I have attended enough events to believe that for the Nigerian audience, laughter is the preferred response to a failed or strange performance. Not boos, not insults, not at first. This holds even for some comic shows, where it helps to understand the difference between laughing with and laughing at. Mostly this laughter begins with an individual chuckle that, if encouraged by a companion, spirals into a fit. Faced with ineptitude or inscrutability and seeking release, others join in.
It could be a commandment handed us pre-life: Any work failing to earn its time, due to novelty or incompetence, will be mocked. After that we decide to either endure the performer or throw her out.
Considering how much of the dancer Qudus Onikeku’s work is novel to a Nigerian audience raised on ‘cultural dance’ and now caught between the frenetic movements of twerking and the swagger of the shoki, it’s surprising no one laughs when the man dances. So that a recent comment from a lady who saw his last show bears repeating.
“After Qudus’s performance, I went home and wanted to kill myself.”
At ‘We Almost Forgot’, the show that inspired this suicidal pearl of criticism, I stood watching and taking notes.
Oriental music blared from a spot offstage. A girl, kung-fu gesturing with deltoids pronounced, appeared. At the end she seemed out of breath. The beat turned foreboding. Behind her a group of five came out. Qudus, head honcho, among them.
They screamed, overwhelming the music. Later Qudus strutted alone, like Hamlet about to burst into a monologue. The music morphed into discordance as Qudus attempted to telegraph the aural trauma through movement. Female dancers surrounded him, arms behind their bodies, faces grimacing.
Another male comes onstage. Qudus fell over him. A little homo-erotic. A group hug of both male and female. Back and forth and side to side they move. A woman stood away from the hugging group. She will be the audience’s guide.
“Why do people remember?” asked the non-dancing woman. The others watch on, their ultra-expressive faces moving from curiosity to blankness. “We almost forgot what life’s about,” said the narrator. The sound has turned threatening. The movements on stage are frenetic, they look un-choreographed but you bet they are not. If only for how much they appear to not touch each other. Qudus’s eyes appear to be covered by a transparent screen.
Like his very best performances this one looked like there wasn’t much that is directly meaningful. The words, which are meant to convey the great and mundane devastation of loss, arrive without much context.
“I miss the shelling, the power cuts…I miss…my friends.”
“In the midst of all this, you’re cooking.”
“I can’t fit in but I can’t go to my previous life.”
“If I were to sum up life here in one word, it’s humiliation.”
“We lost 38 members four family in person.”
Our narrator spoke from memory. A feat of recall. A feat that works within the work in how it captures the persistence of memory.
The scene shifted. There’s a struggle between a male and female who have now appeared on stage; the former rejecting, the other relentless. The soundtrack becomes a dirge. Then there’s a struggle between two males; and a murder. Three girls gathered the corpse in their arms. They swayed.
In my notes I write: How come no one is laughing even if there’s a Lagos crowd now gathered?
Perhaps because the monologues are especially good. One monologue has a mother looking for her handsome son John. John with the sweet brown eyes and rosy cheeks: “Has anybody seen John?” The monologues appear to signal phases in the story. Even as it wasn’t a clear story but several stories.
It was excellent stage craft. How many things seem to be happening at once and yet a lot of it is comprehensible. The best thing is how the dance-play wasn’t looking for applause. No pauses. The work was all-absorbing. The silence of the crowd was the better applause. The dance played to the gallery by not playing to the gallery. It conveyed trauma by dance. It’s a feat of brutal narration. It is why someone will consider suicide afterwards.
For something I think can be risible to a Nigerian audience, the performance kept its audience silent. It’s not a great stage at the Freedom Park venue but with the bodies, the brown leaves on the floor, the sack cloth adorning the walls, the lights—especially the light—the atmosphere was compelling. What happened offstage rivaled what was onstage: the dance kept its audience, drawing a standing ovation at its conclusion. I had a thought: this was no more than the dance deserved. It was no more than the show deserved. So intense was the experience that we almost forget to clap. Then we remembered.
I had seen Qudus perform before within his QDance Centre.
That evening he set books on the floor. “My name is Qudus…Tonight we are going to witness dance, music, poetry,” he said, stepping on the books, an annoying act, even as I understood the heavy-legged symbolism of standing on giants. “This is not a show…concert or performance. This is an experience that can only happen now. [But] what is now?”
Along with the occasional absence of rhythm to his dance, Qudus has a knack for philosophising. Both are features of his style; both can be frustrating:
“Movement, is a superior form of thinking.”
“My job as a dancer is to make you remember.”
“We are trying to let something happen not make something happen.”
Light music from guitar and cymbal in a corner of the room poured forth and the man responded with a sinuous movement of his left arm. Studious concentration on sweaty face. He moved a rod and brass bowl aside, and asked his dancers to stand. They formed a circle and Qudus danced within. Another dancer replaced him. Not quite as forceful physically or as concentrated psychically. And another and another. A man holding a flute started to sing. Most of the dancers seemed to be performing of their own idiom. The music got louder and chants flowed from the circle of dancers.
The music calmed again, the intensity reduced as the dancers started to stroll and then sat. It was time for a response but we onlookers were unsure.
“Forget all those shit I just said,” Qudus said later.
He spoke about the difficulties of dancing in Nigeria. “Yes, you dance but what do you really do for a living?” This question he said comes from “the guys who really do know I dance.”
Someone asked what he calls his dance: “Me, myself I don’t know what it is.”
“Would you call it contemporary dance?”
“I won’t call it contemporary dance.”
“I’ll call it pure,” said the actor Wole Ojo.
“The problem is that it connects it to pure water,” replied Qudus.
The problem for Qudus is that contemporary dance began to be a style, which he doesn’t agree with, conflicted as he is with the meaning of the word “contemporary”: with time.
He explained: “If I’m moving with time, I must connect with the past…Urban dance is only about the present…Traditional dance is about the past.” The definitions and divisions aren’t very clear but it appears what he would like is a word combining these temporal considerations with a frisson of spirituality.
“Is there anybody who would like to read something,” he asked finally.
A lady offered.
“In the beginning, there was a road,” came the words. It is the start of Ben Okri’s Famished Road. She repeated the words as someone played a wind instrument. A man stood trying to find something to dance to within the words of the novel, his left hand engaged in a tic and then some more activity—a peculiarly Qudus styling. Qudus himself gestured towards a drum set in the corner. The percussive sounds increased. Qudus had become a conductor. Somehow he had made words from that book, the flute and the dance into something musical.
The reading stopped and the music, a wondrous thing, went on solo. Some of the dancers were catching the holy ghost, hands waving, face contorted, jumping in one spot. A girl dancing collapsed to the floor and another dancer, male, stepped out to pick her. It was drama, it was dance, it was something else. It ended. And then Qudus spoke again. Something about the inability of his audience to understand. The text, he said provided context, a context that was not needed for the power of the dance.
“I’m not interested in narrative,” he said, adding that, “If I jump ten time on stage, you’re also jumping.” The aim is to make the audience as exhausted as he is.
To explain the apparent chaos of the proceedings, he said, “I don’t believe in giving my dance to somebody.” This explains his dissatisfaction with dances consisting entirely of choreography. If there is no choreography, there is no mistake. It smacked of the Nigerian impatience with order but if you can make it look as artful as Qudus then perhaps you get a pass.
A poet stood to recite “a poem written to be forgotten.” She finished and the music increased, a female dancer was wailing now in the middle of the wooden floor.
Once I saw a documentary where it was declared that “art redeems everything with style.” Here it was the conversion of words from the poet about child-rape into something poignant and I want to say beautiful but not the conventional beauty. By which I mean the poetry and accompanying dance occupied a different dimension from what we usually mean when we say pleasure.
A guy who seemed to be a krump dancer came off, another, with a different variation to Qudus came on, thrashing about. I was struck by the spatial awareness of the dancers, how out of controll they appeared and how aware of the boundaries created by their spectators, the books, the band, and their colleagues.
They finished with Qudus and the thrasher staring intently at some place in the air. I’ve always thought that the problem writers face in Nigeria is complex because of the education needed to access writing, and from that the cultural education needed for literary writing isn’t very well developed. According to Qudus this is a similar problem for dancers. Not fully, I believe. There’s something elemental about dance. If you can get past a need to laugh, it can very much become something to be engaged by.
Outside of the window of the QDance centre where this took place, a few persons watched the goings on within, most of them different from the moneyed, well-dressed people inside. They laughed at Qudus’s ass shaking as the kora man Tunde Jegede played a tune. It was the night’s first indication of contemporary pop dance in that a rhythm was more palpable. I recalled that outside of this, I had seen Qudus do a particularly frenetic form of shoki at Freedom Park.
The men finished and shook hands, two people engaging with marginal sections of popular forms of art. A Yoruba folk song rented the air and then some more dancing as Qudus, short, stocky, with hair defying order, began to sing.
He danced and threw the mic to another dancer, who screamed and danced, with Qudus joining in, shadowing him, doing enough to avoid hitting him. A plumper dancer took centre stage. Some more shadowing. It seemed a little like casting out a demon, and then a purple pants lady. She went around shouting in people’s faces, drawing some energy from the sitting dancers. Some more shadowing and then a brief shoki, which I was happy to see.
The mic ended up in the hands of a lady with a short gown who did some moves, adjusting her gown. Mic got to Segun Adefila, dancer and leader of Crown Troupe. He did his thing. And then a lady seemingly joined of her volition. Another joined.
I clutched my phone closer. No one was going to draw me into this session. And then the mic got to me. I gestured my reluctance and the mic got to a white man. He did something akin to a dance and then it was over a short while later. The books disappeared. The dance disappeared. The feeling remained. The show begged to be transmuted into text. “You lose understanding, and then you understand better,” Qudus said.
He was right. I was moved. But I couldn’t understand what had happened. And then I did. I think.