Step, step, tap a foot, move an arm as if surfing. Keeping rhythm is as primordial as the impulse to draw breath, to whistle a tune. So primordial that as I consider each time I have watched him perform, whether in Lagos, Ile-Ife, New York, Venice, or YouTube, they unfold in seamless fashion, on one extensive, concatenated stage. This is not to make trivial the especial gravity of each solo and group work he’s premiered. I want to test two notions. Dance as familial to memory, subgenre of life itself. Dancing as language for the body keeping score of motion.
I met him for the first time nine years ago at a writing workshop. We had convened in Lagos to discuss and write criticism on contemporary dance in Africa. He was one of the facilitators. One afternoon our group went to Takwa Bay, and there he hoped to teach some techniques. I recall the inflexibility of my body, as well as his mischievous chuckle. Of that moment at the bay, I estimate my inabilities, and consider the discernible gulf between participant and observer, performer and audience, a fourth wall.
When I watch him dance it is in order to observe the farthest reach of my body’s potential. All that swaying, somersaulting, screeching. Such astonishing flexibility, bewildering muscularity, landing without injury, a painful holding-still. I’ll rather observe with keen heart than rummage for meaning in a cluttered head. Only later—when my mind is so suffused with a sequence of gestures it is as if my image reservoir would burst open—do I begin to seek the symbolic. Like a wild old dream recalled. Aha. For even if I watched his performances in search of immediate meaning, imagination does get tepid.
In late February I spent a week in his company, part of a large cast invited to “Dance Gathering.” From Monday to Friday we worked towards performances staged on Saturday and Sunday. Besides the Nigerian participants, the largest group was from Chicago. His friend, the choreographer Onye Ozuzu, had come with her colleagues and students from Columbia College, where she is professor of dance. She worked with him to curate the performances. It was to take place on Broad Street, which in the colonial era housed almost every important administrative building in Nigeria. On each day of the performance, the street was cordoned off. We staged what seemed like a carnival, with a modicum of sobriety. A group of women draped in white raised their voices in mourning, one man set up a canvas and threw paint on it using martial art moves, another spray-painted on an abandoned bus, a trumpeter mingled with spectators sounding his clarion declarations…
A few weeks later, when I came to speak to him about those days, he was lying on a couch, holding up his phone. It was midday, a fan whirred loudly, and his twin sons played in the general vicinity of his glance. His recumbent body, unwatched by a crowd, seemed out of place.
He said, “Since I’m human I don’t think anything human will be foreign to me. I occupy that space of human without asking for anything, without fighting for it. I do my thing with all that I am, that’s where it becomes complex. I’m African, I’m black, I’m Nigerian, I’m a Lagos boy, I’m a dancer, I’m an artist, I’m a last born of my family, I’m heterosexual, I’m a Muslim, I’m a dad and a husband, I’m a leader, I’m a thinker, a cultural activist, I’m a CEO, a social entrepreneur, I’m a producer—I put all of that inside of it. And that’s the world.”
“Your world is universal enough,” I replied.
“Exactly. If I can robustly accept myself within the world, I am already—I don’t even want to say part of the world—I am already the world.”
I thought of this later, and it struck me as audacious, and potentially objectionable. He seemed to have claimed that the world he occupied, given the fact of his experience and identity, was large enough to subsume the experience and identity of others. But that could be far from his mind. I recall he was speaking in specific terms of the freedom he possesses within himself.
In what could suffice as tracing-out his Nigerian world, almost a year before Dance Gathering, I watched him hand out sheets from newspapers to audience members in Venice who formed a half-circle around him. At some point during the performance, he requested, he’d like them to read out headlines, tear the sheets apart, and throw the shreds towards the center of the room. While that happened, when the voices of his audience blended in a cacophonous recital, his dancing became as frenzied as in an invocation. He huffed and puffed and grunted. If in a manner of speaking a choral ensemble sang the news, his conducting blended falsetto and baritone, the report of an event and its underlying despair.
It is not an overstatement to consider the reams of newspapers as deposits of collective angst, small revelations of fate, his dancing body traipsing through that.
After eleven years of living in France, where he first went for school (and earned a Higher Diploma in Acrobatics at the National Higher School of Circus Arts, Châlons-en-Champagne), he returned to Lagos in 2014. His impact has been hard to argue with: sold-out performances; a music video displayed in public buses reaching, in his estimation, hundreds of thousands of Lagosians; doing the improbable, closing off a street in the heart of the Lagos Island.
“This is the biggest thing I’ve done,” he said. “To gather almost two thousand people, some will argue almost three thousand, for a performance.”
“When we chatted last week, you told me how difficult it was to write anything about Dance Gathering.” I asked him, “is that still the case?”
He proceeded to describe his process of making new work: research, a process of creation, production, and then a premiere. It takes a long time. But with Dance Gathering all of that happened within a short period of time. “Maybe I’m overwhelmed, maybe I’m still trying to get out of it.”
Towards the end of Saturday night, I stood beside a man who, while watching the interlinked bodies of the dancers, had a bemused, teasing glare. “What does this mean?” He asked this at the moment my arm brushed his. My response was belabored, and I recall nothing of it, except the man’s further bemusement and strides away from the excitement.
“I think it’s the nature of the experience to produce that kind of inarticulacy,” I told him, wondering about that man. “If you know what I mean.”
He agreed. Later, he said, “I have a very crazy way of trusting the audience, of trusting that the audience’s mind is built to understand what we have. It is our elitist thinking that makes us think it is reserved for certain kinds of audience. I disagree entirely with that.”
Observe his public persona, especially what he relays of his ideas on social media. He is unrestrained in expressing approval or in stirring controversy, whether responding to the economic implications of Black Panther, or to the ethos of Terra Kulture, a highbrow theatre in Lagos where plays are often staged. He once told me it was important for him to promote his work in the loudest, widest way possible. It could be, I imagine, a way to confront the status quo headlong. I am ambivalent about this. And yet, I’ll profess admiration for his ability to combine disaffection with engagement, no holds barred.
To express oneself on any social media platform is to accept the instantaneous, and to a certain degree, obsolescence. Hence the ease to which we have taken to those mediums is linked to the increasing potential for reality to be perceived outside experience.
In the time I have known him to articulate the spiritual underlay of his choreography, he has been clear about, put simply, the connections between body and memory. In other words, there is for him an ancestral presence in dance. A kind of rapture. At a moment when a body has worked itself into a frenzy, it steps outside linear time, open to an awareness of what it has not experienced directly, yet knows in a deep, consanguineous way.
Here’s an analogy I propose in response:
Suppose I live on a space station. It barrels along at twenty-two times the speed of sound, four hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface. In addition to a livable room larger than a five-bedroom house, two bathrooms, and sleeping quarters for crewmembers, there is a 360-degree bay window. From this window, as the station orbits the earth in a journey that takes an hour and half, entire continents can be seen in one glance, entire oceans. Onboard, in the course of those ninety minutes, the sun rises and sets.
The first mystery is of time compressed. Observing from a certain perspective, moving at a certain speed, the normal flow of time is disrupted, as if I step into a whirlpool of consciousness.
The second mystery is of life compressed. What would it mean for the past and future if time were measured differently, an hour and half between sunrise and sunset? Seen from that vantage, what is the unit for quantifying experience?
“Everyone that came to Dance Gathering as an audience,” he said, “that was the first thing they felt—that space where everything and anything is possible.”
The idea to leave France, where professional life as a choreographer was guaranteed, and return to Nigeria, where he would have to tinker with the conditions for showcasing his work, became a matter of urgency, not of mere choice. His characterization of his decision seemed intended to make necessary distinctions—between his themes and the structures for showing his work—and to, eventually, connect content to context.
Ten years before Dance Gathering he embarked on a research project on dance in alternative spaces. Do we need Coca-Cola to dance? The question was not directed at the brand. The matter was more crucial, the metaphor more hefty. At the time he was schooling in France. Increasingly it seemed his performances were connected to physical spaces, theaters of different kinds, and his audience consisted of those who could afford tickets.
For weeks he travelled with another dancer, a photographer, a filmmaker, and a sound engineer. They sought out audiences in Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Maputo, Nairobi, and Yaoundé, mostly in public spaces.
He said: “When I finished that performance, that tour, it became clear to me that the worst audience you want to have is the rich...The best audience you can get is the masses.”
Throughout our conversation I turned over a statement made by Siân Miles of Simone Weil in my mind, checking for relevance. “She believed…that philosophy is the explanation of the obvious through the obscure.” I quoted that to him.
His reply: “Shoki dance, what makes this shoki? It’s an abstract form. It’s the popularization of it that makes it seem obvious. For you to know how abstract it is, go and do shoki in Gambia, they’d be like, ‘this guy is dancing like a grasshopper.’”
I stay with Weil. She wrote, and I emphasize the final clause: “One looks with desire at a clear starry night and one desires exactly the sight before one’s eyes. Since the people are forced to direct all their desires towards what they already possess, beauty is made for them and they for it. For other social classes, poetry is a luxury but the people need poetry as they need bread…”
Dance is a prehistoric form of expression. Any street-wide performance in Nigeria would attract onlookers, particularly if they are uninhibited by ticket prices. They would gather to gape, mimic stunts, wonder, holler, or applaud. These facts are so basic it took him years to put them to test without the risk of trivializing his ideas. Does dance express any desire, does it sublimate any memory.
He cites the moment in childhood when he first heard Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s music as foundational. Those multiple pulsations surge through his performances. There is, in almost every case, a musician. Far from a literal response to the beats, the rhythmic value of the performance is like the enfolding energy of a soundproof room.
At Dance Gathering, the musicians were positioned at the rear of the street, and didn’t begin to play until the crowd had gathered around a dancing mat. On occasion it is the music that takes a cue from the dance, or the other way around. When one of the dancers begins to run in a circle, the tempo quickens, keeping pace. When a singer raises his voice in glossolalia, the dancers rise and fall in improvised motions.
If his dancing teaches us that the body can be pushed beyond the boundaries of habitual restraint, the musicians with whom he is allied are vehicle for that journey. In this sense music is a weapon. ︎
(Homepage photograph of Qudus Onikeku by Sarah Hickson, from Still/Life.)