black dance and the white imaginary

by kopano maroga

the black dancing body: a nexus of psychosomatic trauma, rancorous resistance, joyous celebration, continual reconfiguration and contestation. a battle ground of reclamation and self-proclamation. that is to say, ever plural and ever changing. dancing the black body in postcolonial south africa comes with so many contradictions and frictions; schism and isms. most especially so when choreographed by bodies operating from within the psycho-cultural milieu of whiteness; an ever elusive and subversively suffocating socio-structural construction that is no less real for its constructedness.

as a black dancer working in cape town, south africa, my black body has been almost exclusively choreographed upon by white choreographers, leading to internal introspections of the existential variety:

  • if whiteness is the root cause of black oppression – the antagonist of blackness – does my dancing a piece choreographed from a space of white consciousness tacitly erase the fact of my blackness?
  •  if we take for fact that whiteness cannot conceive of the fullness of the experience of blackness, is the performance of my black body in these choreographies an act of self-immolation?
  •  is codifying pieces as ‘white’ or ‘black’ a vulgar over prescription that denies the nuance of creative construction and undermines the autonomy of black bodies in these choreographies?

in july of 2015, i was at a dance conference at the university of cape town’s school of dance. the conference was on negotiating contemporary dance in south africa. at the conference I performed in a choreography entitled bok choreographed by the cape town based, contemporary dance theatre company underground dance theatre (udt). the choreography can be described as a south african reimagining of vaslav nijinsky’s ballet, afternoon of a faun.

udt uses the themes of masculinity, animal mythos and sexuality in the seminal ballet and re-apply them to a contemporary south african context. using social monikers such as khakhi shorts and veld skoene to represent a south african masculinity that, in the 40min duration of the piece, is stripped and deconstructed to physicalize a conversation on the frictions and plurality of masculine identity in contemporary south africa.

i want to have a conversation specifically about the symbolic material udt makes use of in the choreography. more specifically the symbolic material as it is pertinent to the imagined black experience.  

in the piece, the four male dancers are preset on a dimly lit and smoky stage with grey initiation blankets over their backs and faces, obscuring them from the view of the audience, all but for their legs from the knee down. this exposes their tan brown khakhi shorts, brown-green socks and maroon veld skoene. these initiation blankets are traditionally used in isiXhosa culture when young men come of age and go to the mountain to be circumcised as a ritual to mark their becoming men. 

later in the piece, after the blankets have been divested to uncover the four dancers fully, the dancers are revealed to be wearing leopard print vests. these are a reference to the vests frequently worn by isiZulu traditional music and dance performers that can often be seen entertaining european tourists at airports and arts festivals throughout south africa.

the final symbolic device I would like to interrogate is the ceremonial traditional beads adorned by sangomas (traditional healers). they are revealed in the last act of the choreography. one of the dancers is adorned with a headpiece of beads as he twirls in a cone of light to the swell of the chorus of flies. his head heavenward and his arms splayed open, seemingly ascending from his human form into the spiritual realm.

throughout the piece these signifiers of black spirituality and indigenous, cultural masculinity read to me as symbols of Otherness. portents of transfiguration into some imagined spiritual realm.

at the conference I mentioned earlier, I performed as the dancer going through this spiritual transfiguration. in the original construction and performance of the work this part was played by a white, afrikaans man. in the rendition I performed the cast was wholly black, whereas in the original work the cast had two white dancers and two black dancers. the two variations of the work read entirely differently from one another. where the original reads – for me – as a commentary on the frictions of the south african masculine experience, homoeroticism and the violent amalgamation of cross ethno-cultural contact and syncretism, the latter version reads as an investigation into the black, south african masculine experience, black homoeroticism and the spirituality and Otherness of the black, male experience.

after the performance during a q & a session at the conference it was asked whether the white choreographers had considered the problematic history of black, male bodies presented as animal-like and primitive in the artistic world. one of the choreographers admitted that as white choreographers there is an immense amount of room for oversight. quoting another south african choreographer and academic she said, “as artists we are inevitably going to fail”.

as a performer in the work, this problematic element of presenting these monikers of Otherness through props and costumes codified as black had been niggling at the back of my psyche. being so immersed in the process of creating the work, it had not afforded me the opportunity to consider what this friction I was experiencing evidenced. using these codified monikers of blackness as interchangeable with Otherness was a direct commentary on my Otherness as a black, south african, male-presenting, queer body. my experience was being reified and reduced to symbolic material that could in no way encapsulate the pluralities and contradictions of who I am and how I experience myself. the piece was speaking over me and
taking elements of my identity and making use of them as literal props.

it is undeniable to me that bok effectively physicalizes the frictions of masculine identity in postcolonial, post-apartheid south africa. however, due to its point of creative departure from the imagination of whiteness it inherently continues to subversively commodify and essentialize blackness and presents the imagined black body in a kind of historic stasis. trapped somewhere between human, animal and spirit. the legacy of the colonial imaginary of the black primitive is indicative of the limited scope that whiteness affords when coming into contact with the black body. the white imagination serves to reproduce the ideas and images from its collective consciousness ad nauseum. a collective consciousness constructed by a history of unmitigated, violent, racialized oppression of black bodies. I am left with no answers, only questions:

when will the black body be free to conceive of itself outside of the confines of the white imagination?

when I engage in creative endeavours with other creatives who operate from the collective consciousness of whiteness, am I setting myself up for my own misrepresentation?

is there anywhere the black body can dance the fullness of its trauma, its joy and its unceasing pursuit for liberation?

how do we unpeel the white masks to reveal the black skin?

Image: Lena-Franziska Posch

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