CN D Magazine

#6 june 24

Contemporary African Dance Is Breaking through the Western ‘Gaze’

Mary Corrigall

Deus nos acudi by Pak Ndjamena © Mariano Silva

Professional contemporary dance in Africa relies heavily on European funding and touring (as CN D Magazine has previously reported). Because of this economic reality, many choreographers across the continent have tailored their productions to Western audiences. But at last year’s African Dance Biennale in Mozambique, several performances showed African choreographers boldly challenging the geopolitical power dynamics shaping their aesthetic choices.

“When I create a work, I am always conscious of the fact that it is not only going to be seen in Joburg,” remarks award-winning South African choreographer and dancer Nelisiwe Xaba. Her extensive body of work – from Sarkozy Says ‘Non’ to the Venus, to They Look at Me and That’s All They Think, or her collaboration with Bamako-based Haitian choreographer Kettly Noël – challenges how the black body is exoticised by white European audiences. “For me it is always important to acknowledge that gaze, whether I resolve it or not,” says Xaba. “I have been repeating myself… I am saying it again and again.”

The throughline of Xaba’s art demonstrates an uncomfortable reality: many African choreographers tend to create performances designed to make Europeans squirm in their seats. This has largely been driven by the fact that – more often than not – these artists are creating works for audiences outside their native countries. A reliance on European cultural entities for funding, commissioning, and touring has resulted in bodies of work (a movement perhaps) in contemporary African dance that is centred on engaging with European audiences and upturning their gaze. However, several new shows that were part of the 2023 African Dance Biennale in Maputo, Mozambique and have since gone on to tour in Europe, show the African dance community adopting a different tactic by shattering the fourth wall dividing audiences from performers.

A rendition of FakeNews that Xaba brought to Maputo for the Biennale took on a decidedly different direction compared to those previously staged in Johannesburg, Makhanda, and Cape Town. Though in each city, the dancers that worked with Xaba and co-creator Mocke Jansen van Veuren, brought local news and interests to the fore, the fourth wall had always remained largely intact. In Maputo, however, Xaba performed in the work and presented it as a ‘rehearsal,’ while making constant reference to the importance of the audience and how the dancers might be viewed by them. This point had to do with the context: although the performance took place in an African city, the audience was largely comprised of Europe-based theatre and dance programmers looking for new productions to bring to their festivals and venues.

Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu by Albert Ibokwe Khoza © DR

For some choreographers, investigating ways of seeing is at the core of their art. Albert Ibokwe Khoza’s Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu, which was presented at the 2023 Liverpool Biennale and has been touring in the United States, draws on the history of the European gaze with regards to dance and performance dating back to the colonial era, when Africans were paraded like the eponymous circus animals. Staged in a disused post office in downtown Maputo, there was no formal seating for the audience, inviting a blurring of the line dividing spectators and Khoza. This South African artist, who came to prominence in works by Berlin-based, Johannesburg-born choreographer Robyn Orlin, aimed to disturb the relationship even further. Not only did Khoza select two white audience members to dress up like animals and dance under the spotlight, but the artist also stripped off their (the artist’s chosen pronoun) costume and flung their naked body into the audience. This may well make spectators uncomfortable, but clearly, the levels of unease that such works generate fulfil a need they have. This could be a willingness of European audiences to confront the baggage that might haunt African performances. 

There is indeed a sense that Africans and Europeans alike are looking for more radical ways to exorcise colonial history and the racialised gaze it engendered. Many of those familiar with Pak Ndjamena’s practice were taken aback when the Mozambican choreographer and dancer paused during an otherwise fairly traditional stage performance and, with his dark skin partially covered by all-purpose baking flour, walked into the audience with a microphone, randomly asking spectators: “What is [his] skin colour?” Indeed, Deus Nos Acudi is his first work to question the audience so directly. Ndjamena says that his show was born from research into “the stories from primordial times to the present day – whether at a political level, religion, beliefs – where the dominance of power is used for the manipulation of people,” implying a desire to subvert the power relationship between himself and the audience.

However, Ndjamena says that he did not create the work with Western spectators in mind. “It is aimed at all audiences, whether European or African. Racial differences do not make us different – after all, we are all human beings. Our stories are what make us different.” When the performer turned the spotlight on the audience, responses to his question about skin colour varied according to where his work was shown. In Europe, an audience member once said “the colour of my skin was circulating in my veins.” Ndjamena was particularly struck by this response, as it speaks to the fact that race is shaped not by skin colour but skewed by political and social conditions. “I found this answer to reflect on the history of humanity,” says Ndjamena, explaining that he doesn’t have preconceived ideas about the people who attend his performances. “After all, I ask these questions to provoke reflection, without necessarily getting an answer.”

Rather than simply unsettling spectators, the approaches that these African choreographers are taking signal an interest in establishing a dialogue with the audience. As Xaba observes, artists are reliant on their public. “The audience’s gaze cannot be denied regardless of where or who you perform a work for,” reflects Xaba. “You can’t run away from the gaze; in fact you need it,” she concludes, though the South African choreographer is interested in finding a way to “remove” its hold by creating a dance work that is set in darkness.

Kinani, biennial dance festival  in Africa
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Pak Ndjamena
Tremuria Project
Workshop at the Franco-Mozambican Cultural Centre, Maputo, Mozambique
June 17 to 28 
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Mary Corrigall is a Cape Town-based arts commentator and director of the HEAT Festival.