‘I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.’ In a globalised world, there are two ways to practise Socrates’ idea of the sense of belonging: encountering many communities, or combining them In a double programme for a Covid-compatible restricted audience, L’Espace 1789, theatre of Saint-Ouen, a struggling suburb of Paris, has – unusually for French stages – successfully united these approaches.
First, Wanjiru Kamuyu presented An Immigrant’s Story, a colourful dance-and-text solo, true call for tolerance and fraternity based on the common discourses and attitudes she met while resident in Nairobi, New York and Paris, about migration, feeling home, racism, domination, difference or coexistence. Then Smaïl Kanouté presented Never Twenty One, a shadow-and-light male dance trio, true call for peace and responsibility through the denunciation of gun violence and its young victims in New York, Rio de Janeiro and Soweto. Both use recorded stories, narrative costumes, mixed dance, sophisticated lights. Here ends the comparison.
Kamuyu develops a very sensitive approach, alternating text bearing the political meaning spoken face to face with the audience, and inspired dance bearing the poetical load, going gradually from the feet in the ground to the head in the air. The autobiographical traces dissolve in the half-laughable, half-despicable wider experience of difference and racism that she presents in all its crudity. Alone on a stage bordered with a row of upside down chairs, she escapes from the ugliness of situations by always looking at the bright side, reinventing herself through movement, music, stories and clothes. Tearing her colourful wax doublet, she reveals a long sleeveless split coat she later turns inside out, before covering her hair with her shirt. More than a patchwork identity, Wanjiru Kamuyu embodies fusions of cultures through metamorphosis, ending in a joyful ritual dance that carries the promise of better days to come.
Kanouté made a very contrasting journey. From his short experiences in the Bronx or in Rio, he found creative youths all dealing with wrath and hope, real and symbolic violence, finding freedom in music and dance. Never twenty one begins with a short movie showing the slums of New York, like a peaceful morning after a night of battle. Though Kanouté never brings the weapons to light, their menacing shadow covers the stage so that, the three dancers appear and disappear like powerful ghosts, as do the white inscriptions, in English and Portuguese, borne by the black skin of their chests. The energy never stops, Kanouté and his two dancers deliver a fluid and dazzling hip-hop mixed with african dance, war postures, capoeira, sweat being the only redemptive water they seem to want. Slowly, he drives us to remember the lost ones by looking at the dark yet beautiful consequences of violence on young and innocent bodies, never forgetting in his complaint that ‘Smaïl’ sounds like ‘smile’.
Echoing in our minds the #BlackLivesMatter struggle, both shows broaden our horizons. Their strong and neat impact comes out of the clarity they were made with. The precision of construction, the richness of their staging, the truth of their messages and, in a way, the tragedy they choose to talk about: everything contributed to make the audience feel part of the story, and not only as a monster. Dance absolutely took its place as narrator of heritage, and of the present.