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Iwalewa… A narrative of poverty-to-awareness dance performance

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A scene from the play

Iwalewa has been a dance essemble QDance Centre, led by Qudus Onikeku, has been performing all over the world. It probably started in France, where the contemporary dance exponent, Onikeku, lived for some time before relocating back to Nigeria to establish his dance centre in Lagos. Last year, he staged the Iwalewa showpiece in the Belgium capital, Brussels, at a photographic exhibition celebrating old and new Lagos. It had Lagos State governor, Mr. Akinwumi Ambode, as guest and was curated by Azu Nwagbogu-led African Artist Foundation.

But the show suffered some hiccups. Midway into the performance, some folks called for it to stop. But Onikeku would not hear of it; he protested vehemently until he had his way. Ambode, who made the revelation last weekend at Eko Hotel, Lagos, while speaking at the 3-day maiden edition of Rasheed Gbadamosi Eko Art Expo, said he secretly admired the Nigerian dancer for standing up for his art and not allowing himself to be intimidated. That evening, the governor invited Onikeku to the stage and personally endorsed his art and his very Nigerian spirit of standing up for his right not being put down even in a foreign land.

While the contemporary dance expert should indeed be applauded for his tenacity in explicating a ‘strange’ art form, he probably needs to review his performance art and rejig it so the performance fits Iwalewa theme and make it more appealing. Contemporary dance is a continuously evolving art and could well be defined in many ways, depending on who is the exponent or see it. Although a lot of energy, technique, and fluidity go into the performance, it seems flawed, especially the Iwalewa narrative that seems obsessive with rags and poverty that barely rises above the starting point.

‘Character is beautiful; character is key to achieving life’s dreams’ sums up what Iwalewa represents, but QDance Centre’s interpretation is character but anything beauty, which makes the performance suspect as being truly representative of its intention.

Gangling Chibueze Hermes Iyele’s bursts onto stage with a microphone and slowly begins to sing beauty’s praises and his voice begins a slow rise until it reaches a crescendo just as Onikeku also joins him and dances to the rising rhythm of Hermes’ beatific ode to beauty and the healing that silence brings to the soul in its tranquil form. Alternating beauty and silence in this form for praise, combined with Onikeku’s accompanying dance performance, provides stirring moments for an audience that feels transported to another realm and borne along the wings of something sublime.

If Iwalewa were to end there, it would all be well and good. But no; another scene soon follows that attempts to interpret Nigerian, nay Africa’s wealth of poverty, perhaps to the outside world.

In this scene, Deborah Aiyegbeni squats on a table, twisted in a contortionist form and in apparent pain, and speaks into a microphone. She is telling the story of her constant seizures and why she isn’t the normal person she ought to be. Right from childhood, she has been afflicted with a kind of seizure induced by wrong medication. Her illiterate parents always diagnosed malaria any time she is ill and they consequently administer malarial drugs even without proper diagnosis. That was how her jerking seizure starts. That jerking nature becomes the dance that her mates also join in that yields a demented, hideous, jerking dance performance that apparently gives the creeps.

Also, Olalekan Rufai’s story only differs from Deborah Aiyegbeni’s in small details. His mother is the sixth wife of his father; she runs a small church. A childhood illness, poorly diagnosed and treated, results in a paralysed right leg from the knee down; this gives him a limp. Both parents soon passed away and he is left to his own devices. With little education and no skill to fall back on, Rufai goes to his mother’s church and joins the choir. After a while, he feels sufficiently armed with some knowledge in music to start off as a Disc jockey (Deejay). Rufai invests a new energy into his new trade and he becomes the toast of the town, spinning music off wheels effortlessly to entertain everybody for a fee.

Even with disability in one leg, Rufai isn’t the type to give excuses. He leaps off his disc jockey platform to join his colleagues on the dance floor and he sashays and glides easily along with the others, turning and gyrating effortlessly. Rufai’s story and performance marvel and excite in equal measures, as his transformation represents the possibilities that determination engenders.

HOWEVER, Aiyegbeni and Rufai’s narratives of rags-to-middling achievement don’t feel sufficiently inspiring an African story fit for export. It is an over-worked theme that is even annoying, especially if it is not rendered with enough artistic finesse. Perhaps, it was why some folks in that Brussels audience felt put off and wanted the show stopped midway for its lack of originality and ingenuity. Perhaps, Rufai’s narrative could be forgiven, but Aiyegbeni’s fits into the abject poverty type European audiences so much expect from Africa as a failed continent unable to rise beyond poverty, a continent constantly steeped in the heart of darkness and needing handouts and aids that get swallowed up by thieving government officials.

Perhaps, it would be instructive for QDance crew to borrow a leaf from the many Musical Theatres in town to better imaginatively craft dance narratives that does not play into the warped, stereotypical poverty norm. Bolanle Austin-Peters’ Saro and Wakaa, Uche Nwokedi’s Kakadu and Ice Prince Iweke’s Love Is are such bold dance narratives that go beyond the usual lamentations but arrive at a deeper understanding of Africa’s evolving societies and its people. Of course, Iwalewa is in a mold of its own, yet it could be enhanced as a true African story. Also, contemporary dance need not merely be what is regularly dished out. Incorporating Africa’s diverse dance rhythms and stylistics to it would greatly enhance the dance repertoire of QDance Centre’s essemble and provide it amazing variety to always thrill its international audiences. That way, Iwalewa would truly be ‘character’ that is ‘beautiful.’


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1 Comment
  • olusegzie

    I think the Guardian editor Anote Ajeluorou has mixed it up some where… kindly do a good research on what contemporary dance piece is about for good critic. you cant compare the likes of Bolanle Austin-Peters’ Saro and Wakaa, Uche Nwokedi’s Kakadu and Ice Prince Iweke’s with this Qudus Onikeku. Guess you need a good research. your article is not fair, it lack understanding of the concept….cheers