by Emmanuel S. Dandaura*
Arnold Udoka is one of Africa’s foremost dance artists, choreographer, scholar and director of dance of the National Troupe of Nigeria.
What’s new in Nigerian contemporary dance? What drives the “newness”? Could it be as a result of inner need, artistic creativity or motivated by market forces?
I think it has risen to meet social, economic, and environmental challenges in a post-modern Nigeria. There’s a mixture of traditional and contemporary movement patterns and styles as well as creative approaches to meet the needs of contemporary Nigeria – entertainment, education, information – in innovative ways. These are addressed through dance theatre, dance reality shows, musicals and carnivals. These enhance the commercial value of modern Nigerian dance. Only recently there emerged this concept of dance home video within the Nollywood industry. I am not sure how much of a commercial success that was, but it was a fresh opening.
Can you explain the nature, aim and state of development of the dance home video you referred to?
Since as recently as 2012, there has been an attempt at dance home video in the Nollywood industry, titled I’ll Take My Chances. It explored the psychosocial dilemma that the 21st-century Nigerian generation is faced with. Its aim, in my opinion, is principally to deepen dramaturgy and move dance from the stage into the video medium, in order to reach a wider audience in the ever-evolving, sophisticated and competitive visual space and culture. One cannot lose sight of the fact that it is an investment gulping millions of Nigerian naira to produce a strictly dance video phenomenon. In terms of quality, it may be lacking in some critical and technical areas, but it has opened a new vista to entrepreneurs to collaborate with the creative crew of choreographers and others and emerge with products that have dance at their core.
What is the nature of the cross-cultural interaction between indigenous and modern dance today?
In the northern part of Nigeria there are Arabic contacts which date back to the 7th-century A. D. Some seminal influences might have precipitated over centuries of contacts and trade with the Christian missionaries. Then there is the influence of the slaves who returned to the Lagos area from Brazil and Sierra Leone from the 16th-century, which did not manifest itself fully until the late 19th-century. These had influences on the costumes and accessories used by performers in various modern and indigenous dances, but there was no overt transplanting or ideological support for these elements of dance until the late 19th-century. One can say that the culmination of all this is the conscious acknowledgement of cross cultural interaction between indigenous and modern dance in the late 20th-century, which has changed the character of dance in Nigeria. It has been beneficial to the development of dance in the areas of domestic cross-cultural experiments, scholarship, creative and new dance narratives as well as international collaborations like the one with the French Cultural Centre in the late 1990s.
How about dance and politics: ethnicity, migration, gender, trans-gendering, gender identity, subject-position etc. What influences have you noticed in recent times?
With migrations into cosmopolitan settings, dance has become the symbol of ethnic identification. A new trend of gender-switching in dance vocabulary has been noticed among the youth. Dance scholarship is gaining significance in the educational programmes and curriculums at the tertiary level of education, with a national troupe enhancing creativity in dance. While gender identity is still very much reflected within the indigenous forms, trans-gendering is not accepted as an issue, so it hardly finds any artistic expression in Nigerian dances.
What is the nature of the emerging gender switching in Nigerian dance vocabulary you talked about?
The switching is more in terms of the movements traditionally performed by, for example, the male dancer, taught to a female dancer. I experimented with this in 1988 and found that the female dancers were as strong as the male dancers, especially during their teenage years. Of course, dancehall moves and modern dance generally do not seem to segregate between genders in some aspects, unless the dance is character/gender based. A lot of choreographers tilt towards teaching their vocabularies to both male and female dancers at the same time. Here, one cannot differentiate what particular steps are for which gender.
You also talked about dance becoming a symbol of ethnic identification. Were you talking about the migration drift from rural to urban areas in most African countries?
Exactly, the new cities that have emerged after colonialism have pulled rural dwellers into these concrete jungles and created an identity factor. Aware that they must keep in touch with their roots, these groups have formed themselves into development unions. Within such unions, the local dances peculiar to such cultures are performed periodically to forge their common identity even in far away cities.
As the director of dance in the national troupe, can you cite specific dance projects that you have worked on in terms of Nigeria’s use of dance as a cultural diplomatic tool? How successful have these been?
Yes, I can easily point to Fire of Peace for Organisation for African Unity (1992) and Water Basket, which was Nigeria’s entry at the World Expo 2000 in Lisbon. Also Rite (Rights) of Passage for II OPEC Summit in Venezuela 2000; Nigeriana at Hannover World Expo 2000; India-Africa Summit dance performances inNew Delhi, India (2008) and Nigeria at 53 in Athens, Greece (2013). These are just a few of the occasions in which I deployed dance as a cultural diplomatic tool. These have offered the opportunity to redeem both bilateral and multilateral diplomatic pacts between Nigeria and other nations. These moments have exposed Nigerian dance arts to the world. Difficulties that are always encountered are of a cultural nature in the West. Aware that Nigerian, and indeed African, dances are perceived as exotic, it is a challenge to persuade audiences to abandon such mindsets and enjoy the dances as works of art.
How commercially successful has modern Nigerian Dance been? Who are its major patrons?
While the youth bracket constitutes the majority of dance audiences, it is safer to say that generally, the audiences are mixed: individuals, government as well as corporate bodies. Has dance been “selling”, I will say not as much as Nigerian music, but certainly better than live theatre. For musical videos, dance is indeed the selling point and today there are thousands of artists making their living from dance in Nigeria; but it could be better.
So Arnold, how do we make dance sell better in Nigeria? What is the situation across Africa?
Dance will sell better by leveraging on the conventional and social media, to break out to a wider audience. For this to occur, the dancers themselves must become more professional than they are now if they are to attract investors or entrepreneurs. There must also exist a corps of seasoned dance critics who, at the moment, are nowhere to be found. Critics would bridge the gulf between dance, its audience and the marketplace. That, to my mind, is one sure way to open the market for dance in Nigeria.
Who is the major employer of dance in Nigeria compared to other African countries?
The professional dancer in Nigeria earns a living through, freelancing, membership of a private dance troupe or as a member of staff of a government owned Arts Council. I am using the word professional with caution here because, while all earn a living from dance, adherence to the ethics of the profession is lacking in some. However, the government is the largest employer of dancers in Nigeria and their appointments are pensionable. Others, who are freelance dancers, hop from one musician to the other, whilst those in the private troupes have more stable sources of income. In all, those appointed by State governments stand the best chance of sustaining themselves for a long time and remaining in the profession. The same would be the case for the majority of the countries in the continent. I know of a large government dance troupe in Rwanda, as well as similar troupes in Ghana and Senegal to mention a few.
What is new in terms of the shift from classic to modern, adaptations, training, etc.
The classics, in our case, traditional dances are quite vibrant, but the younger generation is migrating towards excessive contemporariness. However, domestic hip-hop music artists are generating new sounds, which are complemented with new moves.
What is driving the transition from the classical to the modern? Is it commercial considerations or the taste of the audience?
The ideological swings after independence were more focused on how to regain control of the cultural and political psyches while, at the same time, aping the West with its infectious lifestyle. So, besotted by the West, a generation of men and women were attempting the impossible. That is, maintaining tradition and coping with modernity. It can be said without any equivocation that commercial considerations dictate the sway towards modern dance in any form. And, since the audience taste has gained western aesthetic ‘gustatory habits’, the transition is real and concrete, led by a corps of young choreographers and dancers. However, the classics are more secured and protected by government policies.
I see, from our discussion so far, that dance in Nigeria is an art in transition. As a dancer yourself, what are the technical demands of transiting from traditional to modern dance?
Essentially, there is the cultural barrier, which only recognizes dance as a communal product, and to break down this cultural infrastructure requires a good dose of genius to earn acceptance. The technical demands of transiting from traditional to modern dance, therefore, are both psychological and physical . Psychological in the sense that it is a new orientation in movement training to adapt to, and physically in that the body learns new movement vocabulary that explores other possibilities for communication than the standardized classical ones. This break away from established dance canons initially befuddles many a dancer and could spell the end of the attempt at modern dance. The improvisational approach in modern dance, and the search for movement to communicate meaning, with an existentialist bent, can be equated to attempting to invent a new language of your own and to which you expect others to comprehend.
For would be professional dancers in Nigeria, what is the training landscape like?
There is also, limited effort at training dancers in specific techniques and styles. Free-styling is the order of the day in the absence of canons as hobbyists and amateurs dominate and outnumber careerists in the dance space. Traditional dances still serve as the chief source for training most career dancers and choreographers. A few dancers have transformed to ‘choreographers’ without formal training. This constipates both theory and practice. So far, there is no specific establishment for the training of dancers and choreographers. A few choreographers exist with modern dance techniques backgrounds. The technical demands swing between the ordinary and virtuosic.
Do you see any unique performance style coming out of the dance space in Nigeria or any emerging or dominant style?
The synthesis of forms and styles has encouraged amalgams of techniques and thrown up innovations. Dominated by avant-garde approaches, the dance pieces are yet committed to allegory no matter how abstract or absurd the materials in both presentational and representational modes. Again, there is no strict adherence to conventional theatre dictates, and experimentation seems to be uppermost on the minds of the dance creators. Majorly, training is limited to the vocabulary of the choreographers, who most often depend heavily on gymnastic capabilities to focus on how lithe the dancers are, while losing the focus on the imagery of indigenous dance sources. Foreign dance and musical videos are spreading salsa and other dance forms, and the influx of visual media have influenced what are deployed as tools for training and creating dances. In terms of style, there is no gainsaying that athleticism is replacing grace in contemporary dance in Nigeria. That said, our dances still desire to tell the stories of the human condition.
What should the world expect to see from Nigeria, and Africa, in terms of dance in the nearest future?
With the blossoming interest in dance through practice, scholarship, the support of governments, the diversification of the economic base, and the instrumentality of pervading media, I foresee a humble dance revolution from Nigeria and Africa in which existing traditional canons would be adapted and distilled and new canons crystallized. These new canons would again make dance an integral part of our existence; a cultural activity in which the body and spirit shall share the stories of our human condition to make the world a safer, happier, more conducive, joyous and habitable place for all.
*Emmanuel Samu Dandaura is a Festival Director and Professor of Participatory Communication and Performance Aesthetics with the NAsarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria. He is President of the Nigerian section of the International Association of Theatre Critics and member of the International Executive Committee of the IATC. Dandaura has over 86 published articles in highly rated international academic journals and currently serves as editor of Nzeh Magazine, Nigeria’s flagship magazine dedicated to exposing Africa’s Culture and Tourism destinations.