Celia Weiss Bambara

African-Based Contemporary Dance: Translating Tradition

My path with African-based dance began in Los Angeles at Occidental College when I studied Haitian and modern dance with Elizabeth Chin. I felt like the dances were speaking to me, saying things about respect, history, love, travel, study, and ultimately, fusion. My learning of African-based or diasporic dance from dance artists in Haiti, France, the U.S., and Africa has come from a deep respect both for, and of, the people I learned from and worked with.

Some of the major challenges in making fusional work are in translating and adaptating specific dances or movement. Transforming movement, phrases, and staging is a unique process that each choreographer goes about differently. His or her innovations are directly linked to where he or she have studied and with whom. I am primarily interested in creating fusions that express the realities I've experienced but that are also legible to my teachers in Haiti, as well as to other African diaspora populations. I am choosing a coalitional framework in my artistic practice in which I articulate whom I have learned from and why I am doing what I'm doing. I believe that, as an American, my work must also be ethical. I deeply respect the very specific dances, spirituality, and lineages from which my inspiration and innovation often arise. I recognize that my own practice, cultivated through many years of study, travel, community organization, and coalition, is intertwined with a set of practices that have histories. In this way, my identity shifts and is expressed through my work, while not being grounded to a notion of fixed cultural, racial, or national boundary. 

African contemporary dance, or what I call my practice “African-based contemporary,” is literally based in the practices and politics of dance production that occur outside of the United States.  Being in coalition with people and a set of practices that define these innovations also means for me actively seeking out a way to be a member of specific communities through service, organization, and dancemaking. There is a Haitian Kreyol phrase derrier mon gen mon ("behind the mountains there are more mountains"). Behind the mountain of African-based dance practices are incredible artists from specific African, American, Caribbean countries or those who have significantly engaged with specific communities that need to be heard.

While many artists in specific lineages have begun to experiment with “traditional” dances and staging practices, it has been difficult to protect work. Often, these contemporary dance devices are misread, exotified, or stolen as artists seek critical reception for their work. Unfortunately, due to the tenor of race relations in different parts of the country, contemporary African dance is a problem-filled arena that is addressed differently when we compare communities.

The transition from Los Angeles to Chicago is ongoing. I found myself looking for LA in Chicago and not finding it. I spent most of my formative years in LA, and I love the city in a deep way. The dance scenes in LA and Chicago are different on some levels. LA’s dance scene is so disconnected, as it is such a huge city. However, there is an incredible diversity of dancework being made and performed that is deeply representative of specific communities, cultures, and inter-culturalisms. Most artists making work in LA really have to believe in what they are doing, as it is so hard to literally get around and, until recently, studio space was extremely difficult to obtain. Ultimately, the industry overrides so much dance training and indeed, at times, the ethos of the city.

I also often find myself trying to compare Chicago to New York. There is such a rapid circulation of people and practices in the African diasporic dance scene in New York that innovations in work are constantly occurring. In addition, the circulation of people and practices permits the integration of African diasporic dance and its study. Many artists perform their work at contemporary dance venues and are also deeply engaged in both the contemporary and traditional dance communities. Everyone seems to know everyone.

Chicago is so racially segregated and I believe that this makes for tense relations in the dance community. There seems to be a lack of connection between people making more “traditional” diasporic dances and the western contemporary dance community. I have noted some occurrences between the various communities of dancers here in Chicago, which include the appropriation of African based dances or movements by artists and a general lack of sincere and informed understanding between communities and artists. Perhaps by understanding the differences between the many contemporary forms and African based forms—and how they're associated with different communities and geo-politics in light of the race dynamics in Chicago—people might find new innovations in dance and thoughtful inter-culturalisms that connect communities across difference through dance. We can always hope for positive and constructive change.

On another level, there is some incredible work being done here and it is actually possible to find space to present and rehearse. The dance community is much smaller, and I have met some great people and artists who are deeply engaged in making work, share their work and are genuinely interested in other people’s dances. Chicago really seems to be a ballet and jazz town with hints of hard-core modern. There seems to be much less contemporary dancemaking here or what some might term "postmodern." Despite all of this new terrain in dancemaking, I feel encouraged by my family and members of the dance community to continue sharing work here and hope for critical feedback that also respects my vision as an artist in our current global moment.

For an extended version of this story, please see the Forum for Culture, Meaning and Movement Research blog.

Celia Weiss Bambara is a dance artist with a Ph.D. in Dance History and Theory/Critical Dance Studies from the University of California. She received an MA in dance from UCLA's World Arts and Cultures Program and is currently artistic director of the CCBdance Project, an African-based
contemporary dance company. Between the
late '90s and 2003, Celia worked with artists iin Port-au-Prince on projects that
combined Haitian, modern / contemporary, and other African diasporic dance forms.
Her choreographies have been shown in Los Angeles, Chicago, Iowa, Michigan,
Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. She is currently
a visiting lecturer at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Celia is a 2010 Artist-in-Residence at the
Republic of Sydenham in Trinidad and Tobago and co-instigator of the FCMMR with
Meida McNeal.

Published by CAR_Laura on Wed, 01/27/2010 - 9:16pm
Updated on Wed, 01/05/2011 - 1:28pm