ever the human body subjected itself in obedience to the manipulation of the human mind to express the contrasting emotions of joy and pain, bottomless–ness, alienation and sheer rapturous ecstasy, the audience that sat through ‘The Future Dance’ for three days at the Efua Sutherland Drama Studio on the last three days of March received a confirmation.
I was certain I felt Mawere Opoku turn in his grave. The good old teacher, he was himself considered too radical in his days. But just as he shocked the traditionalists of his time who wrung their hands in consternation, wondering what he was taking traditional dances to (i.e giving them choreographic expressions), so would himself have been shocked if he had been in the audience on the three nights.
My word, did we see the future of dance!
It was not only in the body contortions, the abstractness of the movement and the exoticism of the music; it was also and more especially, in the set the costuming, the make-up and the props.
How audacious! The set had been designed with the limitlessness of the human imagination in mind.
Huge and well spread out, it created platforms raised several metres high, meandering through the powerful boughs of that mighty tree which on normal days give shade to Efua Sutherland’s soul at rest. The students had apparently felt challenged enough by their mentors – Nii Yartey and Oh! Nii- and were determined to challenge not only their wildest imagination, but the agileness of the human body. How high could anyone jump! My hair stood on end.
Above all, however, the set helped achieved depth and contrasts, especially in distance and seize. So fused were the concepts that among the dancers there were very few or no strangers: both the Ghanaians and the foreign (white) students were at home. We were watching the dances of the world, and the dancers had lost their colour: it did not matter where anyone came from. This was free expression. Only when the themes bordered on the magico- religious did we recognize the roots of the dance.
We saw and participated in dances that transported audiences into time and space, dances as old as a Efia Abasa (of Kumasi Cultural Centre fame) and as contemporary as the ‘break’ routines of Michael Jackson (on a world stage). We even saw glimpses of what dance aficionados are beginning to recognize as Nii Yartey routines. We saw dances that were so physical you could only have pity on the body under such torment. When you have a human body goes through a contraption (that looked like a xylophone without their keys) or slith into, out of, around and through a bottomless barrel, you wonder what levels are responsible to reach in dance.
We saw dances that spoke to our experiences; dances that deepened our sadness and heightened our joy; dances that released the free spirit in us; dances that showed the animal in us the dog-eat-dog city life; the treacherous and the faithful. We saw the sublime and the vibrant; the suppliant and the conjuring –all these told with human bodies that were perpetually in motion; bodies that moved as gracefully as the eel and as impetuous as the hippo.
Costuming and make-up scored very high. Total production, I call it. What is the future of dance, therefore? My simple reply is simple: everybody who calls himself or herself a dancer must look out for everything.
I used to think that the answer was the body in perpetual motion. Today, I think dance defies definition. If what gymnasts and acrobats do at the Olympic Games has become dance –and we saw a lot of it on those three nights-then dance is futureless because it is a bit of everything in every generation.
Those graduate students may not have realized the implication of what they have done with their productions. Sitting through those two or so hours of ‘The Future of Dance’, one is unable to avoid the conclusion that this is the culmination of what Kwame Nkrumah set out to do with the setting up of what was then known as ‘Dondology’, what Mawere Opoku lifted to levels acceptable outside the confines of traditional courts onto the urban stage; what Nii Yartey blessed with ‘dance-drama’(arguably the most populist stage of the dance Revolution in its attraction for the mass of the people.
We have seen the Ghana Dance Ensemble years of the 1980’s (exploring both traditional and semi-contemporary); the early-to-mid 1990s that saw dance drama on the ascendancy; through the National Dance Company years of the late 1990’s that saw the birth of powerful contemporary dance like the incomparable solma.
What Ghanaians were exposed to in the early days of the National Theatre is what eventually culminated in the birth of solma (thanks to the Dances) who pulled away from everybody and launched into the future.
What we saw at the Efua Sutherland Drama Studio on the three nights could be described as a continuation of the Solma experiment.
Dance has come full cycle, and we should count ourselves blessed that the lives of Professor Nii Yartey who saw and sat at the feet of Pro. Mawere Opoku, and was later blessed with his (nii’s) own contacts with those in America and Europe driving the change into.
The Ghanaian Times Page: 13 and 14 Saturday, April 17, 2010.