Ten dancers stretch alive with the energy of a party in Lagos. From their city of 16 million people on the coast of Nigeria, they are performing on a world stage. They are moving to hip-hop and Afrobeat, music from Mali and 1960s jazz from Harlem.
QDance is a young company reshaping dance in Nigeria and around the world. And their newest work turns the journey of Dante on its axis. On two warm nights between spring and summer, Qudus Onikeku and his artists will perform Re:INCARNATION at Performance Space 21 in Chatham, N.Y.
“We want you to see work you’ve never seen before,” says Elena Siyanko, artistic and executive director of PS21, an open lab for creation, bringing new music and art and movement into the community, within touch.
Photos by Herve Veronese, courtesy of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France
In an old orchard in the Taconics, QDance will move through day, night and dawn — death, birth and rebirth — merging contemporary vision and Yoruba cosmology. They open, dancing in the streets in vivid and fluid urban fashions. Then they come into a rainforest at night, a place of climbing orchids, mahogany and ebony trees and birds stirring before sunrise, cuckoos and the flash of bee-eaters.
And here they move into an in-between place, calling for courage and preparation for a journey, wherever it leads.
“We’re planning for a paradigm shift,” Onikeku said, thinking of the themes in his work and the movement he sees in young dancers across his country. “Something is about to happen — we don’t know what, but let’s get ourselves ready.”
‘We’re planning for a paradigm shift. Something is about to happen — we don’t know what, but let’s get ourselves ready.’ — Qudus Onikeku
As the company says in a spoken-word text they move to:
We’re scattered all over the first world,
waiting for the next world …
Light a fire —
Re:INCARNATION has come at a turning point for Onikeku, he said over zoom as he traveled on tour in Germany. He had left home to study at the Ecole Nationale Superieur des Arts du Cirque in France, and as he held global attention with his solo work, he and his wife, his manager and partner, returned home.
They came to join an emerging movement in dance and a tide of energy from young artists trying to re-imagine their own culture. Nigeria gained independence from Colonialism, from the U.K., in 1960, after more than 150 years. Dancers have no structure in Nigeria now, Onikeku said. They have no place to learn or perform or meet artists out in the world. And so they have made one — through Instagram and Tictoc.
“They can sit down in Accra, Ghana, in Lagos, and record themselves, put it online,” he said, “and they look at the insight of people watching … and they can see people watching from Russia, from Japan, from Uruguay, from Thailand. … And they felt like ok, there is no distance between me and the world, and there is no gate.
“And there is no more center. The center is no longer the West. It’s no longer Europe or America. I can actually be here and also be the center of the world. And that for me really blew people’s minds — blew (open) dancers’ possibilities for innovation and for multiple points of entry.”
So he wanted to give what he knows to young people. People under 25 or 30 make up about 65 percent of the population of Nigeria, he said, and in a country of 200 million, he is talking about more than 135 million people.
“And I knew that they are underemployed and under-engaged,” he said.
So he and his wife co-founded QDance to mentor a new cohort, a cocoon, of dancers, musicians, poets, DJs, light designers, cinematographers …
‘I returned because I wanted to be part of that space — I wanted to be part of that renaissance, that renewal.’— Qudus Onikeku
“I didn’t return because I wanted to create this piece,” he said. “I returned because I wanted to be part of that space — I wanted to be part of that renaissance, that renewal.”
“We looked at each other like you know what, I think we need to be back here. Because it was very clear that something was about to happen from Lagos, and I really wanted to be part of that emergence.”
And that emergence he wants to embody in the first arc of Re:INCARNATION — the energy of his city, restless, on the move, reckoning with the violence of Colonialism and calling for a new future.
“I was born in Lagos,” he said, “and one thing in Lagos you don’t miss is colors — is noise, is smells, all sorts of spices and all sorts of rubbish and all sorts of activities. And it’s very active, and it’s very young and very Black. It’s so Black it’s not even aware of it’s Blackness — that’s the kind of Black I’m talking about. It’s not a Black that’s just opposition to white — it’s just Black. It’s dark.
“So it’s very funny, very energetic, very humorous, but if you look deep into the humor, it’s also very tragic. Lagos feels like the beginning of the end of the world — you cannot figure it out, is this the beginning or the end.
“And of course I grew up in that. I know the beauty of it, and I know the ugliness of it. I know how hard it is. I also know how uplifting it can be and how depressing it can be at the same time.”
Before Covid, he traveled across Nigeria, meeting people — in Abuja and Jos, Benin City, Enugu and Aba — and once a year they would gather in Lagos for two weeks to prepare and perform for one weekend.
So when he wanted to begin his new work, he brought a group of artists together. They shared fluid roles among them, design, composer, costume designer … and they grew strong relationships. When Covid came, they were living and working together, and they kept on working.
They were exploring the courage to come through pain, he said. In the second arc of the work, the dancers move from the city into the forest, into a place in between life and death. They come through testing, through fire.
To become an Orisha, you must first die — exit from modernity.
Within the Yoruba cosmogony, he said, past, present and future weave together. Unborn children exist in the spirit world, and the dead exist in the world of the ancestors. And young dancers in the 21st century hold in their bodies the knowledge of cultures that have lived on the Nigerian coast for centuries, in the mangrove swamps and the rainforests, the savannas and the hills.
Onikeku draws on a Yoruba understanding of performance to surprise and connect — to create a deep and immediate sense of now between the dancers and the audience, a relationship with the people listening and the place where they are, right then, together.
“Can we perform for the mountains, can we perform for the sea,” he asked “… can we perform in the forest, even though nobody’s watching?”
For most of human history, people have performed for the sea, for the trees, for the land, for the community and for each other.
“For birth,” he said, “for death, for joy, for mourning — where is the space for all of that in the way we have structured our art market, festivals, theater shows — where are the other spaces?”
That question has become immediate for him as QDance created this work. In the two years they have come together, they have found themselves moving in grief. They lost one of their dancers, an internationally known performer and a warmly central woman in their community, Love Devine.
She died very suddenly, Onikeku said. She had performed with every well-known musician in Nigeria and many beyond, including Beyoncé. In QDance she had made friends with everyone, and her boyfriend was part of the group.
“So how do you mourn, and how do you care (for each other),” he said. “How do you mourn together and how do you also allow space. How do you also incorporate that into the piece … Because that kind of experience was enough to explode the whole team. … No one could come and dance after this.
“So the work became how can you make a piece that is healing for the dancers. … Every night we can call on our spirits to come form a reunion with us and give our own space in the piece, and at the same time create in a larger circle with the audience.”
In the Yoruba understanding, those who have died are apart from the living only in space, not in time. So when QDance dances for Love Devine, she can see them, and she can feel.
And so they think of her as they dance, as they are re-embodying, re-incarnating, holding in their bodies a knowledge of the past and from the past, and expanding with
their own physical intelligence.
“The third arc (of Re:INCARNATION) — I don’t know where it comes back to,” Onikeku said. “I don’t even know where it goes on to. But … I think if we look at it, it is this making of the human that is encompassing also all of the other non-human living things, that is encompassing the animal world and the natural world.
“I have a feeling that we have overstretched the limits of humanity in itself. We need to ask ourselves anew, what does it mean to be human.”