Shifting Center

photography by Kristen Jeppsen Groves

Recent videos from our research at the Atelier AEx Corps Dance Workshop.


The African Chronicles: Dancer Gone Techi

Dancer Gone Techi
Dakar, Senegal
Oct. 20-24

Dancer gone techi. I thought dance was really hard on your body until I started editing material for the recent post for Shifting Center. I sat on a concrete floor for about eight hours, hunched over, eyes straining to see the detail of the multiple slices and edits that fractured about five hours of footage…for three days now. Three days of work for five minutes of online glory and a few hits on Facebook. We’ve had numerous technical difficulties because I’m an expert in art, not digital media, much to my chagrin. I have no excuse, I’m the problem. And I’m here confessing online because I’ve become so connected to my laptop that nothing else in the world exists expect this beautiful piece of machinery.

Choreography is exhilarating. And editing video draws the same creative juices, to sit back and feel like that last edit was the most perfect execution of the delete key known to man. It is so fun to determine what clips go with what sound, transitions, timing, pauses, stillness – I know all these things; most choreographers know these things. But, running around in a market trying to find the right adapter is not up my alley, especially when that alley is packed full of dusty jewelry and high fashion knock-offs. I never knew you could record in HDV onto DV tapes; it makes sense why Final Cut Pro doesn’t recognize the tapes. Oh, I’ve been so hard on the program, blaming it for all my hold-ups and so confident that the program must be wrong, it must be! But wait, the footage is importing – finally. And then somehow the files keep going offline, and yes everyone, I set my scratch disks. The material is there, I know it is! Somewhere in that small little box it’s floating around in 01’s.

I have a digital headache: I eat, drink and sleep the save button. And like so many of the challenges that we’ve had the solution to them is very simple, very small, and very discreet. Why couldn’t it have been that the entire program was missing a few program codes? Or that Machintosh must have sent me a bad batch of FCP. So those of you who laugh at this post because of my misfortunes, you know what your doing in this digital world – and good for you! But I know that before you became a techi, you were just like me. The frustrated, dirty, only had three hours of sleep, forgets to eat because I can tell I’m only a few edits and trouble shots away from exporting. Oh that brilliant word! Export! Yes, please, export me anywhere because my brain is now lost in that little small box.

Patronize a good choreographer and poor techi:

The African Chronicles: Humanity

Dakar, Senegal
Oct. 14-18

We couldn’t rehearse in the space today. The Mayor of Cite Ascena decided to use the space. Our floor mats were gone and replaced with countless empty chairs. A heated discussion erupted as Andrea tried to help the staffers understand our work and need for the space. That same blank stare that often passes over people who don’t understand artistic needs rested steadily on the diplomat’s face. We were denied access for the day. Their work included a few staffers at their laptops near the front of the room, listening to music and drinking Fantas. The following evening the president of Senegal was speaking at the majestic statue and all local buildings were filled with police; we were denied entry. I never knew dancers were so dangerous.

photograph by Kristen Jeppsen Groves

Saturday we prepared for the AEX Corp performance. It’s amazing what happens to dancers on the day of a show. Their bodies fill with electric excitement and their limbs and digits seem to spark with a sharper sensitivity. The rehearsal room of concrete floors and walls heavy with dust and grim grew into a warm inviting space with spotlights set in the upper windows, chairs placed neatly in rows, and the floor swept free of forgotten dust and dirt. As people slowly filled in, I was impressed with the vast diversity: browns, creams, caramels, and chocolates swirled together and dotted the backspace of the concrete box. Cultural attachés from the French, US, and Senegalese Embassy; French and European artists and patrons; a small group of Spaniards who knew Roberto; Volunteers from the US who work for a local non-profit; and Senegalese locals gathered in seats, stood in open doorways, and late-comers peeked through grated windows.

photography by Kristen Jeppsen Groves

Performing my solo, “Whiteness Revisited” directed by Esther Baker-Tarpaga, in such a country as Senegal and with such an audience strengthened the polarity of the title. When I walk through the streets little children call out “Tu bab!” “Tu bab!”. White person, white person. Children are able to use this as a descriptive characteristic when most adults would consider this a political statement. When I performed the piece for a faculty and grad student audience I was told to consider if I was really “being” the character of a white women under western pressures, unaware of the privilege of her skin and the responsibility that can hold. Once I stood on the floor facing the Dakar audience I felt suddenly the weighty message of the work. As I moved through the set material I was aware of the increasing emotional connection with the audience and hopefully they felt it too. Did it make them reflect on their experiences of skin color and status in society? Did it open their eyes to internal conflict everyone faces in regards to race, socio-cultural expectations, and economic standing? Did they become more aware of biases held against their own race as well as those different from theirs?

photograph by Nick Fancher

I felt the transformation come over me as the rest of the evening unfolded. Roberto’s strained and swinging choreography explored a range of intimate relationships; some loving and others conflicted. A section of strong Senegalese and Burkina Faso men aggressively skirted towards the audience. After the piercing cry of a women writing on the ground the piece ends quietly as she is comforted by the hands of black, white, and brown engulfing her in safety. Esther and Olivier’s combined work demonstrated the mesmerizing fusion of contemporary and African movement. Crafted solos highlighted the rhythmic legs and responsive limbs of individual dancers. The dancers come together and walk slowly from the front to the back listening to music playing through their cell phones. The pieces finalized in a grand built of accelerating rhythms and unison movement. Following evenings like this, I am so happy to be working in a field that strives to build and develop humanity, despite the complexities and challenges. Our work is meaningful.
photograph by Kristen Jeppsen Groves

The African Chronicles: Simple Things

Simple Things
Dakar, Senegal
October 10-13

Learning a language slowly carves away rough barriers that prevent me from understanding the culture of the Senegalese. I do know a few things: they love people. Whenever we enter a room it is expected to greet each person individually, shake their hand, and ask “Ca va?” “are you good?” Rarely do Senegalese just greet those they know and they readily open their social circle to invite others to talk, eat, or join in any activity. Back home, we wonder if 9:00 pm is too late to call. Here, it is expected to make extra food because someone, anyone, may come through the door at 11:30 pm. It reminds me of that overused phrase “laugh often and love much” – we must have learned it from the Senegalese.

photography by Kristen Jeppsen Groves

They love sharing. For lunch the dancers meet together near the workshop where we share a large dish of rice with meat, usually fish or steak. One can’t be too selfish because each person carefully picks away at their area of the platter; leaving plenty for all and just enough for the individual. I feel strange when I arrive late: I’m given my own plate of food. Food is never as fun when it isn’t shared. It is rude to eat in front of someone, even strangers, and not offer to share. Esther shared a packet of sweet tarts with our taxi driver as we drove to the French Cultural Center to attend a performance.

I spent the day speeding through the downtown streets of Dakar searching, to no avail, for an adapter that connects a DV cable to a Macintosh fire wire outlet. I probably heard at least seven times, “Mac very difficult”, and at every digital booth the salesmen told me they could call their “friend” who had the right part for, of course, the right price. To distract me from the inconvenience and stress I browsed through the crowed tables and shelves that held the same souvenirs regardless of vendor. After the large women at one venue grasped my wrist and refused to let go until I purchased a bracelet that was once $3,000 cfa and suddenly went on sale for 450 cfa, I learned quickly to maintain a stoic face when window shopping. Now I understand what locals mean when they said Sandaga is fu: crazy. El Fresh, the rapper who turns “investor” during the day, escorted me to various venues. The regular occurrence of meeting his friends clued me into his role as investor. The only person I enjoyed talking to was Abu, a Muslim who lived off the alms of those willing to give, the whole day he was the only person who didn’t ask anything from me other than my name. As we jostled our way back home I quickly snapped photos of downtown life in Dakar. The industry of the people amazes me; the streets pulse with the same drive: to provide a healthy and happy life. Shoe repairmen, laundry washers, masons, and fruit sellers bargain, exchange, argue, and compromise and slowly fill their pockets with money and goods to take home.

In Senegal there seems to be two times: morning and evening. No 10:00 am or 5:00 p.m.; even better is the lack of the 15 and 45. Class in the morning starts somewhere between 9:00-9:30 am and lunch occurs between 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. The extended time makes the day seem so very long and very short at the same time. I often forget what day it is. What a different mindset I switch into once my feet step onto US soil. Suddenly, I have a schedule and a to-do list, almost like it comes with my passport. I love how Senegal lets me enjoy my life. My husband always tells me that happiness comes in the simple things – he is right.

The African Chronicles: Sanctuary

Dakar, Senegal
October 8 + 9

Traveling to new places does something amazing to vision. It is when the eye is most raw; it absorbs more nuance and detail than at any other time. Bouncing through the street at 4:30 am I am surprised to see many people moving about the cluttered streets. Both pedestrians and cars swerve to avoid pot holes and broken sidewalks. Groups of mostly men have gathered for a call to prayer, after all, it is Friday, their holy day. All through the first day I quietly watched majestic men wrapped in stark white robes – clean and fresh against the dusty road and debris – making their way to the mosque. Senegal is the first Muslim country I’ve visited and I have used the phrase “as-salāmu `alaykum” – Peace be unto you – more times than I can count; which currently is up to five in French. In return one should say “ `alaykum as-salāmu.” Good, I just have to reverse the phrase…I wish all French and Wolof phrases were as simple. This phrase was also one of the first things my husband taught me when we started learning Arabic together; I wish he could be here.

Amidst the leaning buildings and mismatched roads the order and reverence of worship seems to organize the city immediately: sanctuary. I would consider being a guest in another culture a very sacred space. I try hard to adhere to the customary greetings, even though I was slightly confused at how many times I was supposed to touch my head to the head of giant man from Burkina Faso: four times it seems, twice on each side, alternating. A boy about eight years old surprised me when he deliberately winked at me to say hello – maybe this is what he thinks is a common practice in America. A few moments later as I walked down a narrow road a young child reached out and grazed his hand softly over my skin then giggled mischievously. If I want to get someone’s attention or call a taxi I hiss through my teeth, and taxi drivers can actually hear it. Just like everywhere else in the world they do whatever it takes to get a customer.

We take few taxis since we live one block away from Andrea, a long time friend of the Tarpaga’s and the director of the dance workshop, Aex Corps, which is held in a large complex that is a mere ten-minute walk away. With a pharmacy, convenience market, and a fruit seller just below our apartment I find our basic needs are pretty much covered. Outside our home, in the distance, a massive bronze statue of a man, woman, and child, are caught in a forward stride. Their eyes focus outward at what seems to be a bright future. The statue is in a direct line with the Statue of Liberty, but it was a gift from North Korea…hmm. A man on the plane told me the city had to cut off the faces because they looked too Korean and replaced them with more appropriate African faces. The statue is breathtaking until one realizes that the city paid $30 million for the statue instead of paying off their debt to cover electricity for the city – we had no power for three hours today.

During power outages I realize how creative one must be: I can’t sleep – it’s too hot, can’t watch TV, can’t open the fridge – everything will spoil, can’t check email – thank goodness. I usually sit outside on the stairs and learn simple French phrases like “my ATM card has been eaten by the machine” and “you are my most beautiful souvenir”. It makes me wonder who decides these critical phrases.

Regardless of the abrupt displacement of language, surroundings, people, food, and temperature, I am finding a few of my own sanctuaries. My mosquito net is a veil that keeps me safe and worry free at night. Cold showers release me from the heat right before bedtime, then at 1:30 am, and again at 4:30 am. Dancing with natives from Senegal and Burkina Faso surpasses language barriers. There I feel part of community; I am understood, I am an equal, I have refuge. Today’s trip to the market included Le Fresh, a Senegalese Rapper; Roberto, the choreographer and director of the most established contemporary company in the Canary Islands; and Wilson, a Congolese business man whose English is as good as my French. Crammed in the backseat of a taxi, the Spaniard drums on his water bottle, the Rapper sings the chorus, while me and Wilson bob our heads to Michael Jackson’s “They don’t really care about us.” In a place of so much diversity it makes me smile to realize I even found sanctuary in Michael.