Thursday 30 March 2023

SOMEWHERE AT THE BEGINNING: Dance Review

WHAT: Somewhere At The Beginning
WHEN: 29 March - 1 April 2023
WHERE: Arts House (Main Hall)
CONCEPT AND DIRECTION BY: Mikael Serre
CHOREOGRAPHY BY: Germaine Acogny
COMPOSITION BY: Fabrice Bouillon "LaForest"
PERFORMED BY: Germaine Acogny and Fabrice Bouillon "LaForest"
DESIGN BY: Maciej Fiszer
LIGHTING BY: Sebastien Michaud
VIDEOGRAPHY BY: Sebastien Depouey
COSTUMES BY: Johanna Diakhate-Rittmeyer

Germaine Acogny - photo supplied

The new FRAME dance festival is coming to a close and it has been an exciting window into the literal world of dance. At Arts House the tour ends in West Africa with Germaine Acogny bringing her 2016 autobiographical work Somewhere At The Beginning to Melbourne audiences.

Acogny, born of the Yonuba people, grew up in French colonised Senegal before living a life travelling between Europe and West Africa, along the way developing what we now call contemporary African Dance. As decorated and celebrated as she now is, the journey has not been easy as all women of colonised first nation people all around the world can tell us.

Using the superstructure of the Greek tragedy and, more specifically, the story of Medea, director Mikael Serre has taken the journal writings of Acogny's father and wrapped them around Acogny's experiences of growing up, being a woman in a polygamous society, and struggling to grasp her traditional spirituality under the oppression of Christianity.

Somewhere At The Beginning is the story of an accidental female child born into a community which places value on gender and finding herself on the wrong side of that coin. On the other hand, this little baby is lauded as the reincarnation of her grandmother, a spiritual leader of the Yonuba people. With her first breaths comes her first moments of cognitive dissonance. Is she herself or her grandmother? Is she powerful or is she of little worth? 

Nothing in her life will solve this conundrum. Acogny will forever be the rightful owner of the knives wielded by her grandmother in ritual sacrifice for an ancient people, but she will also always be the first wife of a polygamist. She will always be an indigenous person in a colonised country. She will always be an immigrant who developed a world-famous contemporary dance technique in a foreign country.

The story telling is powerful and Sebastien Dupouey's images dominate. Images of West African women dancing and discussing sharing a husband (it is not a positive conversation), images of ritual sacrifice, and images of a matriarch (Acogny's grandmother?) talking. These images move between the front scrim and the rear projection wall echoing the movement of Acogny in the space. All of it amplified and textured by the incredible score created and performed live by Fabrice Bouillon "LaForest". Also, A quick shout out to the best scrim ever, created by Maciej Fiszer.

All of this is dwarfed, however, by the sheer presence, grace, and maturity of Acogny herself. Yes, she is an older woman now, and her body does not move as it perhaps once may have. I read an interview in which she stated she does not mourn her young body. I don't blame her. What Acogny has now is the wisdom to use her frame to maximum power and effect with absolute efficiency and full impact. When you are processing dissonance and weaving ritual you do not need those ridiculous lines and extensions and whirls and twirls which colonise our western understanding of classical/professional dance. 

In my review of Exposed I talked about how all dance companies should be all abilities and this is what I am talking about. The bodies need to tell the story in front of us, not a story of hundreds of years of technical history. We are here, now, and this is the story to be told and it should be told by those of us in the room - not some idealised or exagerated version of what human beings are. I am not saying technique is not important. I am saying use the tools needed for the story and beware artefacts from other stories which have no place.

I will get off my soap box now and continue to talk about Somewhere At The Beginning again. I wanted to have a quick word about the subtlety and power of the costumes by Johanna Diakhate-Rittmeyer. In particular I have to tell you about the power of a printed t-shirt. I won't give away the surprise, but sometimes when a person turns their back to you, you come to understand what is really going on.

To be in the presence of so much experience, sorrow, and grace which Acogny brings to the stage in Somewhere At The Beginning is to feel great awe and humility. I do feel that Serre has fractured and layered the work into too many pieces for the audience to follow clearly. On the other hand it leaves a sense of bewilderment at times which is, perhaps, a peep hole into living in the dissonance of cultural and religious colonisation to which Acogny is referring.

Somewhere At The Beginning is unlikely to come to our shores again. It would be a shame to miss it, and despite it being a tale from the other side of the world, the resonances with what we are dealing with in Australia right now are undeniable. Perhaps, for some, seeing those cultural dissonances in a different context will help us understand what is happening on our very own doorstep.

4 Stars

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