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Dance identity in flux: Funmi Adewole on the performance I:Object

11 Feb 2019


The theatre was dark. The sounds of waves of the sea filled the space. The lights came up but only enough to be able to see the outlines of the dancers, parts of their torsos. They were standing in a circle with their backs turned inwards. Slowly deliberately in concert with each other they begin to move. The opening formation of I:Object, the evening length choreographic work by Thomas ‘Talawa’ Presto, references the underwater sculpture by Jason DeCaires Taylor of children standing in a circle, in the same way, with their backs facing inwards, holding hands.  The sculpture can be found at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea off the shore of Grenada. For some it memorialises Africans who were thrown over board from the slave ships hundreds of years ago – ancestors of people of African descent worldwide. The sounds of rumbling waves along with the amazing lighting by Cecile Graven Engseth, which draws the eye up through the darkness to a point of illumination in the sky, transports to you to this watery grave. The dancers moved like ghostly figures. The lights blink. They move into two formations. Blink. Another formation. One group on the floor, now with faces masked. Another undulates in standing position. Their movements meditative, soft, controlled.  It was an evocative opening, to a performance through which we the audience were ushered into various spaces in the ‘the Black world’, that conceptual space which spreads across time and exists both within and without all geographic locations and mono-ethnic and multi-racial situations. The title of the piece – I:Object is double-edged. It is a statement of protest – I object to you objectifying me – as well as a statement of recognition, that the black person is often treated as an object in the structures of the global north, expected to function in ascribed ways. In one sense, the piece is a meditation on this historical and global state of affairs and raises questions as to why it continues. 


The production is political and hard-hitting. It starts with this reference to the transatlantic slave trade when black people were cargo which could be thrown overboard, and goes on to the Civil right movement in America, to the now global campaigns of ‘Hashtag MeToo’ and Black lives Matter, touching on environmental and gender issues and the politics of mix-heritage. In England where I am based I have only seen short pieces of Presto’s work. His work on the whole is confrontational and I have often wondered if he could sustain an evening’s work without an audience reaching compassion deficit or pushing back. However, this exploration of the ‘Black world’ is layered.  In and between the big political issues, there are the every day moments – marked out by the banter between dancers. The audience hears lines of conversation as they meet each other on stage like you do in the street, or at parties, or when buying and selling in market places.  There were spoken and danced tributes to the tough love of black mothers, solidarity of brothers, the buoyancy of community and individual grief. The political messages are impossible to misconstrue due to the inclusion of iconic songs such as Nina Simone’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ and spoken word penned and narrated by the choreographer.  Additionally, the piece delivers it messages through a play with time and space. The audience is presented with different times frames at once. 


Upstage there is a bobbinet, a ceiling to floor piece of fabric, which runs across the length of the stage behind which dancers perform.  It marks out a space, which as the piece progresses is seen to represent the space of the ancestors, of cultural memory, political thought, and social conscience.  Behind the bobbinet, at different times is a caravan of travellers, a dancer holding antlers depicting a moose, a Norwegian cultural symbol, protesters, and ancestors. In front of the bobbinet, centre and downstage, there is often more than one scene playing out at once. Past and present rolls out in the same space or two different events happening at the same time in different places are in plain view.  At one point in the piece for example there is a circle of men dancing happily together on the left side of the stage, whilst a female dancer performs a twisting withering solo on the floor on the right. The audience at times has to choose what to watch on a stage in which there a three dance scenarios and maybe later reflect upon their choices. ‘Polycentric’ is how I would describe the manner in which Presto organises the dancing on stage, around different centres of activity or focus, in the way the body should be organised for the dancing of many African and Diaspora dance forms.  His approach reminded me of on-going discussions about the decentring of dance and use of montage in contemporary dance practice but his comes out of a different lineage of thought, one which foregrounds Africanist symbolism and coding as the means of communication. 


Thomas Presto is known internationally for the Talawa dance technique, the dance technique he has created. I first meet him at Re:Generations, an international conference for African and Diaspora dance in Britain to which he has been invited a number of times to give demonstrations of his technique, lead workshops and have his company performance short pieces of his work.   The Talawa technique trains the body through a range of combinations; phrases, positions and rhythms drawn from a vast range of dance forms from Africa and the Caribbean with an emphasis on polycentricism, pulse, articulation and intensity. I have always been impressed by the articulation and accuracy of his dancers. In the performance of I: Object this was indeed on display – from the turning high kicks of the Caribbean ‘Lick foot’ to movements derived from the repertoire of the Yoruba goddesses Osun and Oya, which the women performed co-ordinating sharp chest contractions with fluttering motions of their hand held fans to breath-taking ‘limbo’ hinges, Salsa steps and Capoeira lunges.  However it was how the technique provided the choreographer and the dancers with a firm basis for various mode of performance that was impressive, making it a vehicle for innovative, contemporary dance-making from a pan-Africanist perspective. 

The dancers are alive in the choreography, constantly testing their relationship with each other, with us and with wider social, cultural and spiritual concerns. They performed day-to-day gestures and pedestrian movement, mainly with a Caribbean inflection in and amongst tightly choreographed sequences. Additionally they addressed the audience in a mode that is commonly seen in spoken word performances where the poet speaks directly to his or her listeners making deliberate eye contact.  The choreography also includes technologies of dancing which channel the physic and physical energies of the dancer to a point of emotional eruption or to a moment of transcendence, often found in ritual dances. Two of the solos have a section where the dancer travels to the edge of the stage and screams their pain. In lighter scenes they would eyeball us, catch our eye to share a joke, cheekily popping their necks over the line of light marking the edge into the seating area. Thus they share their vibrations of joy and stamps of anger in as close proximity as they can. Motifs and movements ricocheted round the stage, not unison and not canon. But somewhere in-between. Dance scholar Lela Aisha described this to me as dancing in synchronicity as opposed sameness.


The polycentric staging created some startling moments. At one point dancer Pearl Tawiah dressed in a white flowing skirt, representing an ancestral figure or a matriarch dances a storm behind the bobbinet. She stops in various postures of contemplation then she beats the air. She moves in counter point to the male duet unfolding down stage. The scene ends with the men coming to the net to greet her. Kneeling they lay their hands upon the fabric and she presses her hands against theirs.  A particular horrifying use of this device takes place when the audience is laughing along with a group of female dancers circling each other, in perhaps an imaginary marketplace. We hear lines of conversation from them about ‘boyfriends’ and ‘husbands’ and laugh as they tease each other with facial and hand gestures.  Without warning a spotlight appears upstage behind the bobbinet, on a man hanging with his neck in a noose.  No doubt a victim of lynching. The women keep laughing and dancing and talking. Do they see him or not? Is this the past? The present? A metaphor or a historical depiction? The piece is structured around such intercutting between the heavy and light moments and overlays joy with grief and vice-versa. ‘Dance my son’ – a section performed to a poem with that title is a high point. It is sufficiently furious to be both a climax and a catharsis.  The male dancers perform a choreography of relentless turning high kicks, dives to the floor, leaps and spins through the air.  Time and heartbeats slow down in the section that follows it, which like a dream revisits key moments in the piece, sometimes in a more upbeat in tone. Dancers enter, cross the stage and exit. Props and costumes, which have been used and left behind, return once more. It is a moment of looking back and looking over. A group dance ends the evening. It was both defiant and celebratory; – it could never be one thing – to Bob Marley’s ‘War’. The whole company is spinning, kicking, jamming. 


Watching I:Object at the Norwegian dance house known for Europeanist art dance in November this year was an important experience for me.  As a dance researcher who is aware that the discourse for contemporary dance by choreographers who investigate African and Diaspora forms is not widely known, I was interested in the audiences’ reaction. Many critics’ understanding of contemporary dance is that it is achieved through adopting the aesthetics of established euro-American choreographers and so might try to read this work through a ‘heritage’ lens. Nevertheless the three times I watched the piece during its four day run, there was standing ovation lasting more than 10 minutes each time. The piece succeeded in communicating something of the human condition and the universal desire for a harmonious future. The choreographer sought to push the boundaries to communicate what he believes in through a medium he believes in. In doing so he has produced an innovative, artistic expression that is making a contribution to the discourse on contemporary dance at a moment when the identity of this practice is in flux. 


Editor's note:

The present review was written after the author's stay in Oslo in November 2018 for the first show season of the dance production I:Object, by the Norwegian company Tabanka Dance Ensemble, choreographed by Thomas Talawa Prestø. The performances took place at the Norwegian national dance stage Dansens Hus. Golden Mirrors is pleased to publish Adewole's writing for the first time.

Photo: Tale Hendnes/Dansens Hus



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