Check Your Sex At the Door, Please!
By Samuel Lutaaya Tebandeke
Some think that sexual politics only exists in intimate situations between men and women. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sexual politics as: the principles determining the relationship of the sexes; relations between the sexes regarded in terms of power. In this context, one might deduce that any activity involving men and women could be sexual politics. As such, this piece uses dance to explore gendered intimacies.
In traditional Ugandan society dance was meant for purposes of showcasing a woman’s ability to be a good spouse. After all, it was believed that the best dancers made the best marriage partners. For example, females are presented in traditional dances before marriage and during courtship. After marriage, women are expected to be homemakers and their role in society is to pass on their dance skills to the younger generation, with less involvement in active performance. This culture permeates the contemporary dance scene.
This traditional setting is unlike the cultures from Western world where dance is seen as a means of expression unattached to the familial setting. Interestingly, there are more female dancers in the Western world, compared to their African counterparts. The male dancer is meant to perform alongside the female and show her off – in short, as a prop – which restricts the expressive capacity the male dancer can explore. It is against this background and these relationships that sexual politics will be used to review the recently concluded Makerere University and Norwegian College of Dance collaborative performance at the National Theatre Kampala from 5-6 April 2014.
Starting in 2010, the project aims to raise the status of dance as an academic subject at Makerere University (MUK) and highlight dance as an art form; that is, dance as a theatrical expression as opposed to dance related to cultural, religious or everyday activities.
This collaboration brings together first year students from the Norwegian College of Dance (NCD), who visit the School of Performing Arts and Film (PAF) and work together with students on assignments for a period of one month. Tutored by choreographers from NCD and teachers from PAF, the students created a joint show in which different cultures, traditions and histories encounter challenging, suggestive and fascinating forms. The main assignment was a performance staged at Kampala’s National Theatre.
Whereas there is a focus on traditional dance at MUK, NCD and Norway as a whole focus more on international dance styles like ballet, and contemporary that are mostly reserved for females. With a ratio of 100 female dancers to 3 males, it is clear how the attitudes have been defined Norway’s academic dance scene. PAF, on the other hand, has an almost even number of males and females taking courses. Once the students graduate, the disparity increases, with female performers taking on prominent roles in traditional dance troupes and limited presence within the contemporary dance styles. Hip-hop however, is dominated by men because they consider other styles to be for the female dancers.
The reception started off the evening’s proceedings and the Nowergian students treated the audience to a folk dance and a traditional dance from Busoga (Tamina Ivuga).
The Norwegian ambassador, Thorbjørn Gaustadsæther mentioned that there was a deliberate attempt to keep this focus on a Ugandan narrative. This year’s show was mostly focused on showcasing Uganda’s cultural arts, with the music and large sections of the dance pieces were based on traditional Ugandan dances.
The show was a mélange of two well-known Ugandan legends. The famous legend about Kintu and Nambi, is a folktale about creation from Buganda that tells how the first man on earth, Kintu, meets and marries Nambi, the daughter of Ggulu the creator of all things who live in heaven. The notion of death becomes a way to introduced her brother, Walumbe, the spirit of disease and death, who follows Nambi from heaven and kills their first son to avenge Kintu’s refusal to give him a child to help with house chores.
The second performance, the legend of the Spear and Bead, is another popular folktale originating from northern Uganda. It is a story about Labongo and Gipir, two brothers torn by rash emotional decisions and vengeance. Their split is the origin of the division between the Lwo peoples.
A role-reversal emerged as some female performers took part in male dominated dances. The first piece, which comprised four males and one Norwegian female as they danced Amagunjju, a court dance from the Ganda tribe. Another clear example was the Larakaraka dance, which was performed again with four males and one female, Rosemary Achieng, who ably matched her male counterparts.
In ancient Uganda, this was behaviour was unheard of. There have always been clear roles for both sexes. In this show, whether by design on coincidence as a result of the fact that the NCD students were all female would still have been unforgivable, but contemporary society is more adaptable. Interestingly. The male performers never took on any female roles.
There were many memorable moments throughout the show and the interpretation of the legends was accessible on various levels. The use of the live music took the audience to another level entirely, along an emotional journey back in time. For those of us who may have heard the stories in Primary School, this was a refreshing take on the oral transmission.
Short narrations would have given enough thread to follow the transitions between the sections, thereby making them more accessible. Nevertheless the sublime quality of the show evoked superlatives from the audience, young and old and was evidence that history can be artfully told and remain fresh and relevant to contemporary society.