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Udoka: Our masquerades, dances encapsulate our experiences


Arnold Udoka

… Contemporary Dance Is Another Form Of Social Masturbation

Director of Dance, National Troupe of Nigeria (NTN), DR. ARNOLD UDOKA, is one of Africa’s foremost dance artists, playwrights, choreographers and scholar, with over four decades of dance practice. He spoke to OMIKO AWA on his plays, dance and other issues concerning theatre and dance.

When will you produce your play, Mbarra?
National Troupe last performed Mbarra in December 2001 and January 2002. With a major theme on urban-rural drift, Mbarra, a dance drama, is today apt, going by what is happening in the country.

Did you have the premonition that Nigeria would, at a point in time, go into recession?
People say writers, musicians, authors and other characters in the arts have prophetic gifts and that seems to be my lot. I read through the national dailies and discovered that many people are leaving the rural areas for the cities. So, I said to myself that in no distant time, there would be population explosion in the cities, and that many people that have migrated to the cities would be idle, loafing around, and it would be to the detriment of our economy, as there would be nobody to farm our lands and care for the aged. It was this thought that made me write the play. It aims to change people’s orientation, as it could be seen in the main character, Mbarra, who the play is named after.


From your early days, the number of live performances has dropped, what could likely be the cause?
When you look at the 1980s and the years before, you will find out that they were the period heads of Theatre Departments in the universities felt there should be a change in the manner and content of theatre. So, it was a period of the origin of modern theatre in the country. But this period, which started with drama shun of all forms of indigenous performances and for a long while in the 54 years the first School of Drama was established in Nigeria, dance has not been taken seriously. They think theatre is all about drama, but that is not the case. Some people subsume dance under drama and use it as fillers for the dramatis personae to change costume, but not as symbols to underline and support the theme. They see dance as an appendage, forgetting that in African culture dance is not an appendage. So, if theatre wants to survive, it must not forget the audience it is serving and that audience is the Nigerian audience; that audience still needs communication and that communication cannot be borrowed from the west. It must be something that evolved from our culture, something that represents our identity, something that we can relate with when we see the image or imagery. This is the theatre we are looking forward to.

What are professionals like you doing to represent our identities through local dances in our various performances?
Our local dances are very philosophical and most playwrights are not conversant with them – their nature, styles and messages – because they have not been trained in it. University curricula do not train playwrights on this and there is no provision for it in our primary and secondary school curricula either. In our universities, the Nigerian student comes in contact with dance when he or she is already 18 to 20 years and by the time you finish your training in four years, he or she might not have studied dance for up to 10 to 13 hours. So, how would theatre practitioners or theatre graduates have the right knowledge that would mitigate the challenge playwrights may have?

So, the directors resort to employing anybody that claims to be a choreographer just because he or she can move his or her body. The director does this because he thinks the assumed dancer would know how to interpret the roles in a play, but one cannot give what he or she does not have. What I have done is to train people in the National Troupe, even while I was still teaching in the university. I have to teach them different dances of the world. All African and Nigerian dances are classical because they are encoded; they have canon, but most Nigerian dancers do not know these canons because the colonial space that exists, as a result of our contact with the whites. We now believe in dancing ballet.

You must also consider that the colonial curriculum never gave space to our traditional dances and it might interest Nigerians to know that our current dance curriculum is still British. At the National Troupe, we teach different African and Nigerian dances, with the hope that when the students graduate, they would be able to assist directors to interpret roles with dance or run full fledge dance troupes. There are a lot of people taking to French or British dances. They are not even able to separate what is classical dance from modern dance. To them, all motion is dance. And when it is all motion no movement, you have not communicated. In fact, even when you put up a movement on stage and the audience cannot relate to it, you have still not communicated.

Why is it that professionals like you who have been in the academia, done some private practice and own dance troupes not been able to change the situation?
It might interest you to know that the University of Calabar is the first university in the country to restructure its dance curriculum; it never existed. Restructure in the sense of its pathology. No soon had we done that when I came back from England, I was brought to National Troupe. So, I have little to do about that. You must have the personnel, who have the capacity, both scholarship and practice, to interpret it. I don’t expect all of us to be the same because we all have different training backgrounds, but a bad teacher will produce bad students, while a good one would reproduce people like him or herself. The issue is that there are very few dance scholars. In 2013, we came together to form the Dance Scholar and Practitioners Society of Nigeria, to put our heads together to come up with a unified curriculum for the country and make our students perform anywhere in the universe. So, it will come, but slowly, especially as some universities are beginning to key into these changes. For dance to succeed in the country, it must have a department of its own because it is a very technical course. People just think anybody can do, but that is not true. There is anthropology of dance, dance for the elderly, dance for the community, dance medicine and others, which people are not studying.


Why are all these not reflecting in our drama?
They are not reflecting because these are areas that is beyond the drama. What some audience go to see in the theatres is how the characters perform and not the importance of the dance and its impart in the society. Who in Nigeria is a dance historian or sociologist or specialists in dance medicine? It is only when dance is given its due place, make it a department in the university and handle it like engineering, medicine and other profession that we will begin to know its importance in a distressed economy. What we have now are some characters jumping on stage in the name of dance.

Are you saying that what some Nigerians are currently doing, sometimes described as classical dances, are not dancing at all?
Classical dance in Nigeria is our traditional dance; there is nothing classical in the foreign dances they show us. All over the world, classical dances are known by their canons. Ballet and our traditional dances are classical because they have cannons. The canons of ballet were formulated in France in 1661 under King Louis XIV of France; he was a dancer. There is nothing classical in what they are doing; rather, they are into contemporary dance.

Classical dance has canons, rules and practice; anything outside this is freethinking. Modern dance is freethinking, while contemporary dance is the worst form of freethinking. With contemporary dance anything happens; there are no rules. It is what an individual defines as dance and not what the society says it is. So, on what basis can this be analysed. Here, coding and decoding are muffled; so, it is another form of social masturbation.

Could some of our local dances also be described as such?
No, because they have codes and rules. Dance is part of the people’s identity; it is the capsulation of our history. So, people have to be careful with their traditional dances.

To what extent is your group creating the awareness that dance can be taken as a profession and not an all-comers affair?
Ecumenism and art do not work together. While a certain reality TV show on dance was running and one of the national newspapers called me to find out the import of the programme and I told them I do not see any dance in what they were showing; it was merely a brand visibility thing. People are creating programmes without taking into consideration our culture. They adapt foreign programmes without thinking of the implication on the culture of the viewers. Maybe they spoke to some people about it, but I must say a lot of people claim to understand dance, while in the real sense of it they are charlatans.

Dance earned you a scholarship. Do you see today’s youths doing it the way you did it to be what you are now?
As a matter of fact, all my education from my first degree to post-graduate are on scholarship from dance. I have the privilege to study in Laban Dance School, London. It is one of the best schools of dance in the world. To the best of my knowledge, I do not think those opportunities still exist. I didn’t even know that I was performing in those days. It’s only recently that people will call to ask what I do for a living and when I tell them I am into dance, it would seem as if they already know I will end up a dancer. Only a few thought I would have done something more noble, but I found out that through my ridiculous enterprise, I was able to get a scholarship up to a university level. You will not believe that while on scholarship in the late 1970s, I was paid N2.00 per hour for the eight hours I spent as a student demonstrator in dance. The school also paid me two years in arrears, beginning from when I got admission. This was different from the level 4 position my state government placed me. I was just doing what I enjoyed doing, whether it made sense or not was not my concern.

I had a long record of winning laurels in the state, from my division to state level and then to Lagos. I started representing my state right from my form one. I never expected to be paid. And when I finished, I was given immediate employment at University of Calabar. I think people should think of developing their passion instead of thinking more of the pecuniary gains that come with what they do. So, I would say it was passion that brought me job, international recognition and money. It is passion that has made me a director at National Troupe of Nigeria. There may be a lot if me across the state, Nigeria and Africa, but the pecuniary considerations have debarred them from rising.

How was your transition from the academics to being Dance Director of National Troupe of Nigeria?
It was smooth. In fact, I started performing while in the Seminary. I once performed with a group that Poe John Paul VI was astonished and demanded we come to Vatican to perform. That was under the auspices of the Queens of Apostles Seminary, Afaha Obong in Akwa Ibom State. I was already a performer. Remember, it was dance that brought me to Lagos for the first time. I was a good professional in terms of ethnics, but not money. I was already representing my groups at different events. At the age of 15, I was already in charge of my state contemporary dance theatre. What we were doing then was to use our traditional dances to tell topical stories that concern the people. I had no trouble moving from classroom to heading the dance troupe. In fact, both involve teaching and mentoring people.

You said seminary school
Yes, I was to be trained a priest, but along the line it did not work out.

At age 15, how were you able to coordinate your state’s contingent when you were supposed to still be learning?
As a teenager, I was always in camp during holiday, training. So aside talent, I have learnt to discipline my mind and body. And when I went to the university, I was also the head of the dance troupe and we performed for Alhaji Shehu Shagari, when he came to Calabar on May 5, 1980. Our brilliant performance made him to invite us, the National Troupe, to Lagos to perform before the Senegalese President, Léopold Sédar Senghor, on the May 10, 1980; that was the first time I flew in an aircraft. And while in Europe, I performed for the Pan-African Troupe that toured Europe twice. I was already a professional. At the national festival in 1988, I did seven dances and nobody from eastern part could do that. So, I had no problems joining NTN, to do the thing I am used to.

Did you performed at the second African Festival of Art and Culture (FESTAC)?
No; in fact, that was when I got admission to university. So, I had to prioritise between performing at the event and school. However, I came to the event as part of UNICAL contingent instead of Cross River State contingent. We collaborated with UNILAG to present a play titled The Successor. I have garnered enough experience, in term of scholarship and practice; so coming to the National Troupe, I was on a familiar turf. I have come to the point where I want people to believe that dance goes beyond rhetoric.

Some people say many Nigerian traditional dances are demonic, especially the masquerades. How were you able to do traditional dance while in the seminary?
My Catholic upbringing has exposed me to catholic method of thinking. The Vatican II Document of the Catholic Church talks about adopting our local languages and musical instruments during Mass. This is based on the fact that the best way to make a people to understand anything is to use their local language. The white man, either Christianity or Islam, described us as pagans or heathens based on their religious ideologies, but are we what they say we are? I am an Anan man and we only recognise one God –– Abasi Enyong, Abasi Isong. It is only one God; God of the sky and the earth. Is that not monotheism?

So, anybody who either anthropologically, sociologically, philosophically or theologically decides to say our dances are pagan or heathen is bereft and does not understand how traditional African societies get to God and what our masquerades and dances represent. Our masquerades and dances are encapsulation of our experiences, which are expressed in the chastity dance of passage for a teenager to transit to adulthood. Is that not the value the Bible and Quran teach on how to remain pure and hardworking? Our masquerades represent how we see God. It is a mystery and within that mystery is the mythicism of the myth of who we are and that is the part of us we cannot see. So, we must always allow the past to inform you of the present and the future. Our masquerades represent this.

It reminds us of what our ancestors say and it is until we know this that we become it and then teach our children what the masquerades represent. So, our dances are not demonic; they are completely pure, but where some people saying our dances and masquerades are demonic means that they are fanatically attached to their new religious tenets. And in the event they are not attached to their new religious tenets, it then means that they want us to erase our identity and history. Our dance tradition defines the way we relate, see beauty, drink, impact knowledge, values and others. Our beauty and values are not the same as they see it in France or any other part of Europe and we must not allow them to force us to reject our aesthetic values. Rather, we should marry ours with theirs to create a better society.

How about the incantations and chants that go with the masquerades?
What is incantation? Please, let’s reduce it to four concepts –– rhapsody, ballad, poetry and chant. When I begin to sing songs of the great things your family has done, is there any evil in that? I am only reminding you of who you are. So, it is oratory turned into rhapsody, ballad, poetry and chant to give the history of the community. We do not have the method of writing history, but we have the history in the memory of the chanter or the storyteller. What you refer to as incantations are nothing but rhapsody, ballad, poetry and chant. These poetic expressions remind us of roles, responsibilities and histories. Those who are listening to the incantations, as if they are summoning evil spirits, are those who are deaf to the various traditional poetic expressions.

Why then are some of the masquerades referred to as being dangerous and only come out to cleanse the community of evil?
Masquerades come in different forms. There are religious, social, political and even masquerades for entertainment. The religious ones play the religious roles and take care of rites, priests and the ancestors. Masquerades behave according to their roles. Political masquerades bring peace and order, while social masquerades sing sarcastic songs to abuse people, who have committed one evil or the other. The intention of this is for them to be repentant and be integrated back to the society.

Where and how do we draw the line from one masquerade to the other?
The fact is that most people see all the masquerades as one and evil. This is happening because the masquerades are not European invention, but in the real sense of it, our children are regularly entertained by masquerades in the name of Barney, Mickey Mouse and others in their schools and birthday parties. These European masquerades are nice and good because they are Europeans while our local masquerades are demonic and bad. We should train our children to know who we are because no society wants to destroy itself. No society practices any form of demonic masquerades. For me, Barney, Mickey Mouse and all the foreign mascots used in social events are all demonic because they have not been socialised into our culture. In fact, we have impacted this wrong mindset to our children to the extent that they refer to all masquerades as ‘O juju Calabar,’ which is not fair to Calabar people! In Africa, masquerades are not demonic, but to exorcise evil spirits in the community.


You have done spiritual, war, social and other types of dance. How do you feel after each dance. Do they have any effect on dancers?
No; at the level we are at the National Troupe, one cannot be initiated into any spiritual group. We only learn the technique and stylistics. At this point in time, you are not the dancer in the village, who becomes but a dancer who acts. By acting, you are taking a fictitious character. So, as long as it is fictitious, it cannot have any effect, but at the village setting these dances are factual. You have to become that ancestor to carry out what has to be done. So psychologically, your orientation, while acting, is different from when playing the real thing. In one, you take on the character and in the other you become the character; one is fictitious, while the other is actual.

What’s your take on dance in Nigeria and the theatre?
Dance and theatre have a great future and that future will elude us if we refuse to acknowledge that to provide leadership in dance you have to go through the university. And the universities curriculums have to change drastically to handle the leadership role. If we do not do this, we might just be cutting off a lot of young people who have the skill; not the skill in passion and practice, but in scholarship. We should set up a university of dance just as we have a university of agriculture and you will be shocked to know how much dance we shall be able to export. We shall be shocked on how much jobs this will create, how much foreign exchange it will bring to the country and how far people can go to further develop our dances.

Why a university for dance, when one can go for a-three to six-month course in any of the dance schools in the country?
There is no dance school in Nigeria! I can say this without any equivocation. If there are, I want to know the proprietor to see the curriculum and the teaching personnel because the quality of scholarship depends on the personnel.

In this article:
Arnold Udoka
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