The African Chronicles: Solo to Ensemble

photography by Ouassim Esmili

Tonight, the Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project presented two works, “Not because you are African” and “Whiteness Revisited” at the French Institute in Rabat, Morocco. With the New Year holiday being the same evening we were a little worried our audience would be small, but we were happy to see a good size crowd for the evening performance. I wasn’t expecting such positive responses we received following our performance, almost all of the crowed stayed after for the Q&A. They had many questions in regards to race and issues surrounding Olivier’s exploration of personal experiences about “being African” juxtaposed against my solo, “Whiteness Revisited” about white privilege and the invisibility of whiteness.

The two solos worked very well together and it was very interesting to see the two solos back-to-back and how both issues were strengthened. The works tonight said something about assumptions we all make about the color of skin. The audience was a mix of Moroccans, Europeans, Arabs, and other Africans not from Morocco. They seemed really interested in race tensions and how those play out in their own mixed culture. Even the translation for the Q&A traveled between English, French, Arabic, and Moroccan dialects.

Tonight I was really proud of the work we did; I usually am proud, but tonight I was especially proud because I knew the audience felt something personal. They saw well directed and choreographed work that contained socially-relevant subject matter. The tensions of race were brought out through personal stories, through some drama and some humor. Following the evening we picked up Windega from a sitter’s home and as we drove away it was absolutely beautiful to see my colleagues hold their sleepy daughter in their arms. Strangers may clap, and acquaintances may praise, but at the end of the day, it seems their work is for her. Solos will continue, but nothing compares with the ensemble they make as a family.


Photos from Meknes, Morocco

Roman ruins about thirty minutes outside of Meknes

Roman ruins about thirty minutes outside of Meknes

Roman ruins about thirty minutes outside of Meknes

Grand entrance to our performance space, Bab Mansour.

Local street near Bab Mansour in the morning light.

One of the many beautiful alleyways in Meknes.

A self portrait.

Yummy local fruits from street vendors…pomegranates are my new breakfast.

The African Chronicles: Men…revised

After about two weeks in Meknes, Casablanca, and now Marrakesh, I have some editing to do. Like a beginner in language, when one learns a few words a day it completely transforms how even short phrases are understood. Within the past two weeks new contexts have been added to my cultural vocabulary. Such as the elderly gentleman who watched me curiously as I played with Windega while waiting for a train, only later did I see how he pushed through the crowd of passengers and lifted my bag for me as I boarded the train. Then there was the guard at the front of my hotel who ran after me when he saw someone following me around a corner; he demanded that the man leave me alone even though the man was an acquaintance of mine. Then the quiet hotel clerk who let me into a hotel room, where I was not a resident, for ten minutes so I could get wifi to check my email for directions to get to my church. Or the multitude of men, ages 8-78, who catch Windega’s eye to coo at her and then give two kisses on her cheeks. Those cafes full of men are now fathers, grandpas, uncles, sons, and brothers. I hope they are forgiving of an illiterate sister.

Last weekend we had our first performance inside the majestic Bab Mansour. Built during the 17th century by the great, multiplied by eight, grandfathers of the current King of Morocco, Bab Mansour was an impressive venue to offer a performance. I find that with the solo, “Whiteness revisited” it alters within the context and history of the audience to which I am presenting. How is a white female from the U.S. viewed from a predominately Islamic-Arabic population? I know the tension felt different and the connection between the audience was much stronger…and many of them called out “Bravo” after the evening performance.

Two days later the Baker and Tarpaga Dance Project presented their work from their recent residency with the local university students. The audience again was full of family and friends so anxious and excited to see their loved ones present work, some for their first time. I was impressed with the dancers completely infectious excitement about performing dance work. It reminded me of my excitement when performance was not such a common experience. The opportunity to have an audience that offers their money, time and attention to consider artistic ideas is quite an exchange and one that I’ve learned should not be taken for granted.

Previous to the university students showing, a group of young boys from a local orphanage performed a short hip-hop routine. I learned that out of the 400 orphans only four are female. After a brief discussion I learned families usually have more sympathy for abandoned females rather than males and generally unwed mothers are encouraged to keep female babies rather than male babies. Thoughtfully, I watched as various boys begged me to capture their image in the camera…they wanted to know someone, anyone, was watching. They meticulously performed their learned material and then surprised the whole of the audience with stales, 6-step, and coffee-grinders, and yes, this was their first time dancing Hip-Hop. Their pride and happiness in their performance was remarkable; again, I was humbled at the power of art and its ability to lift the individual. Some may think these are just boys, and this is just some dance performance, but they are just boys that will soon be men.

The African Chronicles: Men

Casablanca, Morocco
November 17-19, 2010

We just arrived in Morocco. I noticed the stares of the sea of Arab men from the airplane. I also was annoyed at the man who was treating the plane like his living room and blasting music at 3:30 am in the morning just in the seat in front of me. I abused my power as a foreigner from a country that believes in equality of the sexes and gave him that “look”: a stare that says, “Hello….yes, other people are on the plane too. Your tehno-rap will have to wait.” Mostly, men travel to and from Morocco. And it seems mostly men drink tea in cafes, all day long as well, and men only exercise at the track in the morning. I’ve never been more aware of my gender, and the fact that my hair is showing. I even tied a scarf over my head to be less distracting, but my R.E.I. pants are a dead-give-away.

Besides the overflow of males and the strange feeling that I’m never quite sure as a woman if it’s appropriate that I do certain things, or participate in certain spaces, I love Casablanca. Well, what I mean to say is I love the food: fresh crepes, warm pastries, creamy butter, shawarmas, hummus, olives, and couscous.

They just celebrated Tabaski (or so called in West Africa), a Muslim holiday equivalent to the magnitude of Christians’ Christmas. Almost every household slaughters one sheep or ram which symbolizes the story of Abraham and how his son Isaac was saved by the sacrifice of a ram. The city actually smells because of the number of sheep that are killed for the family feasts. Unfortunately, we did not have family close enough to participate in the festivities…we were all very sad to miss out on some great local food.

Africa, what a place of diversity, west, then east, and now north. Morocco is a funny blend of Arab, French, and African, but they don’t call themselves Africans. They say, “I would love to visit Africa someday” or “This is my African friend.” There is a strange form of separatism and elitism. I kinda want to pull out a map to clarify the continent, and they often make the same mistake that I used to which was to use the word “Africa” like it is a country instead of a continent. No, Morocco is not like Senegal, and they are both vastly different from Kenya.

But, we all make mistakes and our assumptions of people and places always need re-educating. I’m learning the immense value of exposure and how little I understood about countries throughout Africa. As I understand more of their ways here I hope they will be forgiving of a fierce American woman.

We’ll be traveling to Meknes tomorrow by train where we will start a dance workshop on Monday. More to come!

New Pics from Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi National Park

Local wildlife..and yes, PETA, animals do get the right of way here!”

I saw something moving in the grass…and yes, we saw a lion!”

A little closer, just about ten feet close!

Surprisingly shy and beautiful when they run

Cute and fuzzy until you feed them and then they swarm like bees. Oops.

Female Crocodile trying to cool off despite the hot sun.

Another type of jungle: Nairobi traffic, one hour for every five blocks.

The African Chronicles: Oasis

Nairobi, Kenya
October 7 – October 17

On all of my international travels I always seem to find an oasis. In China, it was Hong Kong, in Russia it was St. Petersburg, and I still have yet to find one in Mongolia. In Africa, it is Nairobi, Kenya. I always have more culture shock coming back to more developed areas than traveling to under-developed areas. And I feel uncomfortable with those terms, developed and under-developed. I think when people say developed their talking about money. It’s something that I’ve learned a lot about recently. The issues of power, race, colonization, are loaded with complexities and layered politics, but inherently most of it comes down to money. So does Kenya have more money? Well, there is no middle-class, just the rich and poor, but their roads are paved, and they have an equivalent of a Walmart, oh and McDonald’s. Funny, how McDonald’s seems to be the marker that determines if an area is developed.

Along with development came the radio advertisements that frenzied over the latest diet fad and how to chart your BMI to determine the quickest path to weight loss which seemed to promise love, happiness, and beauty. And yet, I was thrilled when I learned the hotel had a fitness center and I could eat fresh vegetables again…cough…hypocrite…cough.

A radio talk show discussed if it was appropriate for women to drink alcohol, and in public no matter. Now, I don’t drink, but I was intrigued by the cultural permission for men to continue in habits that the radio colored as “bad” and that women were expected to rise above and not “indulge”. I wondered what other practices fell into that category.

Along with that was the charming magazines that spotted the aisles in the grocery store, many of them focused on marriage, families and parenting. I love how the media reveals so quickly the values of a culture. I was a little embarrassed that we didn’t have a wider range of magazines in our check-out lines: it looks like the US loves celebrities, health, beauty, fashion, and gossip, and not to mention aliens from outer space – thank you National Enquirer.

We enjoyed our stay with Opiyo Okash, who is an extremely talented artist from Nairobi, Kenya, and has added significant contributions to dance throughout Africa. But, you would never know this about him. He gently takes about thirty minutes to negotiate with a taxi driver to take us to the GoDown Arts Center for 200 KES instead of 300 KES. He speaks quietly, listened well, and laughs easily. He is one of the most gentle and humble people I have ever met. Yet, his ideas of dance in Africa is what spurred this research project about Shifting Centers. He challenges many assumptions about “African” dance and what it means to be presented sometimes as on the periphery of civilization; as if there is a center stage and the west has dominated that space. A multi-centered body is always shifting through various points of importance and influence. He challenges definitions about cultural and traditional expectations we all have about places that are not our own. It made me think about my centers, my oases: God, husband, family, friends, arts, dance, self, creativity, goals, life balance, travel…I’m glad I can add Kenya to my growing list.

Danse L’Afrique Danse

Five days into an international dance festival and I feel speechless. I have never seen such dance; powerful, rhythmic, physical, and seeping with a history and culture of which I am still just on the fringe. The Danse L’Afrique Danse festival has the top choreographers from countries all over Africa competing for sponsorship and an all-inclusive tour throughout Africa and then onto Europe next year. The winners, who were announced today, received $5,000 euro to continue their work and support their emerging companies. Presenters from all over Europe and some from the US gather to watch upcoming artists perform their works for a chance at the big prize.

The work coming out of Africa is astonishing and I think can easily lead the contemporary dance field. The dancers here are not afraid of highly physical and risky movement. It is common for works to have fast, athletic, and daring choreography. Also, many of the works delve into issues of Africa identity, appropriation, gender issues, race and identity, as well as colonialism. For me the most riveting work comes from South Africa. Their history of aparteid and the barriers that region has overcome creates dance works that are very complex and contradicting.

One of my most favorite works was a piece choreographed and performed by Nelly. Her work explored the true story of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan slave woman who at the age of 20 was taken from Cape Town to London and then on to Paris to be displayed naked in their streets and at their circuses like an animal her European audiences viewed her to be. Nelly’s work referenced Baartman’s story but also commented on the contemporary AFrican body and how the black body continues to be an export of exoticism and curiosity to mainly white audiences.

Even here at the festival it is interesting to see how much influence and power the French have over African work. About half of the panel and almost all of the presenters are either European or American. I can tell I’ve felt that their might be exploitation of talent and intellectual property for the African dancers and choreographers. After a short conversation with Olivier he said, “Here, the common phrase is: dance or die. We dance to survive, and because of that drive, we bleed, sweat, and break to dance.” From what I saw in terms of choreography, performance, technique, and expressivity, I believe him.