One of my central tropes is the tedious, radical and necessary act of remembering in order to tell our history. What follows is an attempt to remember and make sense of our journey as we celebrate five years of The QDance Center.
Upon graduation from the school of circus arts in France in 2009, I started my first company, YK (Young Kings)Projects Paris at the age of 25. YK was conceived as an international dance company, which bridged, France and Nigeria, an organization that would be open to the migrant experience.
Our first production, My Exile Is In My Head(2010), was a solo dance piece that explored themes of cultural identities, exile, and the contradiction between the idea of ‘home’ and the reality of return. It won a number of international awards, and toured over 70 shows in 20 countries in Africa, Europe and the Americas. This unexpected success paved a fast lane through which we became a name in the dance world. In 2013, by our third creation, at the age of 29, we were on the list of companies triennially funded by the French government, and already headlining in the most prestigious global venues.
This quick rise and the access it gave me before the age of 30, coupled with the boredom and futility that arises from triumph, activated a shift somewhere in my head. I knew we could do more than we were with this attention and experience. In 2013, my wife Hajarat Alli, who was also the company’s manager, and I shut down and dissolved the company, and moved back to Lagos, Nigeria.
THIS IS LAGOS.
We arrived Lagos, January 2014, without any prior plans except the conviction that, “It is possible to change the world, within the scale of a city”. But Lagos wasn’t any city. To start with, it is a mega (highly competitive and insanely energetic) city. We took our time to feel her pulse again and to learn her new dance. By August 2014, we began operations at the QDanceCenter, a social enterprise, an incubator, which applies artistic competence, human resources, innovation and creativity, as capacities for development solutions in a changing world.
Ourmain focus was socially conscious DANCE, My experience and expertise in intuitive and complex movement structures, body intelligence, spontaneous inventions, improvisation and divergent thinking; along with Hajarat’s expertise in human resources and cultural management and administration, served as available tool with which we invented a creative organization. It began as a simple dance hub, - a fun, informative and creative space, that helped kick-start professional careers for young, passionate, creative dancers.
In order to remain fresh and innovative, we constantly asked ourselves – ‘what should be our guiding principle?’We knew we couldn’t operate as a typical dance company, with constant productions and touring, an idea, which in my vision, was already obsolete in the face of the task at hand. As a creative organization we wanted to find new ways of taking our performance away from the stage and bringing it into real life, install the ideas that were at the base of our success as an international dance company, into an organization operating within a specific city. But first, we needed to create new interests for dance in our new environment. This required constantly identifying fundamental challenges, or problems that dance must be able to cater for in a well-defined manner.
IDENTIFYING AND INVESTING IN THE PROBLEM.
We saw the fact that 84 million Nigerians were between the ages of 15 and 35, (65% of this figure were between 15 and 24, and 34 million of them are unemployed). Within these dismal statistics, we saw an opportunity to transform this ticking time bomb into a historic opportunity through dance. Our thinking was partly influenced by the radical upsurge in the creative industry, which began with the success of the cinema industry, Nollywood, which has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, to become a significant employer of labor. Dance seemed to us, not just a means of providing employment but given the passion that dance demands, also a way of productively channeling this abundantly available young energy.
OUR GUIDING PRINCIPLE.
As an organization, more than a slogan for organizational performance, we embrace creativity and innovation as a way of life, a culture to which we are primarily dedicated, before we offer it to others who have a need and aspiration for it. For us, innovation differs from creativity; innovation in our context is our ability to create our desired future, paying attention to the whole journey, from generating creative ideas all the way through its development, and practical application within a process, till it delivers real value, for a previously undefined market.
At QDC, we recognize that innovation usually happen when two or more sets of knowledge collide. Often, art and business operates in different worlds, our ability to operate ‘at the edge’ as a social enterprise led to new ways of doing. A relaxed working environment for the creative temperament, connectivity and good working relationship are essential to our strategy. We work exclusively with intelligent young people to have our place in the future. Within our team, our clients and those we co-create with globally, it is vital that we build and maintain an air of confidence that strengthens interpersonal trust, collaboration and communication, teamwork and co-learning, hoping to blur the line between work and play.
Throughtrial and error, experimentation and discussions; carefully analyzing our external environment and studying the patterns that emerges out of our business improvisation, we eventually came up with a four-pronged approach we refer to as the QDanceACTS: Artistic Content, Community Development, Talent Development & Services.
At the core of the center's offerings are our artistic creations, which creates usable content for The QDance Company. We are completely dedicated to creative, political and radical expressions, which still finds a safer home in dance, our works are therefore, performances which often investigate provocative, entertaining, informative and diverse themes from colonial legacies to body trauma, disability and notions of beauty or the question of infertility, the need for diversity, problems of migration, and other concerns.
Our sense of community is , a concept that operates seamlessly between the local and global scenes. The organization stages grassroots community development programs to discover new talents, new problems and new spaces. We then bring creative relief and interventions to such hard to reach communities. This access is what we in turn offer to a wide range of international creative allies, who in turn bring their expertise to us and also learn from our practices, while we are, in return, invited to their own communities for similar exchange.
At the Center, we especially give equal opportunity to disabled, as well as female talents, integrating them into the Center's core activities. We create employment for, and transfer knowledge to, young talents in a process that includes mentoring. We work to activate QDC as a co-creation and co-learning space, while we practice the each-one-teach-one technique.
The QDanceCenter offers creative services, either in form of a performance at special events or consultancies. We offer dance and fitness classes.
REBELS WITH A CAUSE.
By 2016, two years into our experiment, we have managed to expand our activities and impact across several cities in Nigeria and the buzz has gotten to other parts of the continent, and around the world. The amount of emails and messages from those who wanted to be a part of the community was increasing at an alarming rate. After a careful analysis, we realized that there was a prevailing consciousness despite us, many creatives in different parts of the world were actively looking for new and meaningful ways of living our collective lives, we only happened to be at the right place at this point in history. We became dedicated to finding fresh and innovative ways to expand the possibilities and improving the creative processes.
This we did by inquiring …
• What is the dimension of our new community?
• How relevant is creativity and innovation to the lifestyle of our audience and community?
• What is that new color that the community yearns for?
• Is there a better way to be of service to that community?
• Is innovation about new propositions or daring to challenge the norm?
In response to these questions, we remodeled as an incubator, not just for dancers in Nigeria, but for an array of talented misfits, rebels and nomads, troublemakers and truth tellers - those whose sense of time and place extends further than the time and place they physically occupy. This is a community of like-minded individuals, inter-communally holding hands across borders, working to be catalysts for change. From that point on, QDanceCenter became a ‘home’ for those mutants whose personalities yearns for something else, and whose work expresses a constant quest for excellence in their own terms.
GATHERING BOF THE TRIBE.
Community Building is a creative act, and for us, it was important to build both a collaborative space and a community. In 2017 we initiated danceGATHERING - an annual gathering for creatives coming from diverse backgrounds, an anti-disciplinary lab, which takes place in Lagos. Operating as a horizontal, co-creation and co-learning space where everyone is an expert in something, where there is freedom of experiment. More than a hundred artists and visionaries contributed to this work, which we’ve been imagining and pulling together over the course of the past three years. Here we invite artistes, thinkers, dreamers, healers and other inclassablemutants, who are all radically shifting the boundaries of knowledge in their various fields and localities, to connect by philosophies and practically collaborate together on ideas that doesn’t necessarily fit into one discipline.
danceGATHERING isn't a festival, it isn't a retreat, a conference nor a workshop or seminar. It is– like a dance – something we become good at through practice. It is a free space devoid of expectations, devoid of professional hustle or cleverness, a space of love and laughter, of encounters and imperfections, a space of strength, vulnerability and inter-communal cooperation. A space of free spirit, free sharing and immense generosity, it is an untamed and uncultivated space, which invites us all to shed the layers of inhibition that flaws our capacity for human connectedness in our daily lives. An attempt to strengthen ties across borderlines, across race, across place, across time, across disciplines, across age, across gender. It is a meeting that goes straight to the core of our being. It is a gathering of bodies happy to be together and touch one another, and desire one another, and care for one another, and carry, push, pull and groove with one another regardless of all the differences they emit unto one another.
DG is a body-mind-spirit workspace, where we collectively experience the bliss of total surrender to the creative process, where we inquire into what it means to elevate our thinking and culture as creatives, as thinkers and doers, by simply being open to others and learning from all kinds of inspiring people from around the world. It is a gathering where we are invited to plan together for a paradigm shift, where people are curated and not the things they make; here nothing is laid out but deeply felt. On the final weekend, danceGATHERING transforms Broad Street (the Main Street in the Lagos Business District), intoan arena for an elaborate performance, where all the collaborations, the findings and outcomes are shared in open air, with a larger Lagos and international audience.
BENEFITS OF DG TO QDC.
DG has offered us access to many more ideas, and a wider constituency to harness more brainpower from other creatives.
As we’ve noticed, the chances are that smarter, better and more disruptive ideas will come from outside the organization. Those of us working on QDC on a daily basis may overtime take short cuts and “box off” complexities, and our ideas may begin to follow conventional, straight lines. The collaborators at DG already exist outside of our box, their thoughts and observation brings new insight and a much higher potential to drive genuinely disruptive innovation.
By harnessing the know-how of our collaborators, as an organization, we reduce the people investment needed to bring about innovation and creativity, while we deploy resources on implementation. Additionally, we recognize that not all the smart brains are inside our business, so by involving more brains we reduce the risk of later discovering something we should have thought of.
We recognize that our network is one of our greatest asset, we have overtime built a global network of both institutions and individual creatives and thinkers. Unexpected benefits had come from our connection with our collaborators, and access to their networks in turn allows us to feel part of a broad community of valuable global contacts.
A LOOKOUT FOR SHIFTING PARADIGMS.
Art and innovation is not an instantaneous process, each creative project generates its own timescale and period of maturation, and it is not a question of turning an outcome into a rule: It is essential to stress that the field of research must be preserved from the system of hurry in which we evolve only too often. The questions now arise, where do we take QDance Center from here? After five years, how do we concretize all our experiments into an eclectic structure? What strategieshave overtime turned into a consistent pattern of behavior, regardless of our intentions? How then do we come to a logical understanding and ultimately share of this good practice and business model? We therefore, came to the conclusion that two endeavors will shape our next five years.
The development of the QDance Company into a full-scale nomadic theatre company, with a predefined sustainability plan.
Establishment of QDance Center as an antidisciplinary institute, that is at the base of societal mutation.
Since the inception of The QDance Center, we have inquired into an antidisciplinary practice, which tends to hold global appeal to creatives, thinkers and young audiences. Traditionally however, most theatres still embody the idea of a closed world. Like the notion of ‘fixed’ identity, theatres are maintained as unchangeably fixed phenomena. Meanwhile, reifying the idea of a “space” dedicated to creatives and change makers, as something that cannot be influenced, reinterpreted or changed, creates tension between what has been, what is and what could be. For Lagos alone, where we are talking about over 20 million people to be reached, I’m interested in finding newer ways to be much more significant within a global scale.
I do not lament the loss of the artist’s sacred aura. On the contrary, I think that popular knowledge has for too long been influenced by the figure of the ultimate genius. Art is however not limited to a finished, completed product, but takes into consideration its underlying attitude. Therefore, it is important to continuously link research and performance, incertitude and presentation, for today it is no longer possible to limit our interest exclusively to the production of art and artists. The conditions whereby an artwork could be available to a multitude of people should be taken into consideration, as much the ways in which it is made. We are committed to developing new ways to give structure to our engagement with the public space, in order to evolve a distinct artistic and business model for the practice.
IWALEWA Institute & University of Florida.
In present day culture, art remains a public matter that requires the powerful relaying capacity of new technology, reaching the desired audience through decentralized online and offline promotions, while sustainability becomes a major worry, in a world where the humanities always take the back row of important matters, there is therefore, more and more budget cut and lack of funding for art organizations. In the context of this multidimensional reality, it is no less crucial to occupy a stable place. In view of our partnership with the Center for Arts, Migration and Entrepreneurship of University of Florida, we have acquired an acre (4,046sqm)of land in Lagos. The QDance Center is investing in a modular permanent structure, which will thus function like a house; it will give the protection of a ‘home’.
Let us remember however, that QDC is a fixed place that does not constrain people to stay put. It is a cocoon constantly open to the outside, a lookout; an observation post. The space will equally house IWALEWA Institute – a laboratory devoted to contemporary creativity in the arts, design, business, and new technology. Its activities will be focused on collaborative research, conceived along experimental lines. This educational unit will be designed as a small flexible institute, “movable at will,” in short: reactive. Such flexibility is imperative in a world that is constantly evolving. Because of this, the QDC will maintain its project-in-progressnature, which means that it will continually be reshaped and redefined, that it has to adapt to a moving situation, that of youthful creativity.
Western points of reference are no longer universal and we have to accept, that what we do does not have the same meaning depending on the countries we travel through. Every year, this “talent development unit,” will receive about twenty young collaborators from all over the world to co-create the future in a co-learning environment. The keynote of their residency is the widening of their experience and the enrichment of their practice. We receive these collaborators, sets out to listen to them, and try to give them the resources to question their own aesthetic operations. More than actual apprenticeship, it involves mentoring, offering the collaborators a chance to add depth to their ways of working in a stimulating antidisciplinary environment, characterized by sharing and exchanges, a laboratory to be open to others and re-challenging oneself to give up monolithic identities and fixed methods.
This will be a cluster of young, smart individuals from distinct geographical, cultural and economic backgrounds that is encouraged to work together, to be displaced and jostled,to develop new pathways, but inside this micro-society, there is space for diversity and difference. The challenge therefore, is for the various personalities who have been brought together, to understand one another in the context of a joint project, one that has the merit of confronting the reality of what defines a community.That heterogeneity will be the vehicle for an awakening in the face of the evolution of our societies, for it obliges each individual to abandon his/her certainties and recompose new frameworks. Thus the distances perceptible between the different disciplines, and unique approaches brought together shall be understood as invitations to collective future making.
Co-Founder and Artistic Director
The QDance Center. Lagos