“Who the hell is Stromae?” was the headline of an article in Time Out New York on the occasion of the debut of the Belgian-Rwandan hit machine. The cover photo created confusion to say the least: with male features on one side of his face and a more feminine appearance on the other. Paul Van Haver likes swapping identities and is no stranger to gender bending. In the clip for Formidable he sways “drunkenly” across Place Louise while at the Cannes Film Festival he was carried along the red carpet by two bodyguards, a reference to the absence of his father, which he sings about in Papaoutai. His video clips, performances and appearance are all carefully devised, but Stromae never sacrifices his artistic integrity in the process. Because the artist is on a mission to break open our static understanding of identity.
Van Haver embodies what the choreographer Alain Platel fiercely defended as the heartbeat of Flemish art, i.e. métissage or hybridisation. His roots resonate in the nomadic mix of Congolese rumba, electronic music, rap and French chanson but he also has no problem being the mascot of the Belgian national football team. Stromae tinkers with ethnic, sexual and cultural definitions: you never know what to expect next and when he finally appears you always recognise his signature style which is always greater than the sum of its parts. Pop music fans have fallen under the spell of Stromae but so have the highbrow culture consumers who really have become true omnivores nowadays. High art finally has returned to the fold of popular culture. But what does it hope to find here?
“We’re night clubbing, we’re what’s happening – we see people, brand new people, we learn dances, brand new dances” (Iggy Pop & David Bowie)
Now that time and space no longer define our access to the world the sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014) opines that the emphasis has shifted from “identity” to a more dynamic and versatile “identification” process. “The subject, previously experienced as having a unified and stabile identity, becomes fragmented: composed, not of a single, but of several, sometimes contradictory or unresolved identities”.[i] Identity as a cultural marker today has become just as dynamic as the global flow of capital, commodities, knowledge and people in the wake of globalisation. The cultural exchange has also exploded thanks to the Internet, digital media and new communication technologies.
On the one hand these globalisation processes give rise to a homogenisation of our cultural experience, a trend that pessimistic voices often equate to Americanisation: in Marshall McLuhan’s global village paradoxically enough we choose to distinguish ourselves based on uniformity. On the other hand the passive masses never slavishly adopt cultural expressions. Instead they are embedded, “embodied” even, in a local context. The history of globalisation thus can be interpreted as a story of hybridisation, which produces artists like Stromae. Or how one bowtie can conceal several identities.
Identity has thus become a more flexible and more complicated concept. Because how can you find your own voice in a mediatised and post-national society, in which references travel faster than light? How to relate to all this cultural heritage, whose origin is sometimes lost? How can this cultural cross-pollination give rise to a more inclusive concept of identity and community, which is tailored to the twenty-first century?
The dance world is also trying to find an answer to these questions of self-representation in a globalised world. It seems as if its agility is the ideal condition to discuss “identity in motion”. Dance and identity in any event are inextricably linked on a deeper level. You express who you are first and foremost with your body. But a body on the stage always bears traces of the ideological, social and political context in which it operates while simultaneously portraying how it wishes to see itself reflected in the audience’s eyes. Within its isolated time and space the theatre, with visibility and representation as the most important codes, is the perfect laboratory to critically question the construct of these body images.
Popular culture also exists by the virtue of ever changing body images. As it is not restricted by language it is the perfect playing field for various cultures, traditions and fantasies to contaminate each other. It also continuously renews itself to the rhythm of hypes and trends. Popular culture is never pure: it plagiarises, perverts and transforms.
This hybrid and flexible approach to identity is a shared source of inspiration for choreographers such as Ula Sickle, Trajal Harrell, Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud. They all have abandoned the fortresses of high art, choosing instead to concentrate on urban culture in which dance (as well as fashion and music) is created on people’s skin. Better yet: where identities are created while dancing. Whereas Harrell immerses himself in the ballrooms of New York’s transvestite culture, Sickle, Chaignaud and Bengolea conduct field research into club culture, from Kinshasa to Jamaica.
Ballrooms and night clubs are what the theorist Ben Malbon calls liberating spaces: spaces that resist the dominant – often hetero-normative, Western, white – cultural norms allowing them to attack an existing identity policy. They constitute temporary communities in which fictional and real identities can meet each other in a climate of controlled transgression based on an ideal of classlessness. Sickle, Chaignaud, Bengolea and Harrel have arranged their stage based on these liberating spaces: they squarely place the body in the centre of a network of cultural references to see how it relates to it. In so doing they are not just interested in breaking open the all too exclusive Western dance canon (and the repressed identities on which it is founded). They also seem to want to reactivate the basic political power of a dancing body again, which is probably best expressed in street dancing: it is in your face, it speaks and it demands to be heard. But what exactly is it saying? What can you see in the mirrors of these street ballets? And how does this force us to re-examine who we think we are?
“I was looking for another me” (Trajal Harrell, after Starsailor)
“Good evening, my name is Mimosa Ferrara”. Performer Marlene Freitas is still trying to catch her breath after her XTC dance, her black jodhpurs having slid down to reveal her butt crack. She is not the only one to introduce herself as the “famous” transvestite. A black diva (Trajal Harrell), a drag queen (François Chaignaud) and a transgender stripper (Cécilia Bengolea) all claim to be the real Mimosa. This is followed by a two-hour battle in which the four flamboyant personalities try to outdo each other, as Prince or as Kate Bush, while breakdancing or shaking their ass, with sparkly make-up or towering heels. “You never know who’s who here” Chaignaud sings while hugging his fake tits.
In (M)imosa – Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (2012) identity is aflexible concept. The performance is part of a longer project by Harrell, in which he sets up a fictional encounter between post-modern dance and the vogueing culture (named after the dance which bases itself on the model’s poses in Vogue). While both these traditions originated approximately at the same time and only a stone’s throw from each other (1960, New York) the mindset of both of these cultures is very different: the members of the Judson Church were the first generation of artists who had been to university while the Voguers were part of the suppressed African-American and Latino homosexual community. Steve Paxton and Vogue founding father Willi Ninja never actually met in real life. And while the debate about the political clout of the post-moderns raged the Voguers quietly died of AIDS.
The differences between post-modern dance and Vogue culture could not be any greater, at least from an external perspective. All the aspects that Yvonne Rainer derided in her 1965 No Manifesto (no to camp, style, glamour, virtuosity, the star image, spectacle, magic and make-believe) were cultivated in the Harlem ballrooms. The legendary children, as the Voguers used to call themselves in an attempt to empower themselves spent days putting togetger the right costumes to wage a battle against each during the fashion balls of House of Xtravaganza, Diore of Balenciaga. The objective? To win a trophy in categories such as “Executive” or “Looking like a boy going to school” – archetypical social roles in other words, but not for someone who is black and gay.
Although the minimalism of Rainer and Paxton does not have much affinity with the excessive showmanship of the Voguers both traditions seem rooted in the same quest for realness. The postmoderns returned to a form of anti-representational dance as a reflection on the spectacle society and the emotionality of the “Ausdrückstanz”: they performed with blank faces, choreographies were organised according to coincidence and they adhered to the creed that every movement could be dance. “My body remains the enduring reality”, Yvonne Rainer wrote in response to the mediatisation of the Vietnam War.
In uptown NYC the voguers also tried to become socially pertinent by imitating their “straight counterparts” as well as possible and briefly creating the illusion that they were normal (i.e. rich, heterosexual and white). “In a ballroom, you can be whatever you want. As a negro, you can’t be an executive in daily life, but you can look like one. Looking like one claims that you could actually be one if you had the opportunity”, someone says in the iconic documentary Paris is Burning (1990). Although the Voguers used all the resources that the postmoderns eschewed, they strived to achieve the same recognition for their uniqueness behind the façade of gender or race.
Whereas the Voguers critically mimed these “body images” (much like travesty reveals the dominant perceptions about femininity) the postmoderns chose to ignore them. But in both cases they used performance to manipulate the social role-play. “Identity is always a production which is never complete, always in process and always constituted within, not outside, representation”, Stuart Hall wrote.[ii] It is this process of representation that Harrel and co question by morphing from one identity into the other and undermining the ideological norms of taste, sexuality and ethnicity.
Obviously this freedom always involves a negotiation between fantasy and reality (realness is exactly in the middle of this nexus you could say). While the Voguers dreamt of shining on the catwalk alongside Karolina Kurkova they never enjoyed any social mobility. Or as Chaignaud says: “You never choose your own name”. Mimosa however is an ode to the emancipatory power of the imagination because of its performance of identity between “being” and “becoming”. At the same time the performance shows how difficult it is to break free from the human belief in that one, unique personality. Whereas Bengolea and Chaignaud stick to their familiar drag performances Harrell is the only one to really undergo a transformation. Merely based on performance quality (without extravagant costumes or make-up) he is able to effortlessly switch at the drop of a hat from a vogue queen to postmodern choreographic tasks, such as walking and clearing up. As a black homosexual Harrell rewrites the historiography from within, by exposing the common parameters between two cultures which never came into contact because of the unequal distribution of cultural,, social and economic capital, even though they both believed in the unconditional transformative power of the body as a site of resistance.
“Yeah, I used to wear Gucci and look like you, but I put it all to the bin, ‘cause that’s not me, that’s not me” (Skepta ft. JME)
Besides the drag culture François Chaignaud and Cécilia Bengolea also have another fetish: clubbing. Since their teens the pair have been visiting night clubs all over the world. Jamaican Dancehall, twerking, krumping, skin out, house, split and jump no longer hold any secrets for them. In Altered Natives Say Yes to Another Excess – Twerk (2013) they combine these styles into a common style concomitantly revealing its poetic and technical quality, something which you’d never see in a night club. With the live support of two grime DJs (grime is a mix of breakbeats, house and drum ‘n’ bass, which originated in the deprived neighbourhoods of London’s East End), flickering rainbow lights and flashy costumes the five performers dance until they are in a trance – much like the audience, which has to restrain itself from storming the stage.
Whereas Mimosa reflected on the quest for individuality at the crossroads of desire and impossibility all the parties involved in Altered Natives merge into one swaying body, one shared identity of which nobody claims to be the author but which is recomposed every night in the cellars of excess. Or as the sociologist Antonio Melechi says: “Dance clubs represent a fantasy of liberation, an escape from identity, a place where nobody is but everybody belongs.”[iii]
All the dance styles in Altered Natives have in common this socialising and emancipatory function. Except that it is often snowed in by the levelling copy/paste process of the Western culture industry. So it may seem as if Miley Cyrus invented twerking (the term was only included in the Oxford Dictionary after her controversial performance during the MTV Music Awards) but in effect this power dance has been practiced for centuries by women in African and Caribbean culture. Whereas Cyrus’s twerking ties in with her image of an object of sexual desire, the “slackness” or vulgarity of Jamaican Dancehall is a way for women to break free from the yoke of the patriarchal gender ideology of the coloniser.
Bengolea and Chaignaud have identified the same pussy power in the choreographies of Martha Graham, the founder of modern dance whose name is includes in the history books of dance. She also drew attention to female sexuality in the early twentieth century by situating the origin of the movement in the lumbar region. “Yes, it’s a political statement that has to be seen within the evolution of contemporary dance”, says Bengolea about this “act of imaginative rediscovery” (Hall) which also is one of the cornerstones of Mimosa. “Because the Rhythm Ass Poetry (R.A.P.) is marginalized from that field. The ass is the ghetto of the body and its discourse, ass talk, is for us important to give a platform to speak.”
The story is very similar when you trace the roots of krumping. The form that crops up in the mainstream “bling-bling, tie-in-with-a-designer corporate hip hop thing” (David LaChapelle) does not have much of the subversive potential of this acrobatic dance style which originated in the ghettos of LA. As one of the dancers says in LaChapelles’s magnificent documentary Rize (2004): “This ghetto ballet is the only way of making us feel like we belong in this world. Krumping is the closed chapter of hurt, sorrow and anguish in our lives that nobody knows about. This dance is as valid as your ballet and tap dance, except we didn’t go to school for it.”
Altered Natives starts from a fascination for these shared roots but also covers the versatile (sometimes levelling, sometimes enriching) routes that these social dances undergo in today’s video and YouTube culture. In so doing the performance once again pushes a number of qualities back into the foreground that have become a taboo in Western dance grammar because of the great emphasis on intellectualism and formalism: the virtuosity of pleasure, the energy and zest for life of movement. Here dance once again becomes an affirmative act and in that immediacy it legitimises itself without needing any big words – because if you listen carefully you will notice that the body has a lot to say.
“Ni l’un, ni l’autre – je suis, j’étais et je resterai moi” (Stromae)
Ula Sickle also interprets the clubbing world as a place where various roots and routes intersect with each other. In an attempt to expand the Western dance idiom she previously traced the story of hip hop as an expression of black identity in Solid Gold (2010), a collaboration with the Congolese dancer Dinozord and the sound artist Yann Leguay. In Kinshasa Electric she puts three dancers on the stage who know the nightlife of the Congolese capital inside out. Although, looking at them, they would not look out of place in Berlin’s Berghain or the Fabric in London. What do cultural and national borders represent in today’s digital era?
While the Kunstenfestival audience files into the theatre Joel Tenda, Popaul Amisi and Jeannot Kumbonyeki look into the world via their smartphones. We hear fragments of sultry music, the voices of American newsreaders, pop songs and text messages. When the Israeli-German DJ Baba Electronica, who creates a live club atmosphere just like in Altered Natives, switches to the hit It’s too late to apologize, Amisi stands up brusquely. His articulated leg movements reveals influences from popping, hip hop and breakdance but his dancing mainly resembles “Popaul Amisi”. Because, while the three dancers share the same references, they each have their own singular way of interpreting them.
Amisi, Tenda and Kumbonyeki are a product of what Roland Robertson called “glocalisation”: instead of just limiting itself to Western oriented one-way traffic the globalisation process is based on the simultaneous penetration of the global into the local level and vice versa. “Popular dances in Kinshasa are extremely rich, mixing many diverse influences”, Ula Sickle says. “They have their roots in traditional local dances, but they also reflect a globalised media culture, where the Internet and music videos spread lifestyle ideals, dance and music trends, but also political events. Hip hop is of course also a big influence for the younger generation. It’s funny, it’s such a global form, but everyone feels they can make it their own. Popular dances are constantly evolving, so for me they are very contemporary and actual.”
Kinshasa Electric is built according to the structure of pop music. One dancer moves, his movements are sampled by the other dancer, who continues to make associations with them and in the middle of the performance a local musician or dancer gives a guest performance (the idea of featuring). Coupé Décalé had the greatest impact on the performance however. This popular ‘cut and run’ music technique was invented in an Ivorian night club in Paris after which it crossed over to Africa. Baba Electronica repeats generic samples from the computer as well as melodies from pop songs or the dancers’ voices with minimal variations, giving them a different texture and intensity each time they are repeated. You only rarely hear real “music” with a climax. The same applies to the grammar of the movements and the costumes: arms and legs stop in mid-air or slow down so you can see how they are built, the colourful outfits by Jeremy Scott (a melting pot of America, European, African and Chinese motifs) are constantly put on or taken off
It seems as if all the theatrical elements play a Derridian game of différance, a game which Hall considers to also be at the heart of how our identity is formed. Kinshasa Electric relies on a series of references (from Stromae to the Guantanamo Dance and N’Dombolo), which continuously branches off in the audience’s mind (and thus strongly differs depending on the context). Ultimately however it always “postpones” a fixed beginning or ending, a fixed origin or shape. What is traditional and what is contemporary? What is Congolese and what is Western? What is authentic and what has been construed? In Kinshasa Electric identity is “always on the move” and constantly undermines this type of opposition
“You gotta fight for your right (to party)” (Beastie Boys)
In our globalised world identity once again is understood as a travelling concept that is constantly reinvented in the tension between history, cultural knowledge and structures of power on the one hand and projected desires on the other. This transformation conceals a political force, which is keenly felt in all the performances, under the phat basses and the excessive theatricality: the resistance against hegemonising opinions about ethnicity and sexuality, but also about “high” and “low” art and anyone represented in it in society. The nomadic borders and avid urge to innovate of popular culture are the perfect playing field for testing this “diasporic identity” (Hall). Art also has the vital task of helping this identity to resist against a growing political discourse which relies on essentialism or as Hall says: “not as a second-order mirror held up to reflect what already exists, but as that form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover places from which to speak”[iv].
The performances of Sickle, Bengolea, Chaignaud and Harrall show what this “hybrid” human could look like. They provide an insight into identification as a dynamic process that draws on various traditions, cultures, trends and ideas. While this process is now at cruising speed thanks to the rise of the digital media this does not have to imply that we have lost something that is eminently precious to us, namely our individuality. Because the place we come home to is in our body, where our roots and routes always combine into a personal story.
[i] Stuart Hall, “The Question of Cultural Identity”, Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies, Stuart Hall, et al. (red.), Wiley-Blackwell, 1996, 598.
[ii] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, Patrick Williams, et al. (ed.), London, 1994, 392.
[iii] Antonio Melechi, “The Ecstasy of Disappearance”, Rave Off: Politics and Deviance in Contemporary Youth Culture, Steve Redhead (ed.), Avebury, 1993, 37.
[iv] Hall, 1994, 402.