BL: Getting into the world of academia, and into dance education, has given me new lenses to look at that work with, and to query and question, and to present it in several formats.
Doing so many things – dancing with Danny [Grossman], starting COBA [Collective of Black Artists, co-directed by Lindsay and his partner Charmaine Headley], doing an MA, teaching and performing – probably reflects my Gemini side … too many hats! That's my personality. I think it's early conditioning too, of not being myopic, but looking at dance in as broad a sense as possible. Coming from that folk tradition, I think it's important for me to understand everything else. I thought the best way to do that was to be a part of it, and not be on the fringes, but to really honestly investigate what was happening there. So when I came back to what I had, I could say, “Okay, this is how they connect, and this is how they are different.” I'm curious – as an artist, I'm really, really excited about various levels of creativity and expression – it's just my nature. I love a good challenge. I have experiences, I chalk them up and think, “Okay, this is what I will keep, and this is what I will discard” … that's my makeup.
COBA began simply with the passion of wanting to express myself. I wanted to do some work. It's interesting – in Trinidad and Tobago, in some ways, we're complacent, because we're not faced with defensiveness; I think there's epic memory there, everyone understands, and you don't have the burden of proof for a lot of the work, so you just do it. I remember the first time in Toronto someone asked, “What kind of dancer are you?” I'd never had to answer that question, ever. Because in Trinidad, if you consider yourself a dancer, if you're brash enough to say you're a dancer, then you're expected to know everything – whether it's South Asian, Spanish – if you're a dancer then you're expected to be good at everything. We just thought you're a dancer, so that was it. So when I came here and was questioned, “Do you do modern? Do you do ballet?” I was taken aback. That was an eye-opener, and I thought, “Yes, they look at things very differently here.” For a while it would upset me, and I would think, “Why do you need to define? Just be a dancer!” But then I started to understand how it would be viewed in that way, that people have chosen to focus on a particular genre or style. I had to say to myself, “You're coming from a framework where it's very different – how are you going to position yourself? You already have this body of knowledge in your body – are you going to discard some of this and become one thing?” This was one of the starting points for COBA. Once you start creating work, you have to ask, “Okay, what kind of company are we going to be? What kind of work are we going to create? What is going to be our mainstay, and what is going to be the catalyst for pushing work forward?”
CA: BaKari, can you give us a time reference for starting COBA?
BL: This was 1993 …
I definitely knew I wanted to create work that spoke about the black experience in Canada – and the work that I did was always going to highlight something about me as an individual. That has been the mainstay for COBA. It has taken several formats, from works that are fully narrative in context, to the point now where I'm developing some quite sophisticated language. Doing my Master's degree at York [University] gave me the tools to be able to do movement analysis and to look at movement and culture ethnographically.
COBA (Collective of Black Artists) in BaKari I. Lindsay's Maa-Keeba
Now, COBA is really fine-tuned, to the point that we almost have our movement vocabulary. When dancers in rehearsal argue a movement is this or it's that, someone will say, “No, he [BaKari] would never do that. It's not that.” Because they know it's not impossible, but it's highly unlikely that I would include certain vocabulary. I would say my work has gone from a very linear, narrative stage to a more abstract narrative position. That's the journey now – I'm still greatly interested in telling stories, very strong stories, but from an abstract place that everyone can enter.
CA: Can you speak about your choreographic journey?
BL: I had to go far afield and do research. To understand who I was, I needed to know what was out there, what was different and exciting. So when I was building A-Feeree, which is the technique that I've built for training dancers in African-aesthetic dance as a means to create, I went to the Sene/Gambia region – the countries of Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, the whole region of the Senegal River. I went just to observe movement, because when I look at specifically continental African dance, and dance from the Caribbean, there is such a body of movement, I think, “Well why am I going to spend time to create new movement?” But, they see it as having very specific meaning. So I had to find out what those meanings were to find out if I can abstract them and be respectful to the context in which they were created.
That was the huge scope of my study – a lot of times when I went to study, I didn't dance. I did a lot of observing and engaging in the social context of the people, just to understand how they view themselves and how the movement of the dance they do transcends into that understanding of who they are as people, not just as dancers or performers, but as people. I realized that some of the value that we in the Western world give to some of that movement is way, way, way exorbitant, compared to the simpler way they view it. That sort of gave me the license to go, “Okay, this movement can definitely say other things than what it's used to saying in that context.” For instance, lambda – it's a dance of the griots [storytellers]; it's a language of movement that is considered a dance. In the Western world, that dance is preserved as traditional dance. But griots are very contemporary artists – they are expected to spontaneously create songs. Over time, it becomes tradition – but in essence, griots are very contemporary beings.
Lambda has become “tradition” because someone comes back and says, “Okay this is the movement I saw one griot do” – but there are hundreds of griots. And no one griot does exactly the same as another – so that one particular dance can be abstracted movement. The movement of that dance was done to convey a particular story, it was made to tell a story. So therefore, why can't I use it to tell several stories if it's workable. I thought, “In Western dance if it's attitude or arabesque, for instance, the very same movement can be used to say different things.” It's been exciting to look at a vocabulary that's existed for thousands of years and give it new life, have it say different things, have people look and respond, saying, “Wow I can definitely see where it comes from. I didn't see it as out of place, I just saw it as movement.”
Toumani Diabaté is a kora player, and his father was a traditional kora player. He lives in Mali, plays in Mali – very traditional work, but he also put out an album called New Ancient Strings. The instrument is traditional, but the style of playing isn't. So even within the traditional context, there are people who are seeing themselves as contemporary beings, yet working with traditional elements.
When I came to Toronto, it was just before the butoh period. I had been in New York, and I thought, “Okay people, I'm twenty-four – I want to move!” Practice was not fully evolved; people were experimenting with butoh, but a lot of works were very static. But again, it gave me appreciation. I remember going to the Canada Dance Festival one year; you go to shows from 5 o'clock until 11:30 at night – it's exhausting! I remember Mimi Beck encouraging me to go to a late, late show at the Museum of Civilization – and I was saying “No, I can't see another piece,” but tagging along, I ended up at the museum. I remember the dancers were all suspended from totem poles – and it took them a good forty-five minutes to descend. I sat there, spellbound. I had seen dance all day, I didn't want to look at anything else, my mind was tired – but I was mesmerized. I thought, “Wow, at 11:30 at night, performers can engage an audience that way … there must be a tremendous power there.” Then I became very curious about the impetus to be able to do work like that. It was very slow, very calculated – but then transcendent, very spiritual, very connected … they weren't in a theatre, they didn't have lighting. Even now, every time someone says “butoh”, that performance is the first thing that comes to my mind.
That helped me switch gears, looking at dance in a different way, and in terms of the work that I did, thinking, “How can I use that energy, use that kind of stillness?” I came from a very theatrical dance background; everything had to be done in a theatre. Being in Canada taught me that dance could exist in several spaces, which is funny because Trinidadians live in a country where you'd think dancing outside should be a natural process – the weather's always great. It's funny, even now when I go back, dancers are saying, “Oh it's so hard to create.” I say, “You don't always have to be in a theatre” and they look at me as if I'm crazy. Yet there are all these beautiful spaces outdoors. It's interesting – work presented outdoors is seen as less important. The shift toward understanding dance in many venues hasn't happened. For them, when you're doing “serious” dance, it involves a theatre. They recently built a huge, six million dollar theatre – the Chinese came in and built this theatre, similar to an Olympic stadium – because that's how they view the arts. I've been trying to get a movement of young dancers interested in trying to make that shift because they could actually get a lot more work done, and a lot more work seen – and there would be a lot more support from the community for dance if they would look at outdoor venues and less formal venues. So that is one of the big things I value about being in Toronto, and that has influenced the way I create work. Even when site-specific work ends up in the theatre, it gives it a kind of roughness that I appreciate. I can see it wasn't created for this very sleek theatre atmosphere, but can survive anywhere – it was created with a sense of atmosphere, though without lighting. For a lot of my pieces, I just create the work. It's about the work. I'm always pleasantly surprised when we go to the theatre and I see the lighting – I'm already satisfied with the work in the studio, because that's how I see it. It's the work; it's about the work, not the other stuff. That's a big piece for me.