This year 2016 marks the 40th year of the emblematic play, Death and the king's horseman. On the 20th of November, the National Troupe had a staging of the play in celebration of the man of theater, Wole Soyinka. This review is not so much about this particular production directed by Mike Anyanwu, but a cross examination of the role of dance in theatrical forms, using Death as an entry point.
“Then I began to travel on Death's road, and I spent about eight hours to reach there, [...] When i reached his (Death's) house, [...] i met a small rolling drum in his verandah, then I beat it to Death as a sign of salutation. When he heard the sound, he said thus: "Is that man still alive or dead?" Palm wine Drinkard. Amos Tutuola.
For those not entirely familiar with the plot of Death and the king's horseman, it is a classic tale of tragic decisions in a traditional African culture, the king had died, and Elesin (his horseman) is expected by law and custom to commit suicide, in order to accompany his ruler to heaven, but this honorable Elesin's process would be interrupted by the colonial administrators. Toyin Oshinaike played Elesin in this particular production. He was simply exceptional, and led me to reflect on the role of dance in this absurd duet between death and the king's horseman.
In the first attempt to dying, the praise singer proclaims - "How shall I tell what my eyes have seen?" Toyin Osinaike's attempt at expressing the unsayable and the use of pure dance as a way of story telling, were most captivating for the choreographer in me, not the (approximately) 20 other extras used as dancers in the production, however, due to the lack of an intelligible use of dance, and the impatience of the director, proper justice wasn't done in reaching the height Soyinka placed the play. This was mostly felt in the two parts of Elesin's suicide.
“It is the death of war that kills the valiant,
Death of water is how the swimmer goes.
It is the death of markets that kills the trader
And death of indecision takes the idle away.
The trade of the cutlass blunts its edge
And the beautiful die the death of beauty.
It takes an Elesin to die the death of death.
Only Elesin dies the unknowable death... gracefully,
gracefully does the horseman regain the stable at the end of the day, gracefully.”
Choreographically speaking, this above reads like the purgatory dance of death, the will to attain grace in the face of the mysterious hereafter. How about a strictly dance adaptation of Death and the king’s horseman. What better response would there be to how directors oftentimes un/use dance in Soyinka's literature, what better way does one explain to them, that their use of movement exhumes a great lack of dance understanding and it so diminishes the power of telling.
How can we rush through the ritual of dying like a flash, when it took Tutuola eight hours to get there, when it took Soyinka pages of sublime poetry to word it, that fact in this production was the real tragic decision I saw, it is mere cruelty. Staging such death scenes should be a reminiscent of the terror we experience in love making, or the tragedy of birth giving, there must be a process, a given time to stop time, emotion and a feeling that should be respected, that the audience must feel this slow passing of time transiting into nothingness, the oozing of life that once was and still is, the audience must feel this deep in their soul, but I as a member of the audience felt robbed in my soul, it is the making or taking of life we are talking about here, no matter how desirable or honorable, or even graceful it feels to Elesin, for the living, for the audience, it must be an experience.
“Elesin Oba, can you hear me at all?
Your eyelids are glazed like a courtesan's,
Is it that you see the dark groom and master of life?
And will you see my father?
Will you tell him that I stayed with you to the last?
Will my voice ring in your ears awhile, will you remember Olohun iyo?
Even if the music on the other side surpasses his mortal craft?”
Dance for me exists within those spaces where there are no words, were words fail us, where meanings, word-texts and poetry reaches their paroxysm till the actor, like in a trance, through its prodding heartbeat begins to sparkle and swerve rhythmically, virtuously matching the speed, the irregularity and the rhythm of all our heartbeats, both the actors, director, technicians and the ensemble of audience alike, establishing a mood in the theatrical space, an unexplainable state with a godlike aura. At that height of ecstasy and rapture, nothing abridges and captures the terror in the human spirit than dance, but in most plays and staging(s) of such literature, dance is reduced to a mere filler and what the mob and the unknown, the unnamed and the invisible stage characters are good at, we make them simply move their backsides, while they sing the choruses and excessively smile from the corners of their mouth till it touches their ears.
Elesin's last word in Death and the king's horseman reads thus- "i cannot approach. Take off the clothes. I shall speak my message from heart to heart of silence." What more is there to say? What more reflection is there to choreographing death before the eventual passage and abandonment of the dancer unto suicide. In fact, I'm perplexed. Completely baffled and completely determined, with the amount of classic literature unchoreographed, and mystical moments in them undanced in this country, the terrain is simply vast and virgin for the choreographers willing to rise up to the challenge.