“Letters Of …” Briefprojekt von Franz Anton Cramer und Astrid Kaminski
Today I am writing to you in order to delve more deeply into some of the things that we’ve already discuss over the course of recent projects, and at the same time I have the feeling that such a letter will serve as a good summary or condensation of the subject matter. Since this is an open letter, I’ll go a little further in clarifying how my position has evolved. I’m interested in a deeper understanding of our working relationship, which I see as an artistic exchange between two actors in a postcolonial situation. You come from an African country with little or no support for your art and I come from a very rich country with a colonial past. So for both of us the question is to what extent this constellation affects our work. My function is that of an artistic director and as a performing artist you enter into a hierarchical relationship with me. Now, hierarchies in contemporary dance are something that are very common and the questions of what our work in the studio should look like or how we should organize it have often been addressed.
But perhaps – and this would be the thesis – our situation reveals something more, because it touches on questions of decolonization, which also means questioning the premises of Western generally.
For me, you are in the position of a seeker. You are searching for your artistic identity, for experiences outside Uganda. On your travels you have seen many pieces that have moved you and now you want to learn more about them. You and I came together because the world has actually moved closer together. My audition calls now go around the world. This has led to many non-European performers appearing in my work in recent years and I have tried to address this movement in the pieces themselves. This arrangement can also be taken literally: I’ve never really moved away from Berlin, everything was here, dancers, financial support and audience. You, on the other hand, really have to embark on a journey in order to make progress.
The time and the social climate in which we work is characterized on the one hand by an increasing sensitization in Western countries to the colonial catastrophe and its effects, while on the other hand it reflects a growing self-confidence of people from the “Global South”. Everyone is talking about decolonization. But what exactly does that mean? And above all: What does this mean for us or the contemporary dance scene?
It may come as a surprise as to why it took so long for Germany to become involved in the subject of colonialism in order to achieve a level of public awareness, but it is still a relatively new process.
As someone who grew up in East Germany and went to school there, I can tell you that we never talked about the Berlin Conference or D e u t s c h – O s t a f r i k a (German East Africa) in class. That just didn’t happen. East Germany as a former Soviet occupation zone declared itself a bulwark of anti-fascism. That seemed the most important thing after the catastrophe of Auschwitz. Accordingly, our history lessons also began during the Abitur (university entrance examination) with the founding of the Communist Party. As a state we were in solidarity with all African states that had fought for independence. A picture of Patrice Lumumba hung in our classroom. The main thing was to be against the imperialists of the USA. A common enemy unites. The irony was that we had never seen a black man before. I met the first person with dark skin at the age of 20 at ballet school! It’s a good thing to remember that, because it helps one to understand the current situation better. Of course there is also a real lack of information on the other side. Few of the non-European dancers I work with know anything about the situation of the people in East Germany with its militarization of everyday life, the secret services and ideological education. Only recently I spoke with Jahra Rager, a dancer from the Fiji Islands, about the GDR. When I said that I had already been summoned by the secret service at the age of 16 to allegedly identify American military vehicles, she couldn’t believe it. She said that, in her conception of time, these are images that she associates more with the era of the 1950s. I remember how absurd you found it when I told you that I’d never actually eaten a real pineapple before reunification, while on the streets of Kampala, on every corner, anybody could have one if they wanted it.
Now almost 30 years have passed. Germany is reunited and the situation is a bit different, but as I mentioned above: Dealing with colonial history, along with the visibility of non-white people in society in general, is a relatively new topic in German society. For years, Germany was a “white man’s country”, which in parts still believes it has to seal itself off from the outside world. The process is proceeding slowly and is still encountering great resistance. In our field, too, the doors are often still closed and subtle expressions of racism remain omnipresent. When we first met, you had just called various dance institutions in Berlin to introduce yourself, but nobody had time for you. It took us more than two weeks to organize a guest audience for you for a single day. This had to be approved at all levels. By the way, this is one of the saddest moments in your solo when you list all the rejections you have received. Many German dancers are also rejected, but for you the financial side often plays a role, or simply reservations. If every degree course in dance or choreography could provide a position for dancers from countries with a difficult economic situation that would at least be a start.
I started working with hip-hop dancers around 2005. And this was the first time for me that I consciously perceived the problems that black people here are confronted with. These were often really small things, for example, we were working with headsets and then realized that there are no headsets for people with dark skin. They were “skin-colored” and in this case, that typically meant “light-colored”. The fact that “skin-colored” can also be black or brown really didn’t happen at first, so we always had to wrap the headsets with black tape.
Yet the most formative experience was a walk I took in Görlitz with U-gin Boateng, a dancer and son of Ghanaian immigrants. The city is located on the Polish border and after we had walked 20 minutes through the city, I slowly noticed that many passers-by were staring at us. And I really mean “staring”. This culminated in a moment when some Polish kids started babbling about U-gin. We didn’t understand a word, but it was clear that nothing nice was being said. I simply said: What’s going on here? And U-gin replied: “Imagine, that’s how it is for me every day. Something like that happens every day, 365 days a year.”
That was actually my first workshop in “critical whiteness”: There are things that lie beyond our experience as white people. We can’t easiyl perceive them, but they’re still part of our common reality.
Your story of your last stay in the the United States illustrates this very well: An African man goes to a club with two white women until he is discreetly told that no blacks actually come here. As tourists you couldn’t be aware of that and in the process, threw a wrench in the works of the tacitly accepted segregation.
While working with urban dancers, I also experienced how difficult it is for them to gain access to cultural institutions. In my opinion, contemporary dance – and by that I mean educational as well as performance venues – has not managed to build enough bridges for urban dancers. There is so much dance talent and body knowledge in urban dance, so much joy in playing and dancing that the scene could prove to be an enormous talent pool for contemporary dance. The situation in Berlin is certainly similar to Uganda: If a kid starts dancing today, it’s probably hip hop and not body mind centering. This means that one dancer in the contemporary area is likely to be joined by one hundred urban dancers with a wide variety of backgrounds. So actually, the diversity that is on everyone’s lips today was right on our doorstep. When I went to the Battle, the whole range of societal diversity was represented there: Afro-Germans, German-Turks, Russian-Germans, Albanians, Afghans, Syrians, etc.
And the interest in trying out this “funny” thing called theatre was also there.
But then the disappointment set in pretty quickly. The reasons for this are manifold, while the mechanisms behind it are often subtle. But I think it’s helpful to evaluate this experience, because it provides insight into what decolonization in theatre would really mean. An important point at that time were the themes that were being addressed in contemporary dance.
With the advent of concept dance, questions like “What is dance” or “What is choreography” became very relevant, resulting in the fact that there were many pieces that worked less with movement and strove rather to deal with contexts:
An absolutely comprehensible and legitimate development within the history of contemporary dance.
Quite in contrast to urban dance. These dancers had no doubts. Dance was and is their form of expression. The premise of the Western understanding of dance, that in art one has to define what dance is, was not theirs. So we often stood in the foyer after performances and the question arose: “Why do they do that?”
I tried to explain, but quickly noticed that it was an immensely important question whether the subject of the performances had anything to do with the people. And this problem is also in the spotlight today. During my visit to Kampala I noticed that there are very few women in the scene. You then told me that in Ugandan society, it’s a huge economic risk to pursue a career as a contemporary dancer, and that it’s generally not a profession at all. As a consequence, there are many more men who try it. Your colleague Fasil then put it very succinctly: It’s certainly also about girl education, but it’s about corruption, democratization and above all about achieving acceptance for the profession among the population for the first time as well.
In my opinion, there’s an urgent need to accept varying priorities and react to them at the content level when working with non-European performers.
That’s why all my works in this field are directed at a German audience, but tell the stories of the performers. This also applies to our work “Die Bretter, die die Welt bedeuten” (“The boards that mean the world”). For me, the questions about themes or theatrical form are closely connected with decolonization. For what actually happens when I work with non-European artists but use a lily-white theatrical term? And in this case it’s of secondary importance how progressive it is, it always boils down to a case of “they say” outside Western culture.
In my work with Aloalii Tapu there are quite a few of these…here are just a few examples:
They say dance is not only kinetic
They say standing still allows the person to be seen
They say you can take any movement and make it into a dance just by presenting it as a dance
They say don’t follow your patterns
They say choreography is more a question than an answer
They say the museum is a dance floor
They say don’t represent because it reproduces discursive and performative forms of domination
They say it’s all about context
For us as western choreographers, all understandable premises. The problem, as is so often the case, is that they cannot be universally applied. Such premises are all too easily transformed into aesthetic imperatives and it takes some discursive effort to get out of them. On the contrary: one can use the work with non-European performers to question one’s own premises. In Western societies we have a certain conception of art and what it should do.
Authorship is important, and the artist should be radical, an unconventional rebel who remains faithful to himself or herself, etc. Even if these points of view have already been debunked, we must admit that there is still an echo of the cult of the genius, which in turn is deeply rooted in patriarchy.
This tradition does not exist in other countries. Segun Adefila, a Nigerian choreographer and director, told me: “When I am invited to festivals in the West, I’m always expected to put my name under the choreography, but the movements used are perhaps 2,000 years old. Of course I’m adapting them, but I can’t possibly call myself their author.”
When Aloalii Tapu incorporates elements of Haka into his dance, he does so with great respect. These dances have a strong meaning in his community, and they help to constitute them. Then it’s more like “Follow your pattern” or “Choreography is more an answer than a question”.
I could now endlessly list further examples, both positive and negative. We’ve shared so many stories that it would certainly take dozens of letters to analyze them. All these stories – often anecdotes – ultimately point to the fact that we have to go down this path together. Our work is not a one-way street, and dance is always greater than a single concept and ultimately, we can only go through the process of (aesthetic) decolonization together.
I’ve read your letter over and over. I try to make sense of what we have written and yet we have had this discussion so many times over the past years. I recognize it and I relate to it as I always do, however; I seem to have had to seek for the words to answer you. English is my colonial language as it is your second languish. Today I speak it, read it and write it. But I cannot call it my own. We call my language Luganda but I don’t read it; I don’t write it and I cannot speak it to the fullest. They never taught me, instead, the school systems here taught us English. As you know I didn’t go to school most of the time because of difficult circumstances in life, so for the past years, I’ve had to teach myself how to read and write. So English is not the first language for neither of us and yet this is where we meet and communicate. So maybe it is not so strange that I have trouble to find the words to put on paper to you as I usually do it with my dance. Since this is an open letter in an attempt for others to gain understanding, I will do my best and try to explain how my understanding has developed during the past years.
As you have said, I come for a country with a poor economy where there is no support for art, especially dance, and which didn’t gain “independence” from its colonizers until 1962. We don’t even have a cultural minister. If you are an artist, you go under the minister of labor. You, however, come from a country who celebrate art and has been colonizing other countries. Where does that leave us in the postcolonial era and how does it affect the artwork we do? Well, frankly the history affects us to an extent I think we sometimes forget it. Because I know that I wouldn’t have been where I am and been working with you if it wasn’t for the colonization. Let me explain what I mean.
On my first trip to Europe I changed flight at Brussels airport and as I waiting for my next flight I looked outside the window and it shocked me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing because I only had movies to compare it with and movies are not real. Later I was taken by car from Belin to Poland. The only thing I could think about was: How come Europe can be so developed? I realized that something couldn’t be right in the relationship between Africa and Europe. The time I got to spend in school the teachers only ever told us about the good part of colonialization, never did they mention that the differences were so great. During that first trip, I realized that colonialization wasn’t good as they had led me to believe. It’s one of the biggest crimes in the history.
Art is a word that doesn’t exist in my language. Our communities have been doing art in different forms as an integrated part of the daily life for generations. But has no one called it art before the missionaries and the colonizers arrived. In the eyes of the colonizers, what we did and what we had, became art. Our traditional dances became entertainment and our art pieces was put in museums. Every child knew how to do the dances so to be a dancer here was not a profession, and it still isn’t for the greater population. The economy is poor and you can’t earn a living on a professional dance career here. You will have to seek the opportunities and the funding outside of the country. I am my mother’s only son and as I grew up, she couldn’t afford to give me the basic education so now when I’m grown I’m expected to care for her. I try, but on my career path that isn’t easy. So my mother thinks I go to school, and that someone is paying it for me. She doesn’t know I travel to dance and if she knew; I don’t know what her reaction would be.
When I go to Europe and they know I’m from Africa, they expect me to do African contemporary dance or African dance. I have to explain that I don’t know what African contemporary dance is because it is a label which is not applicable if we have another perspective on contemporary dance than the one that comes from the western culture. For what is contemporary dance, really? Is it the dance one finds in the ballet and jazz movements? And if it is, isn’t ballet and jazz just another form of traditional dances. Today we can say ballet is internationally recognized by institutions, but just because something is recognized doesn’t make it right. Now I see that the young people in my country copy what someone has told them is art. And that art comes from the West. So as the colonizers did, the western influence still decides what art here is in a young person’s mind.
I got a position at a program at a school in Senegal. We were supposed to go there for three years and where learning “African contemporary dance” and traditional dances from all over Africa. Most of the teachers who came to the school was living outside of the African continent while some of them had roots on the continent most of them had grown up in the west. They had an idea in the theory of what traditional dances in Africa was, but not in practice. So my fellow students and I had to teach each other different traditional dances from our home country, yet the teachers were there to teach us “African contemporary dance”. I remember the rules one teacher told us; 1. You have to be black to pass African contemporary dance, 2. You have to know the rhythm to African dance. I remember asking myself what does the teacher mean by African dance and what does one’s color of the skin have anything to do with dancing.
To work with you, Christopher opened my mind to so many things. I believed I could do things I hadn’t before. Others in my country saw it was possible to work professionally with dance and other art forms. During my two last years at the school in Senegal, I wrote around 600 emails and applications to schools and institutions in Europe and the USA to ask for a position where I could develop my dance. I had this belief that if I could go to another school with another perspective, I could forge the two experiences together. Most of the institutions never answered back and the ones who did, said they couldn’t help.
They told me that to be a good dancer I had to have a ballet background. I’ve never tried ballet until I went to a class in Germany and even that opportunity I need your help with Christopher. Because they rejected me when I did it by myself. This was all new and strange because in my country when someone comes to every small group of dancers call on that person to come to see them, to teach them and to watch their performances. Everyone wants to share the knowledge of the person coming to our country. I thought it would be the same when I traveled outside of Africa, but I was wrong. I got to learn the hard way how racism takes its form. During my first trip to the USA, I realized that I was black. I mean I had always known my skin color was black, but I had not felt what it means to be black in a western country. I’m never so aware of how black I am as during the trips I take to non-African countries. Some are worse, some are better. But even when I have expected bad things to happen I get hurt when they do. Like trying to go to a club in a small city in Germany. Just to hear my kind are not welcome and that we have our own club further down the street. To hear, if we don’t leave the police will arrest us and not the one telling us to go because of our blackness.
Working on our piece “Die Bretter, die die Welt bedeuten” ( “The boards that mean the world”) the hardest part for me was to write my rejections because I had to go through them all again. And they are many. But it also taught me a lot. I remember that two weeks before the premiere I was under so much pressure because the piece wasn’t near finished any you called me on a Thursday and said we should take time off and start again on the following Monday. I had panic and wondered how are we ever going to finish this in time and it would be my first time to be alone on stage for one whole hour. Seeing you so calm and relaxed the following Monday amazed me, and I too relaxed and realize that you knew what you were doing even if this was so far from how I had been working before. Writing this letter I realize the premiere of this piece in Berlin was my first performance in Europe. Hence the Berlin art scene is now also an important part of my journey.
Do you remember the dance studio you helped to renovate when you were here so we could get the boards? The only dance studio free for anyone to practice in regarding contemporary and urban dance. That dance studio is no longer here. It’s was taken down not even a year later.
To decolonize art I believe we have to look at the whole concept of what art is. As is said art as a concept and as a word is something that was brought to my country and then it became something was exclusively for rich people are generally from the west. I believe all bodies carry information about movements which is unique and that we get passed down to us, so by going to the schools we have now and learning the “right” techniques of how dance is supposed to be it colonizes the body with ideas which are not its own. Christopher, I believe you are interested in different stories from the whole globe, yet you don’t have to leave Berlin to find it as you have said. Because of globalization now the world can come to you.
You write about East Germany where you grew up and before I meet you I did not understand what that meant. I was taught more about European history in school than about our own, but they didn’t tell us how it was to live in the aftermath of World War 2. Your story of the pineapple surprised me because I grew up with them I remember my first time to eat an apple. We had an ABC-chart in a school where “A is for Apple illustrated ”. I remember that I wondered what an apple was. I was 12 the first time I could taste the muzungu-fruit (white man’s fruit) as we called it. I was watching football and an old man bought three apples and he gave me one. The apple cost more than what my whole family spent on food for the whole household for one day. I didn’t eat the fruit as once, instead, I showed it to my friends before I shared it with my brother and another friend. They asked how we could get more and I told them it is very expensive. I didn’t want to tell them I had got it as a gift, instead, I let them believe I had bought it myself. So maybe the pineapple and the apple shows us we are not so different.
You to come from history with a lot of difficulties where your communist party wanted to educate you in a way where your mind and body wouldn’t be free anymore. I know that the colonialization still lives on in the systems we have here and in people’s minds which is passed from generation to generation. Would you say it is the same in Germany? I travel to seek for my artistic identity, but I also travel so I can see my country and the art within with new eyes every time I come home. My journeys allow me to go deeper into the understanding of how art has been integrated into my society before we were politicaly, religiously and socially colonized. When someone asks me today what style of dance I do, I tell them to dance. Most people then get frustrated and ask the same question twice more and my answer is the same: that I dance. I ask them what style they think a child is dancing and they answer that a child is just dancing. So I tell them that that is exactly what I’m also doing, I’m dancing.