I need to make a difference. My life has showed me enough that institutions are one thing, people are another – society tells you what you need to do. I needed to try something on my own, even though one could think that I was not really supported. But I was open – someone would ask me, and I would teach them. What it really was, was defining the way to introduce my dance in Quebec.
At the beginning it was confusing. I spoke French, yet many thought I was from the USA, because I was black. They understood that only a black person who is Haitian could speak French. To Quebeckers, black people were either Haitian, or English-speaking black people. I didn't fit any of that. Then there were the Québécois themselves, for whom I spoke French too much like the French! All of that took some adjustment. I'm still working on these adjustments, because it actually reflects a whole position of society – toward immigration, toward people coming from elsewhere.
As I said, when I came, there was not much African dance. So I looked for Haitian people, mainly; this was the form of dance that was closer. Haitian people actually do share a lot with Congolese people because of slavery. A lot of Haitian slaves came from Benin, Congo and Nigeria – so Congo is a big part of Haitian culture. I could recognize the rhythms. Rhythms were the key – you ask the drummer to play, and you know. You can recognize the rhythms, they are really languages, they tell us about ethnic groups, and how they have travelled in America and in the world, until the present day. This has been a big part of my research and exploration. Also, I began to really insist, to say, you need to understand what rhythms are. This is not something integral or genetic in black people's makeup – it's culture. That was part of my big struggle here. It was with these types of arguments that I approached the institutions.
I first started teaching for people who asked me. I was not worried about whether I was going to perform, or whatever … for me dance is dance. You dance. First, you dance. And last, you dance. What happens in between you have to act with that. Presenting a more complex view of the relationship to tradition, not only in Africa, but in the world, has been a big part of my struggle.
Dance is the beginning of intention in the human being. Dance is intelligent, it's fundamentally intelligent. I don't even negotiate that, it is something I am so convinced of. When I talk about tradition, and the strong tradition of dance in Africa, I am full of admiration because it's so rich, so sophisticated in terms of educating the psycho-somatic – the body, the mind, how to place ourselves into the world – which is why African dance has been one of my main centres. People say – and I keep saying – that it is about how to present yourself in the world. I have to come back to this because that's all I do – making sure I'm present, I'm into the world. Not above. Not under! I keep telling my dancers “We are preparing our death. The more we dance the more we are preparing for our death, because we need to make the soil rich.…” This is what I believe. This is what I feel.
Paying a lot of attention to tradition means using rhythms, as a way of reading. Mais, c'est plus qu'une lecture. But it is more than reading. It's about decoding, it's more than about reading a text. Decoding, with your self, with your body, as your body carries your life. Rhythms are keys to understanding culture – sophisticated and unique. There's nothing like the rhythms. This was my approach. I developed a way to get at it while I was here. I thought – am I going to work for these Westerners, who don't understand rhythm, or have these ideas of rhythm that are really very simplistic – or am I going to work for everyone. Well, I work for everyone. Make sure that you make it exact, for everyone, which has meant that when I go back to Congo, what I have developed here has to bring something new there, too. My technique did that … bridged and opened communication. I was able to communicate so that everybody advances.
CA: Can you speak about the elements of your communication?
ZM: Rhythm, posture and alignment for dance. I was breaking down the idea of rhythm. Everyone has rhythm, because they are living. The rhythms have personalities – I call them personalities. The rhythms are personalities of time. That's why they suit the human being, because they are constructed through the drum. If you look at a drum, it's like a person – you look at it and it's impressive, as it is really like a person. It has a skin, a body and holes. When you drum the drum, you're drumming the human being – and the dancer is a musician.
As you develop this idea of how postures are also rhythmical structures, you identify them, and then learn to manipulate those postures. You use the structures as a way to be in time, based on three points: Lo – the feet; Ke – the knee; To – the hips. “Lokéto” refers to the pelvis in Lingala. I thought such a term was important for all dancers of the world and I also used it as an onomatopoeia in order to sing the rhythms.
Rhythm is about phrases of time – articulated time in us, which refers to the breath and our weight. Your breath and your weight are literally defined by rhythms. Whether you're joyful, angry, happy, excited, peaceful, quiet, there are three moments: Lo, the departure (the fundamental and the grounding); Ke, the transition (shifting the weight); To, the return (breath and openness). So you depart, you transit, you arrive. And then you depart again, you transit, then you arrive … to death! This pattern literally defines everything that happens. This is the human dance – you cannot go beyond that.
At first people have an “idea” about how African dance looks; they don't engage the body, because they're controlling with the mind. But really, it's about articulating your whole body. When you work with the body, it's based on what happens in the body. When I started teaching the classes with the drum, people started to understand the importance of rhythms. The result was clear – it was easy for me to see the validity of that technique.
So this was my contribution, this was my challenge, this was my way of giving sense to this travelling of mine – changing country, changing culture, but dancing.
Excerpt from Maboungou's Incantation
When I first came to Canada, the idea of a technique met with resistance. People would say, “This is African dance, why is there so much discipline?” And if I were to be contemporary, many people thought it needed to be a fusion with Western dance. Instead, to me, being contemporary meant that I was exploring these African forms. Africa was its own world. Its modernity was never the same as in the West. Contemporaneity deals with the way people live everywhere, the way their society is organized, and so on.
CA: Can you speak about your early dances? (next page)