One of the downsides to reviewing dance is that you begin to see everything in sentences. Phrases like, “She tapped her fingers along the floor as if making marks in the sand,” or, “She struck her forehead with the edge of her palm and slapped her thigh with the back of her hand repeatedly,” begin to formulate, translating the performance in real time. The translation both engages you and distances you, sharpening your perception while giving you the sense of mastering the dance with language rather than surrendering to its wordless rhythms.
Somewhere at the Beginning
September 26 – September 28
In Germaine Acogny’s performance Somewhere at the Beginning—directed by Mikaël Serre and presented at La MaMa theater as part of the Crossing the Line Festival—Acogny does strike her forehead and mark the ground and curl her wrists over her head, but it is her presence within these actions that bring her performance to life, something not easily translated into neat sentences. When she first walked onto the stage on the opening night she paused to observe her audience, something that, in a post-show Q&A, she said she does to establish connection. Before any action, you notice her skull, the strength and buoyancy of it; you notice her standing with patience, power, age; you notice the dignity in the lines around her mouth; when she begins a choreographed action, you notice she performs not only for the audience, but for something beyond the confines of the present moment: there is a communion taking place, not mysticism but history.
When Acogny made the comment about connection in the Q&A, her interlocutor, fellow choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili, speaking indirectly with Acogny through translation, offered that such attempts at connection have often, historically, failed, whereby one side of the connection must erase herself in order to be understood by the other. It is the dynamic of colonization, which plays out such violent erasures posing as exchanges as much on the psyche as geography.
Somewhere in the Beginning tells two autobiographies: the first Acogny’s own, the second her father’s, taken from a memoir he wrote before he died, and which Acogny and Serre now mine for personal histories. Acogny’s father, who grew up in French colonial Senegal, received an Anglo education, studying Mein Kampf and learning to despise his own heritage—a colonized mind. Acogny’s reckoning with the phantom of her father, who appears as a projection dressed in military uniform, is a reckoning with this colonized mind. In a projected film, Acogny walks through Disneyland Paris, a site of colonization’s absurd extremity—a European fantasy devised by an American corporation and sold back to Europe. Acogny walks toward the park’s central castle, a relic without history, a mirror to Acogny’s disillusionment and unbelonging. Later, she dances to Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” those same slapping and striking actions culminating in a charged exorcism of a dance. In another film, she dances with Senegalese women in vibrantly-patterned dresses, while she describes the hierarchies that reduce these competing wives to petty fights over their shared husbands, and her want to escape such imprisonments. Later, she dashes a pillow against the floor, a mock infanticide, briefly becoming Medea while disdaining those who believe child-rearing to be a woman’s destiny. She repeatedly meets the orthodoxies of power with the dissenting histories residing in her body.
Performance as memoir is a fascinating form. It epitomizes this notion that the body houses the stories it hopes to tell, stories that can be read not in the choreographies or words of the performance but simply in the performer’s being. Their self is the story. This is not to diminish the structural sophistication of Acogny and Serre’s narrative in Somewhere in the Beginning. Nor is it suggest that Acogny is confined to her one self. When she was born, she recounts early on in Somewhere in the Beginning, a dove appeared on the windowsill, a sign that Acogny was her grandmother, her father’s mother, reincarnate. As such, she inherited her grandmother’s knives, a tool with which she will cut up all expectations of her lineage.
Several times before the performance, I heard people refer to Acogny as the “mother of contemporary African dance.” (I suspect she might not favor the title, not only because of her emphatic feelings about child-rearing.) It perhaps removes her too much from the history that preceded her, that which so informs her self and her artistry. If performance memoir grants the body an inherent storytelling virtuosity, Acogny transcends the limitations of her self by bringing to life others passed. She said, “Power must be passed from woman to woman.”