Serendipity’s BHM Live showcases work by some of the best choreographers from the dance world to date. But these breathtaking performances should be seen every day, all year round, not just during Black History Month, writes Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou.
‘You’ve got to tell your own story, because nobody else will,’ Boston ‘The Orator’ Williams says to the camera. He’s talking to director Jaha Browne, whose documentary short A Very Brit(ish) Voice was commissioned for Black History Month by creative enterprise, Serendipity. In the film, Williams is one of several Black British individuals who share their experience of life in the East Midlands. There’s Caribbean-born Elaine Hinds, Leicester’s first Black telegraphist, who talks candidly about being the only Black woman in her workplace. Then there’s Pearl Ricketts, a founding member of 80s reggae band, Eastern Variation and one half of sister music-duo, Millie and Pearl. The stories of both women, like those of Williams and several other interviewees, are rich with significance and told with undiminished pride. But there’s a sense salient throughout the entire film that if Browne hadn’t invited them to talk on camera their stories would remain untold and unknown. Browne’s film foregrounds, therefore, the lives, voices and views of Leicester’s thriving Caribbean community; it affords Black Britons from the Afro-Caribbean diaspora the opportunity to be heard, seen and, above all, celebrated.
In many respects, Serendipity’s Black History Month Live (BHM Live) anticipates Williams’ directive. Showcasing some of the best artists to emerge from the hip hop dance theatre scene, as well as Browne’s specially commissioned film, BHM Live is a night of storytelling at its finest. But it is mindful of Williams’ caveat: each artist works hard to challenge the historical silence around representing and recording Black British experiences; every piece carries within itself the pressure to break new ground and fill narratological voids. Searching for new languages with which to explore the lived reality of young Black Britons today, every choreographer, dancer and director at BHM Live not only creates for this generation but for future creatives and audiences alike.
One choreographer whose work strives to touch on a much neglected issue surrounding racial and ethnic identity is Isaac Ouro-Gnao. In an excerpt from his three-part work, The Oreo Complex, Ouro-Gnao’s figure at once retells and reclaims past narratives about his Ewe ancestors. But hidden within this intimate and brave envisioning of the past is a problem still palpable for present audiences – one we will unpack by following the journey of its main figure.
The Oreo Complex begins in a metaphorical non-space, almost offstage, towards the left side of the performance area. All focus is on Ouro-Gnao’s near-naked form, struggling under the weight of an invisible load. In this side area, he marks out a box-like passage, staggering under the strain of an unseen burden and the effort of continued enforced movement. For some this may seem negligible, a quiet prelude to the main action and soon-to-be heard narration played overhead. But, for me, it spoke of the displacement and dislocation that was to come; it showed the fragility and strength of a young Black figure cut out and detached from a wider historical narrative. Divorced from a socio-cultural setting, Ouro-Gnao’s body takes on additional significance, shifting through a decontextualized zone yet heavy with the weight of it. In this suspended state he is far from free; encumbered, the body becomes the story, devoid of the loaded encryption that comes from a socio-political backdrop.
When the pre-recorded narration begins however, this liminal space and state shifts. Ouro-Gnao’s form and force is imbued with West African sounds, sights and scenes; the metaphorical – existential and psychological – load initially carried by him is suddenly turned into gathered food or wood or rock – imagined resources belonging to a world that is sharply, vividly coming into being. Ouro-Gnao’s persona now has purpose, power and substance in a pre-colonial realm. What was once a lone figure carving a way for himself is now a man of importance, one who belongs to a community, a lush land alive with ‘kind yellows…murky blues…soothing browns’; a landscape of ‘golden sand’, ‘lagoons and lakes’, to use Ouro-Gnao’s beautifully poetic words. Gradually the man moves centre stage, an evident transition from the marginalised position and place he occupied before. Four golden pillars demarcate the space, forming the coordinates of progression and possession. Weaving his way in and out of the pillars, Ouro-Gnao’s Agbaja-infused hip hop movement appears as bold and intricately interconnected as the brightly coloured and highly patterned Kente cloth draped across the floor. A symbol of abundance, prosperity and pride, the cloth is laid out and then wrapped around Ouro-Gnao’s waist, and we sense that our hero is undergoing an evolution of some kind. Singing along to the Ewe chants, drinking from ripe fruits and adorning the stage with resplendent material, Ouro-Gnao hails a new kind of Afrocentricity still rooted in past tongues and rituals, ancient signs and wonders. Under the watchful eye of the dual deity, Mawu-Lisa (a composite god of female and male; moon and sun), our hero graduates into ‘Mawufia Eda’: ‘King from and of God’.
Just as our hero climbs, quite literally, to the top of the pyramid and is crowned an unparalleled example of excellence, anxiety and self-doubt kick in. Static disrupts the euphony of poetry and singing; a distorted voice, ugly in its thick contortions and aspersions ruptures any semblance of prior mythic calm. The disconnection and alienation hinted at earlier creeps and seeps under his skin. Harassed by questions of adequacy and authenticity, a self-denigrating consciousness awakes: ‘Am I? / Am I enough? /Am I? / Am I black? / Am I? Am I black enough? / Am I?’ asks the disorientating voice. The titular ‘Oreo Complex’ has set in.
But it was there all the time. An intercepting voice of accusation and annihilation. In the Ewe chants, the word ‘Oreo’ is uttered, an almost undetectable inscription predicting self-division and derision for Ouro-Gnao’s figure. To call someone an Oreo – an American spin on the racially derogative term ‘coconut’, ‘bounty’ or ‘choc-ice’ – is, at its simplest, to say someone is black on the outside but white on the inside. Such a term, still used within and without Black communities today, not only panders to stereotypes of Blackness but also oppressive notions of whiteness. Whiteness here is the social, conceptual and ideological standard; in all its racist, colonial aggression and default positionality it others Blackness, and in the case of Ouro-Gnao’s figure creates a split, a wedge, a remove from his own Black identity; hence the angst-ridden words, ‘Am I black? /Am I black enough?’ In this we cannot fail to think of W. E. B. Dubois’ concept of double consciousness; or Franz Fanon’s painful statement from Black Skin, White Masks (1952) – ‘not only must the black man be black, he must be black in relation to the white man…’ – where social and racial self-conception must be subject to the problematic and oppressive paradigms of whiteness. After hearing this antagonistic voice in Ouro-Gnao’s piece, self-definition, the textual and physical architecture of construction that we’ve witnessed for the last 30 minutes, crumbles, and all the weaponry – for such a term is forged by and remains the legacy of colonial intervention, oppression and violence – of racism cuts our hero down.
Subsequently we too are left equally and intentionally disorientated. Has the performance of pre-colonial African existence been just that: all performativity but no “realness”; a last exaggerated attempt to reconstitute one’s identity before the dissonance takes over? Or is Ouro-Gnao taking back an aspect of his ethnic identity and history, and reimagining this form of Blackness and West Africanness for himself, on his own terms, irrespective of the threat and import of the white gaze? And surely he is interrogating the binary of Black and white that the latter perpetuates? Surely he is emptying or disinheriting the term of its derisive, disenfranchising and divisive power by exploring the intergenerational trauma it causes? This may be a work in progress – one which I’ve only seen a third of at that – but it’s needless to say that The Oreo Complex opens up an important, much-needed discussion about identity, self-definition, communal acceptance and the freedom that only comes from an honest evaluation of all three.
Issues of self-definition and freedom are also explored in Joshua ‘Vendetta’ Nash’s BLACKLIST. But where The Oreo Complex ends in a state of estrangement, BLACKLIST begins. Ouro-Gnao’s excerpt deliberately breaks down under the threat of scission and separation, whereas Nash’s turbo-charged piece thrives off of it. So much so that the division of self is literalised with two dancers (Nash and Jordan Douglas) and their power-surge of a pas de deux. Using krump to dazzling and mind-defying extremes, Nash’s work rigorously examines the “blacklisted” feelings and suppressed emotions of the individual. It is a terrifyingly gripping and daring piece of dance, one that scours the surface of a socially constructed and approved selfhood to unleash the frightening complexities within. Entering a psychological and ontological hinterland, BLACKLIST discovers a new language, resolve and sense of being with which to move forward.
Known for its boundless energy and flagrant confrontational style, BLACKLIST begins nevertheless in stillness and compression. Seated at the furthest darkest corner of the stage is Nash; silhouetted in front is his silent double, Douglas. Though momentary, the chair tableau is a reminder of restrained potentiality. Safe in proximity and purpose to the audience, the chair still restricts Nash, keeps him bound. Seated, we’re confined in resignation: leaving this fixed familiar point, the journey into the self begins. And so, as Nash begins to stir, Douglas awakes upstage. Together, on the outer limits of the performance space, up close to the audience in the first row, Douglas and Nash meet. Shoulder to shoulder, they nod, flex and tense in what can only be described as synchronised muscularity. In a similar transition to that found in Ouro-Gnao’s piece, Nash and Douglas go from being isolated figures to men; brothers who pose, strut and gesture through their upper torsos, effortlessly signalling status and male pride. It’s as expressive and impressive as tutting, but without the overly elaborate knotting and interlacing of hands and arms. All is conveyed with minimum movement, but for maximum impact and appeal. Bare-chested, wearing only beige combats, these are men frontin’ to the highest degree.
To say BLACKLIST is a show simply about masculinity (toxic or otherwise) would be to limit it in a way that Nash seeks to explode. Brotherhood, friendship, kinship, how men relate to themselves as well as each other, are highly important to him in this and past works such as Figleaf. But his exploration of a fractured selfhood still sits at the centre of BLACKLIST and speaks to all. It’s a modern, volatile kind of individualism that’s re-enacted. What unites these two themes is Nash’s idiosyncratic and innovative use of krump set to Torben Lars Sylvest’s pulsing, oil-dark score. Bursting out of their side-strutting, Nash and Douglas gradually fill the stage with their synchronic and hypnotic duet. One moment they’re locked in combat, lifting each other with super-human skill and hurtling across the space; the next they’re mutually dependent, harnessing their energy and balancing their individual strengths (Douglas’ dexterity and acrobatic lightness against Nash’s solidity and grounded force) to achieve their optimum. The push and pull between the two men, the kinetic exchange and control they share and have over each other, is what propels the work forward into thrilling extremes. The fact that the music heightens the emotion transferred between and sustained by both is testimony to the dancers’ musicality and Sylvest’s visceral, multi-layered composition.
BLACKLIST is as much about surviving inner implosions as it is about revelling in the heat of them. If together the men represent not so much a schizoid state but one violently at odds with itself, then the visually arresting, assaultive language they develop is more than a means of expressing psychic discontinuity and discord. Rather, it is a mode of communication that reconnects the frayed edges and personas found within. Using the vocabulary of krump, frazzled elements, frustrated yearnings, inchoate voices and disparate sides of the self are reintegrated and held together. Healing is attained in the release of undesirable emotions. By the end of the piece, conflict has given way to a robust relationship where the men work with and through one another. What is more, Nash’s krump-based choreography delivers us to a personal and empowering place of catharsis and transformation; he has shown that a dance style often (erroneously) associated with brute aggression, can be beautifully tender, intricate and effect moments of profound vulnerability unlike any other style (ballet included). What Nash unveils onstage is, to an extent, the true state, the true face, the true versatile, irrepressible self of krump – and it’s an incredibly impressive one to meet.
Uniting multiple identities is also a concern in Akeim Toussaint Buck’s concluding work, Sib Y Osis. Unlike Nash and Ouro-Gnao’s work, which dwells in the interstices of doubt and fear over conflicting identities, Toussaint Buck’s piece veers more towards open harmonious play and the interdependence (the titular sym-bi-osis) of sibling selves. Characteristically fusing diverse styles of dance, such as capoeira and contemporary, Toussaint Buck creates a rich and varied tapestry of expression with which to articulate past and current moments of hope and struggle. Featuring two dancers (Waddah Sinada and Kassichana Jameson) and an onstage musician (Pariss Elektra), Sib Y Osis is joyously upbeat and thrumming with melodic vibrancy. Sinada and Jameson act out a kind of brother and sister relationship, responding to the harmonic highs and lows of Elektra’s live guitar playing and singing. Using expansive, fast-paced movement that scales the entirety of the stage, Toussaint Buck conveys the excited energy and trust shared between the three performers. Nevertheless, the sibling dynamic is not always one of uncomplicated ease, reciprocity and delight. Sinada’s brother, often upstage and ahead of Jameson, appears at times to want to throw her off, seeing his sister as an annoyance. Jameson’s sister, on the other hand, vies for his attention, proudly looking up to him and following his lead, always a beat away from catching up with the brother she reveres. Sitting side by side on the floor, Jameson tries to catch the eye of Sinada, attempting to rest her head lovingly on his shoulder, only for him to irritably push her away and inch forward downstage. Eventually she succeeds, and we’re given the first of several tableaux showing equanimity and equality between the two.
The strength of Toussaint Buck’s work lies in his ability to anchor historical acts of collaboration and solidarity at the centre of the duo’s bond. Thus from the loving intimacy and support of a sibling relationship springs galvanisation, courage and rebellion. Under a phase of red light, Sinada and Jameson stand, echoes of each other, with their fists held high. It is a moment of rare stillness; a moment to silence the audience into reflection. By having the Black power salute in the midst of their relationship, Toussaint Buck positions familial and specifically Black familial love as the force for past and future change, resistance and consciousness. Mirroring Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, Toussaint Buck pays homage to past instances of political protest, reclaiming them for present and future generations. It’s a sobering and empowering vision, one that resonates well after the piece has ended. Channelling earlier legends of heroism and political activism, Toussaint Buck equips both his dancers and audience to meet prospective oppression and abuse head-on; to stand in the power of one’s ancestors and, in the words of Boston ‘The Orator’ Williams, ‘tell your own story’. It’s a fitting conclusion to BHM Live, a night replete with important narratives that should not only be told during the commemorative month of October, but each and every month thereafter. ‘Tell your own story,’ commands Williams, because, quite simply, ‘no one else will’.
BHM Live was organised by Serendipity and shown at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, on 17th October. To find out more about each artist, click on the links in the article.
Isaac Ouro-Gnao will be performing a section of The Oreo Complex as part of Siobhan Davies Dance Open Choreography Performance Evening on Friday 22nd November (7-11pm). Click here for more information and to book tickets.
Lucy Writers and Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou would like to thank Francesca Vaney and Pawlet Brookes for the images, Isaac Ouro-Gnao for kindly allowing Hannah to read a section of his beautiful script, and Joshua Nash for inviting the platform to see his incredible work, BLACKLIST.