Dance Scholar Dr. C. S’thembile West moderates the kick-off event for Moving Dialogs second season focused on Global Exchange. On Tuesday, April 1st, Dr. West will guide participants through an engaging exploration of cultural concerns and the use of dance as a global language alongside Reggie Wilson (2012 Joyce Award winner and celebrated choreographer) and emerging choreographer and founder of locally-based Red Clay Dance, Vershawn Sanders Ward. Within this community, there will be offered a distinctive conversation and performative sharing of their extensive research into the legacies of African and African American culture. Here are her thoughts to instigate the dialog:
“Diversity within culture – the sum total way of being in the world that is driven by perspectives and specific priorities that relate to communication and interactions – is too often not recognized within or outside particular groups. This is especially true when a specific ethno-linguistic group is perceived as less important and/or less significant that another group – read African/Black/African American. This kind of hierarchy diminishes the humanity of a group and, at the same time, enforces status differentials among human beings. In fact, it is the particularity of human qualities in each individual that distinguishes one from another, not the level of social acceptance of the group to which he or she belongs.
Our goal with this installment of Moving Dialogs: Global Exchange is to engage conversation about culturally specific characteristics, nuances and insinuations that reflect African and African American ways of being in the world – ontology. However, no one, monolithic way of approaching patterns of conversation, dance, art and social protocols represents an absolute predictor or indication of how a person of any ethnic/linguistic group responds to life circumstances. Whether those circumstances fit into the realm of art – dance, music, visual arts, theatre – or in the social context of human interactions, creative engagement repeatedly changes not only perceptions of the stylistic qualities of the specific culture, but also alters how one might perceive, respond to and interact with the artwork or the group represented by the artist.
Just like dance and visual artists negotiate the parameters of the technical skills involved in the execution of the dance or the materials used in sculpting and painting, respectively, an audience negotiates life experience, accumulated information, quick wit and intelligence to respond to, engage with and appreciate creative endeavors. Like the manipulation of everyday life conditions, a viewer approaches each aspect of the dance uniquely. It is a personal experience/encounter. No two people respond exactly alike. This is the beauty of art, that it can solicit multiple responses in diverse ways. Outcomes, therefore, are decidedly diverse, eclectic, unique and versatile.
With respect to African-derived ways of being in the world, what fascinates me is the structural component of African culture that engages the comprehensive nature of daily life, which is both spiritual and tangible: philosophies, emotions, and social interactions. Each is enmeshed in protocols that help to engender harmonious human interactions. For example, the following aesthetic or stylistic qualities, that identify African-derived cultural priorities, function in the service of everyday life: rhythm, often played percussively, call and response – antiphony – repetition, improvisation – individualized creative expression – ancestorism and holism.
Art historian, Robert Farris Thompson articulated the importance of these constructs in the 1971 work, African Art in Motion and has looked at how these characteristics embedded in the art that comes out of an African context, creates and pulsates with a vibrant, magnetic dynamism that is unmistakable and unavoidable. Although the qualities may not be recognized and/or identified among audience members, the level of excitement, the dynamic force of the movement – the song, the dance, the chant – sucks viewers into the vortex of the dance and/or the zone of the dancers. Although the speed and percussiveness in the motion, may have some bearing on the level of engagement, it is more the nuance created in the construction of the work, how the qualities are manipulated and subsequently displayed in the body of the work, that is felt and sensed or latched onto by the viewers.
Consider: What it is that I’m feeling during the performance of a ballet? Am I engaged with the shapes, the music, the dancers’ bodies, the interactions between light and color, sound and motion or am I going along for the ride? What makes the ride pleasant, enjoyable, exciting? What factors cause me to say, I loved that work? Has the work changed my feelings, attitude or disposition? I came to the theater cranky, but now I feel as ease, comfortable. What happened?
During the course of Tuesday evening’s conversation, we will explore the aforementioned African aesthetic characteristics, such that we understand just how structure informs not only what we feel, but also how we might respond to the work.
As the world becomes increasingly engined by social media, which oftentimes de-emphasizing human contact and the personal communication skills that were prerequisites for human interaction in previous decades, it is increasingly important to develop, sustain and maintain a strong, ongoing sense of self in the context of a community of people – the human family that supersedes gender, skin color, regionalisms and social status. In light of this goal, I look forward to your thoughts, ideas and responses to Africa’s Shifting Beat!
–Dr. C. S’thembile West
Moving Dialogs Curated by Baraka de Soleil. Produced by Audience Architects.