In anticipation of this weekend’s performance by dancer/choreographers Panaibra Gabriel Canda (Mozambique) and Faustin Linyekula (Democratic Republic of the Congo), I tagged along to the artists’ residency activities this week. Each dancer’s work—Linyekula performs the solo piece Le Cargo tonight and Canda performs Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos on Saturday, both as part of Tales of Home: Congo/Mozambique—deal with home, loss, and the difficult narratives of the violence and tragedy that have wrecked their home countries (Joan Frosch does a great job of describing their work and the connections to their histories here). Both are trailblazers in contemporary dance and have been key to bringing African artists to the forefront of contemporary dance.
Linyekula and Canda arrived a week in advance of their performances and joined us for a series of residency activities including an artist talk with a University of Minnesota dance composition class, a Meet & Greet at Juxtaposition Arts, and a staff lunch discussion at the Walker, as well as a master class led by each artist. In speaking with them and attending these activities, I gained insight on their processes and motivations and got an in-depth view of their perspectives as artists, educators, and collaborators. Taking their master classes allowed me to weave my understanding of what the artists spoke about earlier in the week into their tangible practice as dancers and choreographers.
During his master class, Linyekula, lithe and wiry but with an unwavering groundedness, shared with us his toolbox of movement and allowed us as dancers to utilize and interpret the movement individually. In his own work, his dancers are vital and irreplaceable: “In my pieces, if someone gets injured, we do the piece without them or we cancel the show. We do not replace them.” This same philosophy translates to his teaching.
Canda, a tranquil and solid presence, also shared with us a toolbox; in an intense 45 minutes we learned a set phrase of his choreography and then were given freedom to interpret it in an open improvisation. It quickly became apparent that the importance of trust in one another was vital for success, as in any improvisation. After several tries we got the hang of it, but not without some effort and acknowledgment of the importance of relationships, awareness of space, and awareness of each other—many of the same common elements that I discovered in learning about their work, both as artists and as leaders.
Dance as negotiator of relationships/dance as negotiator of the self
During a visit with a U of M dance composition class taught by Scott Rink, Linyekula and Panaibra talked about everything from childhood memories and corrupt national histories to French négritude literature. And, of course, dance.
Linyekula, shoes and socks off, sat on one knee atop his chair and spoke of relationships. He explained that he has expanded upon Merce Cuningham’s notion that “dance is the motion in time and space.” He sees it as his responsibility as a performer to build and rebuild these relationships (with time, space, and the audience), taking into consideration that they are not a given, and that they will inevitably collapse, continuously.
At one point, he shifted and asked Canda and Rink to move off the stage, leaping up to illustrate the circular relationship with an audience and the ways this relationship is broken in a forward-facing proscenium setup (in an interview with Brenda Dixon Gottschild when he visited the Walker in 2007, Linyekula illustrated the proscenium stage’s connection to colonialism: “There’s never been any reflection on just the stages that we show those dances on. Space is what defines the type of relationships. The proscenium theater is a clear extension of Europe—a colonial stage.”)
Linyekula considers performance an act of responsibility and looks to storytellers as a model. The magic happens in a moment, in the present, and must occur in collaboration with the audience. Without the audience the story would not exist: “You’re choreographing the relationship, in this moment that we spend together … so how do I work with the body to negotiate this relationship?”
These relationships are vital to Linyekula; he spoke of props (rejecting the word “prop” itself as “gross”) as partners, as well as the dynamic between dance and music—two autonomous entities coming together and becoming something entirely different, possible only because they are together in that particular space and time.
Canda also articulated the significance of these relationships, but he sees them from a slightly different angle. Through performance, he stated, “I can begin to understand myself; you can be honest with yourself when you’re projecting yourself. How people perceive you doesn’t matter, but you begin to know yourself. Even if an audience rejects me, you’re helping me understand myself. The viewer becomes a mirror” (emphasis mine).
As Joan Frosch writes, “Panaibra is engaged in a theater of transformation, not reiteration.” Through his work and his movement, his aim is to break from the constraints of traditional dance technique. He utilizes dance to deconstruct history and to more fully understand his own body and self.
As he says, the Marrabenta Solos are a “way of understanding who I am today….[as a] journey through history to understand my own body… There is a potential to reinvent aesthetically and shape my own body.” The piece arose as a means for him to reconcile the history of Mozambique through connections with and translated through the body. “This work is a process of rehealing; to deal with this pain. How do you work from the inside until [you] can still find the energy to recover? It is a question of what is behind the movement. There is an invisible body that is ourself; something that you feel is motivating you. So how do you translate this to movement, this body that is living inside?”
Relationships as tools
Apart from their work as artists, Canda and Linyekula have embarked on important projects in their home countries through Studios Kabako in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and CulturArte in Mozambique, respectively. Studios Kabako provides training to artists, supports and produces several projects each year (as well as Linyekula’s own work), hosts workshops with dance artists from around the world, and operates the first recording studio in the country. CulturArte was established out of Canda’s need for a space to produce his own work and now serves as a training center, an art production center, and a dance company, as well as an organization that lobbies for governmental support for the arts.
The successes they have accomplished in their work and in their respective organizations would not be possible without the relationships that Linyekula and Canda have fostered, both with each other and with other artists in their communities and across Africa. Speaking to a group of 30 artists, community leaders, and people of all ages at Juxtaposition Arts this week, Panaibra and Linyekula noticed the parallels between the work they are doing in their home countries and the work JXTA does. Similar to the organizations in Mozambique and Democratic Republic of the Congo, JXTA provides training and support for young artists and prepares them for success by teaching concrete creative skills with a strong emphasis on collaboration—through mentoring and sharing space and skills, and in partnerships with other organizations. Both Linyekula and Canda were excited by the work JXTA is doing; Linyekula repeatedly called their organizations “kindred spirits.”
About the importance of collaboration, Linyekula mused: “It’s easier to meet other African artists in Paris than on the actual continent; this is why Panaibra and I need to collaborate and spend time together and think about the work we are doing.” Their institutions in Kisangani and Maputo have collaborated, and they created Pamoja (which translates to “together” in Swahili) in order to connect artists on the African continent to host workshops and to produce, tour, and show their work.
This year, Studios Kabako was awarded the CurryStone Design Prize for its work in Kisangani as well as a project completed in Lubunga whose aim was to map water distribution along the Congo River. Through the mapping of the connections between people and water (lack of drinking water is a major problem in Lubunga), Linyekula realized that “we may not build a physical bridge on the Congo River between the two banks. [But] perhaps if we start building bridges in our heads, start connecting with other people, that may already be a first bridge.”
Canda has also succeeded in creating sustainable change through his work. In 2007 he established (In)Dependence, a project dedicated to training and integrating dancers with disabilities. At JXTA, he spoke of asking questions, including, “What does it mean for a body to be marginalized?” He has managed to find a way to integrate social practice into his art, without becoming a social worker, emphasizing that he “will not take you to the stage just because you are disabled; you need to show me you have artistic quality that can be a part of my own practice. I don’t want to be a social worker. I want to challenge the way people understand [differences].”
When thinking about dance or any performance-based art, creating and nurturing any kind of relationship can appear to be an obvious need. But it isn’t easy. During the Meet-and-Greet, Linyekula noted, “We speak in mother tongues, but we write in foreign ones [in our work]; everyone who is not you is a foreigner to your work.” These artists have managed to take this concept and stretch it so that these relationships gain vitality to accomplish so much more. The infrastructure for art production and sustainability did not exist in either the Congo or Mozambique; yet it is through the building of these connections that Canda and Linyekula are beginning to establish one. The only certainty is that the future is an uncertain one, but, undoubtedly, there is much in store for these artists and for the next generation of artists in their communities.
Faustin Linyekula will perform Le Cargo tonight, Friday, November 7 at 8pm, and Panaibra Gabriel Canda will perform Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos tomorrow night, Saturday, November 8 at 8pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater.