Arts + Culture

This Choreographer is Using African Dance to Save Lives

OkayAfrica chats with Kwame Shaka Opare, the first to receive BAM's Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship.

Across the nation, the streets can be a death trap for black youth whether your name is Kendrick or Kofi. This was nearly the case for Kwame Shaka Opare, who was raised in Washington, D.C. and New York. “Coming up in the early 90s, street culture was strong—I wanted Gucci sneakers, but my summer job didn’t pay enough, so I got involved in things I shouldn’t have been involved in,” Opare says.

Opare was introduced to Kankouran West African Dance Company at 14—it provided him with something to do, somewhere to go and changed his path forever. His talents were recognized early on and Opare learned the performance and technical aspects of dance by trying to emulate his teacher, Assane Konte.

Dance was also a creative outlet to collaborate and perform with young artists. However, tragedy struck when Mwandishi Johnson and Jahi Bem Sherard, who drummed and danced with Opare, were murdered within a year of each other. “They were my best friends and we were all artists," Opare says. "We even started a side dance company for one season. To this day, their deaths still strike a nerve with me.”

These experiences led Opare to use dance as a vehicle to provide people, especially marginalized youth in public schools, with opportunities to shine and have safe spaces to learn and grow. He holds a master of fine arts in dance from the University of Maryland and has toured with the Broadway show STOMP, where he attained the lead role. In 2003, he founded the DishiBem Traditional Contemporary Dance Group to bridge the gap between traditional West African and contemporary performance modes and has received numerous awards for his work which speaks to social issues around the world.

In 2016, Brooklyn Academy of Music named Opare the inaugural recipient of the Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship, which awards emerging choreographers an opportunity to travel to Africa and study with one or more experts in African dance. On April 8, Opare will debut a showing of multi-media work, .theScope .theWork .theProcess: GHANA.

We speak with Opare about his fellowship and upcoming work, creative process, and the power of dance.

Jacqueline Lara for OkayAfrica: How did it feel to receive the inaugural Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship?

Kwame Shaka Opare: I was overjoyed. It also felt like I was accepting it for Mwandishi and Jahi Bem. There’s been a circle of us forging ahead despite the marginalization of our craft as purveyors of West African dance and music. So, for this fellowship to even exist is an indication of our forefathers—one of them being DanceAfrica founder Baba Chuck Davis—who has been doing what we’ve been doing for 50 to 60 years! It was an honor to receive acknowledgment for my work and perpetual drive in this field despite a shortage of opportunities for this style of dance.

Why are there less opportunities in West African dance?

For any dancer or artist, it’s not easy. Until you hit a steady rise of success, the in-between times can be tough. West African dance wasn’t seen as an art form 15 to 20 years ago. It was just seen as jumping around and doing whatever. You won’t find many grant opportunities or higher education jobs teaching West African dance. With the “Obama Phenomenon,” we began to see more positive images of ourselves in the media, which translated to job requests using the word, “Global,” “World,” and “African Diasporic Dance” to specifically requesting an “Africanist.”

As part of the fellowship, you spent three months in Ghana conducting research, and creating new choreographic work based on your experiences. What was this like?

It was a dynamic, saturated, cultural experience inside and outside the studio. This was the first time I was there officially as a dancer with the National Dance Company of Ghana, and it was my longest stay. After a while, you stop being a visitor, you develop relationships, and become part of the daily social rituals. In my showing at BAM, there will be nuanced movements fashioned off experiences I’ve had and rituals, performances, and festivals I’ve seen in Ghana.

Can you describe one of the social rituals/experiences?

It’s fascinating to see how people and commerce move through open air markets, which are central to Ghanaian life. The markets are run by women, navigated by memory, and you can get everything from shoes and utensils to vegetables and music. It’s congested, but at the same time, people are constantly moving in a seemingly unobstructed manner. You’ll find a sidewalk which would usually have space for one person with four lanes of people moving through without stopping. And, there can be seven women selling tomatoes, but you only buy from a specific vendor.

What can viewers expect from .theScope .theWork .theProcess: GHANA?

The 30-minute showing of completed works and work-in-progress will be livestreamed and present video work, which moves into live dance performance. I documented everything and am creating a narrated docu-short discussing what resonated with me and gave me creative currency through dance and movement. As the inaugural recipient, I’m setting a standard for those to come, and don’t take this responsibility lightly!

Photo by Kwame Shaka Opare.

What advice/takeaways do you have for future fellows?

Research wherever you go in Africa as best as possible to maximize your time. I overstayed in Ghana because some logistics fell through, and there was more I needed to learn. Also, find what feeds your creativity and vision of what you want to create movement-wise by documenting everything through photos, video, journaling and voice text. After the honeymoon of being in a new country wears off, it’s important to look at life and your work with fresh eyes. As an artist, all experiences will sink in, but it’s how you access them later when you need to create new work that matters.

Can you tell me more about your creative process?

My process varies, but I like to open myself like a book with empty pages and allow different experiences to fill the pages. I use West African dance-based technique to evoke the story I’m trying to tell. I’m passionate about the disruption of the status quo within the education system, and pull visuals, music, and text to create pieces of work that speak to the communities I serve. I want my audiences to understand what I’m trying to say while keeping it abstract. And, like Tarantino or Scorsese, I want the score to bring you in to the rise and fall to create dynamic storytelling,

Final words?

Dance is engaging, thought-provoking and for everyone. If my work inspires audiences, that’s a beautiful thing. I want to pay it forward and share my love of dance with others because it saved my life.

Jacqueline Lara is president of Mpact PR, LLC. She specializes in helping entrepreneurs and artists share their stories and art with the media and new audiences. She also creates content at Color Wheel Media, and is a contributing arts and culture writer for 99U and i-D Magazine. Connect with her on Twitter: @MpactJacq.

Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

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