With music, songs, dance, storytelling and performance, your contemporary dance show We Almost Forgot is total theatre. What informed the fusion of these art forms?
I come from a tradition of theatre makers. In addition, I am Yoruba so I have a number of experiences from my heritage that I can tap from. When I started work as a dancer, I knew that I wanted to do something as grand as what Fela Kuti did but needed to understand the rudiments of all of these and how they come together. I was reading a lot about the Yoruba theatre and the travelling theatre of the 50s, 60s and 70s because I considered that period our golden age. The interruption of the 80s and 90s brought much forgetfulness and misdirection. So I knew that if we want to go back to something that is already complete and has a clear direction, we have to understand what people were doing in the 50s, 60s and 70s and then move on from there. I looked back and realized that the whole thing happening then was total theatre. Dance, music, magic, acrobatics, drama, and poetry—all of these art forms came together, so as an artiste, I wanted to tap from these sources and bring them into something completely contemporary.
Qudus Onikeku is one of the preeminent Nigerian choreographers working today. Since graduating from the Ecole nationale superieur des arts du cirque France, in 2009, with a special interest in Acro-Dance, he has been successful and has achieved much recognition for his unique fusion of music, magic, acrobatics, drama, and poetry with dance. In this exclusive interview, he takes us on this incredible journey fuelled by a desire to “heal and to advance art and humanity.”
Why did you choose to work with Keziah Jones, the Blufunk exponent as your music director and are any of his songs incorporated into your work?
Working with Keziah Jones came naturally. We met in Paris, knew that we were both coming to Lagos and that we have similar visions for the development and progress of art. So I knew we needed to do some form of collaboration. I have always loved collaborating in my works; I have never done any work that is solely dance. When I use musical elements, I co-operate with a musician, when using costume, I won’t just go to the market to buy some clothes, but work with a costumier who designs with my ideas from scratch. When I am using poems, I collaborate with a poet. So Keziah Jones and I eventually began to explore more of our works. I am not the only one inviting him to my work; he also invites me on some of his projects.
Memory is the leitmotif of your performance. Do personal experiences or those of others inform this and why do you choose to explore this internal sense?
For me, memory is a major and precise leitmotif in most of my works because in the first three I created, I explored something about recovering the authentic self. By authentic self, I mean one that is not reorganized, colonized, enslaved and has not been through any form of distraction from its natural journey in life, which I know is not easy. When one is born, one immediately leaves the baggage of history behind. In my first three works, I tried to do that though I knew that to succeed, one needs to separate from the collective, and find one’s individuality. To gain this, you will have to navigate through history because history in itself is not really true. It is what people decide to call the truth; they obtain and retain it as the ultimate truth. However, I realize that if for example, they say ‘Nigeria is 100 years’, does that make sense?
I am a Yoruba man, and the son, grandson and great grandson of Onikeku. My father is 85 years old, thus if my grandfather was alive, he would have been 105 or 150 years older than Nigeria, and if my great grandfather was alive, he would have been about 200 years now and would probably not have heard the word Nigeria. So I decided to deny and ask myself, ‘what is this thing called Nigeria?’ How can Nigeria help me discover this authentic self I am talking about because Nigeria herself is an obstruction and not fully whole as it is just an area—‘Niger area’. I cannot build myself upon an area; the fact that I live in Ikoyi or in Yaba right now, is not a way for me to define my identity because Nigeria has not invented much that I will use to explore my identity. However, as a Yoruba man, I come from a genealogy and belong to a collective of people, who historically, have been so clever and intelligent to invent a language, an organized religion, a philosophy of their own, music, art, poetry, visual art, and a political system.
As an individual and an artiste, I can build myself upon Yoruba mythology but Nigeria is just an invention of the British, which is so difficult for me to use as a means of remembering my history. This is why the question of memory becomes significant to me because it is the only link to my father, grandfather, great grandfather and ancestors. I don’t know how far I can go on that search but it is a good way to start. Another sense is that in the Yoruba world, performance as spectacle is called iran so we say àfe lo wo iran meaning we are going to see iran. Iran draws its roots from the word iranti, which is the Yoruba word for remember. For example, a picture or an image is called aworan while aworanti means to remember. I have been asking myself ‘what is it about remembrance or memory and performance, and what is the connection?’ Then I realized that conscious memory doesn’t mean a thing but sub-conscious memory is more important; the things you are not aware that you know, and which we all have in us, carry on, and move along with every day. This for me is the real purpose of performance— to shake the body to a point where it can communicate with another, layers and layers of sub-conscious memories. For example, after watching my show, you would say ‘wow that was amazing’ but cannot explain this because it is your personal journey and relationship with your history and memory, which my performance only helped you gain access to. For me the question of memory becomes the centre point.
The world premiere for We Almost Forgot took place in Germany. You also have the support of the Goethe-Institut and the German Embassy. What was the experience like and is there any reason why your work resonates with Germans?
The funny thing is, this is the first time I am co-operating with the Germans. I have performed most of my works in France where I lived for most of the last 10 years. After relocating to Nigeria, I was invited by a theatre house in Berlin to show one of my works last year as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the Berlin Conference of 1884. I accepted without previously showing any of my works there. However, if anyone is interested in paying for my performances or acquiring my works, I sell.
After the performance in Berlin, they were more interested in further co-operating with my company and I. So we started talking about the possibility of partnering on this one, it wasn’t the Goethe-Institut or German Embassy that initiated this. It was because I was already working in Berlin that they became interested in the project. I would also like to state the fact that the Bank of Industry gave me something more, more important than the Goethe-Institut and the German Embassy. For me, it is a three-way thing; my company and co-producers in France, the German people, as well as the Nigerian people who put some money in it.
Music and dance are therapeutic. How can these help people to heal?
We are considered the happiest and most religious people. These two attributes are kind of connected to music and dance and are two of the reasons we have experienced as a people, slavery, colonialism, hardship and poverty, and now brutality from the Boko Haram and Niger Delta militancy, as well as agitations for Biafra. However, music and dance have a way of always healing us as a people even though we don’t realize this because we are intensely engaged in them.
How did you come about the seven dancers from varied dance backgrounds and identities for this performance and are they from cultures in which memory plays a significant role?
To be candid, I always tell people I am not an anthropologist, ethnographer, philosopher, politician or activist but just an artist and most especially a choreographer. My primary obligations are to dance and make art. I am a romantic when it comes to culture, tradition and nationalities. I don’t deeply believe they are going to help in any way; they are just mere things we created for ourselves in this life as groups. I was looking out for good dancers particularly those with different experiences, who were not just plastic, toys or puppets but on middle ground in their lives.
For example Gwen, the dancer from Madagascar just had a very terrible experience when she went to the School of Avinealle. She is based in New York with her company and everything was fine till she went to do a show in Morocco and realized she could not return to the United States because of issues with her visa. She was born in France and so went back to Paris. She was always at the point where she asked herself questions like ‘do I go back to New York, fight it with a lawyer or stay in Paris?’ It was in this period of turmoil I met her. I liked the shake up in her life and career at that time, which made her perfect for this piece. There are some other personal stories I don’t want to tell but all the artistes I work with have a middle ground in their lives where things are not certain. I knew that this was something we could use because, for us to share anything with the audience including healing or therapy, we first have to be healed by the piece. So it has to come from that space of sincerity and truth for us before we can impact any emotions on the audience. If anyone comes out of the show crying, telling me they were touched, it is because I have already been touched by my work before I could get anybody moved by it.
It was very important that I choose my theme carefully. To the question on seven I actually wanted eight; one narrator and seven dancers but one of the dancers fell out and we were left with seven. For me, these are sub-conscious things. If I planned for it the way I plan for everything else, then there is no space to chance anymore. For me, this piece came about, by chance.
There is also a storyteller in your performance. What was the idea behind this and why did you choose this person in particular?
Firstly, I chose the storyteller who is Nigerian but has been based in France for almost 20 years. I wanted to bring her home to do something to connect with her because of her ‘Nigerianess’. Secondly, she is a brilliant actress, one of the best I have ever seen. She knows how to get into the characters in the story she is portraying to bring them to life. Thirdly, these are extremely difficult stories we are narrating in this piece; stories of trauma and war, and of people who have experienced difficult situations. Anyone not connected to the story will not do the necessary justice to it and might be destroyed by it. I know she is very spirited and mature. I also knew she was the best person for the piece, I never did an audition or double casting for the role.
Will there be a sequel to We Almost Forgot?
Till a work is complete, I never know if I will make a sequel. I will then know if I need to say something I have not said. However, I know my works always follow the trajectory of my personal life.