Re-Thinking Autobiographical Choreo-Performance as a Window to Activism

Magda Barouta*

Windows of Displacement, performed by Akeim Toussaint Buck at The Studio, Edinburgh as part of the 75th Edinburgh International Festival. Friday, August 12 2022. Choreographed by Akeim Toussaint Buck; co-written by Akeim Toussaint Buck and Zodwa Nyoni; directed by Amanda Huxtable; visual design by Akeelah Bertram; lighting design by Mark Baker. The performance was part of The Refugee Series, which is supported by the British Council, Edinburgh Futures Institute at the University of Edinburgh and Claire and Mark Urquhart and made possible through the PLACE programme, in collaboration with the Scottish Refugee Council.

The official trailer of Akeim Toussaint Buck’s Windows of Displacement on the Edinburgh International Festival YouTube channel features the song that Toussaint Buck and audience members sing jointly in tempo variations throughout the performance

Akeim Toussaint Buck, recent winner of the dance theatre prize at the Arts Foundation Futures Awards 2023, sourced the core material for his choreo-poem performance Windows of Displacement from his personal trajectory of migration and dislocation. The intermedial performance, merging dance, song, spoken-word, visuals and audience participation, premiered in 2016 at the Leeds Playhouse and has since then been touring across the U.K. In its most recent performances at the 75th Edinburgh International Festival in 2022, the first year after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic when the festival re-opened in its full force, its exploration of complex systems of oppression and its themes of alienation and the power of collectivity echo as poignantly as ever.

Akeim Toussaint Buck’s commanding bodily movement, his powerful singing and the digital projection of drawings that reflect the content of his verses comprise the multimodal devices that set his autobiographical narrative of border-crossing in motion. Photo: Andrew Perry/Edinburgh International Festival

The audience is immersed into the world of Akeim Toussaint Buck’s personal experience of migration from Jamaica to the U.K., explored alongside the trauma of dislocation of his Nigerian ancestors. The driving force of this autobiographical segment is Toussaint Buck’s strikingly expressive choreography. A repository of memories, his moving body weaves the fabric of the narrative, along with his rhythmical recital of spoken-word and song verses. Embodying the content of each verse and the trajectory of his emotions, the quality of his movements constantly transforms in often-contrasting ways. His dancing becomes delicate and fluid, with special emphasis on the graceful movement of his arms, when addressing the unity and the all-encompassing interconnectedness of the universe. It later consists of fast-paced, dynamic movements and energetic jumps, embodying his carefree childhood in Jamaica, before the immense challenges brought by his migrating to the U.K. In a climactic moment of the piece, his dancing body becomes heavy, his movements harsh and abrupt, inflicting pain on the performing body itself, when recounting the atrocities experienced by his ancestors in the transatlantic slave trade.

Through the striking tension of his arms and facial expression, Akeim Toussaint Buck embodies the painful experience of migration. Photo: Andrew Perry/Edinburgh International Festival

Through this corporeal, present re-telling of both personal and ancestral narratives of dislocation, violence and discrimination, Toussaint Buck carves new points of access to the pain brought forth by layers of generational trauma. By means of this intensely emotional, embodied act of reflecting on the past on stage, he not only processes ancestral wounds linked to the dehumanizing experiences of slavery and colonialism with admirable vulnerability but he also employs the subversive and healing potential of collective singing and dancing, a crucial practice of empowerment in African tradition, in order to engender catharsis from these painful memories through the body. The incorporation of African dance in the piece, accompanied by the rhythm of congas played by Otis Jone, transforms the performance into a healing ritual, which the audience is invited to not just passively witness but actively co-create.

Audience members are invited to participate as “spect-actors,” as Toussaint Buck masterfully extends the narrative from the individual to the collective, linking the personal with the universal and exploring contemporary complex global networks of oppression, alienation and dehumanization. His immediacy in raising awareness towards new forms of colonialism, such as gentrification and covert manifestations of slavery fueled by capitalism, like the mining industries in DR Congo, powerfully minimizes the distance between stage and auditorium. The piece gradually progresses from a personal narrative of migration to an urgent call for solidarity and resistance against these all-encompassing forms of exploitation.

Toussaint Buck breaks the theatre convention of the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience to present covert forms of contemporary slavery with immediacy and urgency. Photo: Andrew Perry/Edinburgh International Festival

After unveiling ways in which concepts such as democracy and freedom have been compromised over time, Toussaint Buck invites audience members to become active participants by breaking the fourth wall, while the stage is stripped of its previously apparent special light and sound effects.

Toussaint Buck transforms from performer to “choreographer,” directing the audience/performers during the second half of the one-hour-long piece. They co-operate, synchronize and interact with one another in community-building acts, such as cautiously passing an imaginary infant to one another or collectively singing part of a Jamaican song about empowerment that reappears, like a motif, in tempo variations throughout the performance. The audience’s repetitive collective singing, orchestrated by Toussaint Buck, starts to resemble a chant in a protest, and an overpowering sense of solidarity and communal resistance fills the intimate space of The Studio. As Toussaint Buck dances to this “rallying song” and empowers the audience by declaring that “no weak heart can enter this arena,” the performance evolves from a personal narrative of migration to a piece of collective activism.

Toussaint Buck asks audience members to participate in his song about unity and empowerment, transforming the performance into an interactive piece. Photo: Andrew Perry/Edinburgh International Festival

Towards the end of the performance, the audience occupies the role of protagonist, as Toussaint Buck directs them to, and participates in, taking selfies with audience members they have never encountered before. Each person is then encouraged to post the selfies on their social media platforms so as to share them with their own online communities, spreading the word about the performance’s call for social and political change through love, acceptance and collective resistance. Toussaint Buck enmeshes the use of technology in the performance as an act of fostering human interconnectedness. By showcasing the significance of each individual voice within the collective, the piece invites more people to become part of the ever-growing community that the performance manages to shape.

Toussaint Buck partakes in the audience’s joint act of taking a selfie with a fellow spectator, which, here, includes the entire auditorium, highlighting the importance of collectivity and community. Photo: Andrew Perry/Edinburgh International Festival

Combining dance with song, spoken-word, audience participation and technology, Windows of Displacement unfolds as a potent piece of activism. Using autobiography as a starting point, the piece unveils how unity, democracy and justice continue to be compromised by the unjust power relations embedded in contemporary politics. It actively employs the power that lies in community, both online and offline, and collective resistance for social and political transformation. Considering the fact that the performance took place in the first fully-in-person Edinburgh International Festival since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, involving audience members in this choreo-poem constitutes a powerful statement against the globally-shared experience of isolation prevalent in the previous years. Receiving a standing ovation, the performance underlined that the restorative potential of dance and movement, which can extend from the microcosm of the personal to the macrocosm of the collective, stands as crucial and fruitful as ever in twenty-first century, post-Covid political performance. 

*Magda Barouta received a BA in English Language and Literature from the School of English at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and is a recent graduate of the department’s MA program in English and American Studies. Her Master’s thesis explores dystopian visions and hopeful possibilities of posthumanizing technologies in contemporary British drama. She was the recipient of the 2022 “John McGrath Scholarship” to attend the Theatre and Performance course offered by the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School at The University of Edinburgh. Some of her creative work has been published in the online literary journals Echoes and Poeticanet.

Copyright © 2024 Magda Barouta
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