It was a dark and rainy Autumn night outside Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster University, on 20 October 2023 – an ideal background for thinking about ghosts and hauntings. In association with Lancaster Arts, the production It Begins in Darkness focuses on these themes.
The work is an ensemble piece of movement, voice and sound, designed and choreographed by Seke Chimutengwende, collaboratively developed and then performed by Adrienne Ming, Mayowa Ogunnaike, Kassichana Okene-Jameson, Issac Ouro-Gnao and Nafitah White.
Chimutengwende’s practice focuses on experimenting with collectivism to question hierarchies. The metaphors of ghosts and haunted houses are used to explore how the history of Black out-of-place bodies, and bodies as private property, still haunt the present in misplaced words and social normalcies. Five performers remonstrate with this uncomfortable haunted present, individually reacting and moving with the great effort needed to be or become again a contemporary human in a world where your very body is considered the sight/site of shadows.
As the piece begins the dancers seem to recreate the pose of arms hanging from chains, or it could be commuters hanging from the rails of transport, standing in trains, on buses, as they enter the world of work. In this piece, Chimutengwende explores radical resolution by that flowing from one action into something else. This striking image becomes five bodies rebelliously seeking to untangle this history, using the stage as an environment for processing their responses.
It is important to note that Black (Atlantic) movement, including improvisation in performance, does not have a relationship with orthodox traditional dance forms – whether that is regional folk, Indian Kathak, Russian lyrical or South African gumboot, as examples. Nor does this form of movement come from notions of ecstatic dance, though there is a commonality, in that the outcomes seek to alter consciousness. Black (Atlantic) movement in performance is rooted in the art forms of blues and jazz, where seeking personal style is key, and artistic expression intent on freeing performative expression from expected forms, shapes and reactions – for obvious reasons.
In this work, what comes from encounters with these ghosts, spectres, their horror and haunting, does not bring ecstasy, meaning the choreography has to push for another sort of release. There are moments of close improvisation, frenetic movement and playing dead. Voices sporadically laugh, cry and giggle. The refusal of the piece to acknowledge and take part in syncopation and therefore elicit sympathy (because isn’t rhythm expected of blackness as and in its ‘primitive’ state) is also important and is emphasized by the sounds of the recorded soundtrack, echoing the footsteps of the dance performers. The original work was composed by Aisha Orazbayeva, and Orazbayeva plays it with Hugo Abraham in the recording. It was industrial in feel, the sounds of a remade ‘here and now’, with no reference to comfortable sentimentality.
By its very nature, the haunting spectre (in/of word, thought, or deed) demands a settlement, a response, a looking back. Interestingly, Imogen Tyler, Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, mentioned Avery Gordon’s important book Ghostly Matters, Haunting and the Sociological Imagination in the Q&A after the performance. In it, Gordon writes about how ‘you can bump into someone else’s memory and not even know about it’. This, I think, describes Chimutengwende’s piece at its core.
The bravery of the performance’s construction is its conversation. The performers move truthfully without recoiling from exposure and vulnerability or reproducing familiar movement in their communication with the audience. Nafitah White’s performance was particularly poignant. In and out of the backstage shadows, it felt like a physical yet intellectual debate about where was safer, less painful.
The few moments of repose, when the performers sit together as a group, were powerful because, in this masterstroke of the choreography, these five individuals seem to acknowledge the capacity for joyous community/communion even as the ghost of a contested past still sits on the Black (Atlantic) back. A historically unauthorised communion of ‘soul’, a positive sort of spirit.
This sort of spirit, called ‘ancestral flesh’ by Chimutengwende in his research, talks in this case not about protest, abolition, colonialism or any other ‘ism’, because this piece seems to be about how the body ‘tests the water’ post-trauma. It appears to acknowledge what the Black body must do to enable the creative and the essence of creativity to re-flow to where the route of expression is at its most natural.
This is a hard but rewarding watch. There was no protagonist, no enemy in sight, no evidence that the process dispelled the ghostly traces, even after the final movements of leaving the stage. The piece demands a devotion of concentration for a successful translation of its rare language.
It Begins in Darkness is a piece about reaction – things said or done have to be seen to. However, the repetition of imposed personal bodily actions that enables flesh to feel and excavate meaning while destroying the impositions, is close to overwhelming.
Nevertheless, by the end, after observing five individuals struggle to uncover and recover a sense of what Chimutengwende describes as ‘the body made flesh’, watching also seemed to allow space for all in the audience to chase out very personal notions of relying on a stereotyped existence, in order to ‘keep the peace’. Because that, this work suggests, only does the opposite and nourishes those vexing apparitions.
Seke Chimutengwende: It Begins in Darkness, Lancaster Arts, 20 October 2023. Tour resumes in Spring 2024 at Cambridge Junction, 17th April. More dates to follow.
Chantal Oakes is a fine artist with a practice focusing on collaborative text and image making.
This review is supported by Metal & Water.
Conceived and directed by: Seke Chimutengwende
Choreography and text: Seke Chimutengwende with the dancers
Dancers: Isaac Ouro-Gnao, Adrienne Ming, Mayowa Ogunnaike, Kassichana Okene-Jameson and Natifah White
Created with input from Alethia Antonia
Original cast: Rhys Dennis and Rose Sall Sao
Dramaturgy: Charlie Ashwell
Lighting design: Marty Langthorne
Costume design: Annie Pender
Composer: Aisha Orazbayeva
Double-bass on soundscore: Hugo Abraham
Production Manager & Sound technician: Michael Picknett
Lancaster show Production Manager: PJ Davy
Vocal coaching: Randolph Matthews
Research consultant for the R&D phase: Sita Balani
Production: Lucia Fortune-Ely & Lauren Wright, Metal and Water
Producer 2022 and 2023 Tour Planning: Eve Veglio-Hüner