Remnants of Colonization and Whiteness – Cecilia Bengolea & François Chaignaud: DFS (2017)

 The dance floor burns red-hot when Jamaican dancehall clashes with European ballet in this new piece by the dazzling dream team, Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud. Musically speaking, the Kingston sounds distilled from reggae fuse with the magic of English Renaissance madrigals […]

-Excerpt from the program note

DFS is a proposition of intercultural exchange, appearing to be as simple and straightforward as stated in the performance description: a “clash” between Jamaican dancehall and European ballet. These dance forms usually lie on two opposite ends of the spectrum – one white and one black, one performed under the proscenium stage and one performed on the street, one prioritizing levity and one emphasizing groundedness and fluidity – and yet, Cecilia Bengolea & François Chaignaud are trying to bring them physically together in space and time, seamlessly sharing the stage in Volkstheatre, under the institutional roof of Impulstanz 2017, the biggest dance festival in the world in scale. The two forms utilize the dancers’ bodies as a corporeal conduit for these polarizing forces to flow through, to “clash” with and to negotiate within each other, producing a sort of hybrid of movement ecology that is neither strictly ballet nor Jamaican dancehall, but a hybrid that is unfortunately unaware of or insensitive to the history of cultural appropriation, colonization and whiteness in its uncritical celebratory act.

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DFS follows a very predictable compositional structure from the very beginning: it opens with a rather quiet and harmonious English Renaissance madrigal before gradually heating up the dance floor with dancehall music, introducing body vocabulary that organically fused both dancehall and ballet. Meanwhile, the dancers switch back and forth between a presentational performance format that caters directly towards the spectators with exciting formation patterns, and a vigorous competition mode where the dancers are really working to show off their moves and to out-dance each other. This mobile and constantly fusing choreographic architecture follows throughout the whole piece, interrupted by a rather perplexing section where the performers trying to recreate a dancehall class by inviting some audience members on stage to learn a little short phrase, while letting a dog run around freely but awkwardly on stage (??).

“A brilliant cultural balancing act” – someone, who I hope is not one of the choreographers themselves, write in the program note. How can they have the audacity to call this “a brilliant cultural balancing act” when it fundamentally ignores the blatant imbalance of power within the racial dynamics in the piece? I interpret that the choreographers are somewhat conscious of this issue of racial representation and cultural representation by trying to invite guests from Jamaica into the piece and to let one of them who is black lead the demo dancehall class on stage. Nevertheless, this consciousness is met with a thorough incompetency from the choreographers to deal with the underlying colonial logic of the work.

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Both choreographers are so unaware of their so-called “balancing act” as being another one of those (white) dances where they try to bring different cultures together: Why can’t we just… dance? An equivalent of colorblindness in dance perhaps, DFS does not seem to acknowledge the very fact that both choreographers are fundamentally not Jamaican, and any effort to “balance” a culture that is not their own will always produce an illusion of good intention at best. They overlook the reality that the majority of the dancers (including the choreographers) have yet been able to embody dancehall, making them look like a low-quality (white) parody of whatever moves they are trying to do. I would not be this upset if I had not taken an Afro-dance/dancehall workshop with Cecilia Bengolea herself, who dares to take the opportunity from someone who is from Jamaica and who can actually dance the form. In fact, virtuosity and authenticity are never what I am looking for in dance, but if you are going to make a statement about presenting a “cultural balancing act”, the question of skill sets definitely has its own stakes that exceeds the issue of spectacle by itself.

There has never been any cultural balance from the very moment the concepts of the piece are being conceived. They seem to forget that they are performing under the proscenium stage, a technology of vision that has been used to bolster Western dances like ballet, and not necessarily vernacular forms such as dancehall. They seem to ignore their status as the choreographers, while other people (two black people out of five) are simply referred to as guests, where the “authentic” Jamaicans are clearly not integrated in the piece as they only make cameo appearances throughout. Indeed, one of the Jamaicans cannot make it to the performance because of the visa process, exposing the colonial remnants that they are still having to live with and yet someone still has the nerve to call DFS a “brilliant cultural balancing act”. By trying to put the two cultures on the same footing, Cecilia Bengolea & François Chaignaud are inadvertently erasing the politics, the institution, the architecture, the economy, the mode of dance-making and dance-watching that are overtly revolving around whiteness, calling us to simply come on stage and forget about it and just… dance.

Already in 1975, in the introduction to the play Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka issues a stern warning about looking at anything outside of the Western culture as “clash of cultures”:

“I find it necessary to caution the would-be producer of this play against a sadly familiar reductionist tendency.” He still stands by this. “At the time,” he says, “the tendency – in the theatre, the cinema and the novel – was to present everything that dealt with things outside western culture as being understandable only as a ‘clash of cultures’. This covered everything, and it encouraged analytical laziness.”

-Wole Soyinka in an interview with The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2009/apr/08/wole-soyinka-death-kings-horseman

For him, it has never been a clash because a clash would imply a balance of power on both sides – it would be more accurate to look at these cultural encounters and exchange through the lens of colonization, where one culture is attempting to devour another without even being conscious of such act. Here, DFS again falls into that trap of representing cultural clashes, proposing that we can all come together and just dance ballet and dancehall on stage, fusing different cultures together to celebrate our diversity – even the dog is having the time of its life so why can’t you!!! However, this colorblindness approach will only cover up the inherent problems and imbalances when one tries to bring another culture into the Western context, leaving the irresponsibility of the choreographers unexamined and their unintentional act of colonization unhindered. Celebration is undoubtedly needed in these politically tumultuous moments, but we do not need another moment of these uncritical cultural exchanges that is simply trying to assimilate other cultures into the Western paradigm in order to whitewash them.

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