Battery Dance Company Performed and Worked here in Febuary/March, 2011.
Lost in Translation
Even though the company had an English, Lingala and French speaking translator for their trip to Kinshasa, things were still being lost in translation. For instance, when rehearsals began with The National Ballet of Congo, there were communication problems. Despite the best efforts of the tri-lingual translator, misunderstandings emerged. It was even more difficult to integrate drummers into the rehearsal process. The musicians played from visual cues or by ear and intuition rather then a set tempo and rhythm. Drilling them in a rehearsal process to remember narrative cues and repeat music consistently proved very difficult. It gradually became clear that many of the dancers and musicians were unable to read or write, despite the fact that they could speak many different languages. Such communication problems slowed down the choreographic process between Battery Dance Company's Cultural Envoy, Carmen Nicole Smith, and The National Ballet of Congo.
Infrastructure, especially for the arts and education, is lacking in the DRC. People learn to make do with what would be considered impossible conditions elsewhere. The locals' ability to overcome such severe challenges earned our respect over and over again.
As is true in many parts of the world, there is a perception in the DRC that everyone is rich in the U.S. It was difficult but essential to explain to the local dancers that Arts funding in the U.S. is extremely modest and uncertain - and that the life style of the average dancer is marginal at best.
Following on the success of its 6-day Congolese program by a team of four in October 2011, Battery Dance Company was invited to nominate one of its members for a one-month assignment to return to Kinshasa through a U.S. Department of State program called the Cultural Envoy program. (This program has since been combined with the Performing Arts Initiative Program and both fall under the rubric of Arts Envoy Program.)
The first week of the program was filled with meetings and performances which, on top of her earlier experience in Kinshasa, provided a foundation to support her creative ideas and move forward in designing the program for the following three weeks.
The Cultural Envoy program was initially planned to involve the creation of one piece in partnership with the National Ballet of Congo. While this was entirely possible, there was no way that a work of sufficient length to fill an entire evening could be created in such a short time. In order to flesh out the program, the company discussed auditioning pieces by local artists and to curate the evening choosing who and what would be included. However, In the spirit of exchange and as a returning artist (with many alumni interested in participating), Carmen was hesitant to serve as judge and instead, chose to work collaboratively with various groups instead. Thus Carmen worked with local dancers to create a suite of three shorter pieces around the theme of gender inequality. The format of this work was in the style of the Dancing to Connect model from Battery Dance Company. This proved to be an enormous amount of work. In addition to the works created and performed by the Congolese dancers, Carmen developed solo material for herself in collaboration with local singers, a poet and a rapper all within the social message of cultural exchange, HIV/AIDS and gender inequality.
Fredericke Ngandu, Director of The National Ballet of Congo, was a joy to work with. He and Carmen developed an easy rapport. Among other things, he was able to help Carmen encourage the dancers to move outside of their usual vocabulary and to develop their own abstract movements to convey their story. His willingness to explore new and different ways of working took the pressure off of Carmen to fit her means into strictly traditional forms. Together, they met somewhere in between the Congolese and Western cultures to bring about a creative process introducing new ideas while maintaining the integrity and characteristics of the local traditions.
The National Ballet became the Carmen's home base -- she was given permission to use the venue for for rehearsals with the Dancing to Connect dancers as well as for the National Ballet. Fredericke's staff created costumes to specification and his technical crew supported the entire show. They were entirely professional and did a beautiful job of lighting design.
When necessary, additional rehearsals took place at the National Zoo and College Boboto. Electricity in these spaces was unreliable and sometimes meant working in the dark. Even being use to spartan conditions, Carmen found the state of ill repair of the facilities in Kinshasa to be heart-breaking.
When over 70 youth appeared to audition for the project, Carmen was faced with a decision. She was loathe to reject a large number and decided to utilize the "Dancing to Connect" methodology that is common to Battery Dance Company's approach and that could accommodate a large number of performers. She was assured by local partners that there would be a significant drop-out rate due to scheduling issues and lack of compensation. It was unclear whether the Embassy's budget would spread far enough to cover honoraria for the local dancers and this uncertainty contributed to attrition. In the end, 33 local dancers signed on to the project. From that group, three subsets were created based on schedule availability. With three groups to work with, the idea of the three epochs of the Congolese Woman was born.
The level of dance in Congo, despite lack of resources and training, is extremely high. The keen curiosity of the participants, their innate talent and hunger for opportunity were all factors in the success of the program. They were provided with meals and participation certificates; and as things turned out, funds were adequate to pay them all quite well which was well deserved.
One of the local hosts (Pam) created a partnership of support with a local shelter run by an Italian Brother in Congo. It was an introduction for what BDC hopes can become a future program. This shelter houses street kids or “shay gays” as they are called, orphans, child prostitutes and child soldiers. Brother Mauro gives overnight, extended shelter including education, meals and job training as well as an open center for those kids that prefer to remain on the streets but need a temporary refuge. On the visit, about a twenty-minute drive into a very dangerous area of outer Kinshasa, the company saw both parts of the facility but interacted with the children from the temporary care center. The kids, ranging in ages from seven to sixteen, organized a performance for us in the one language that is such a part of their culture, the language of dance. The company were desperate to try and organize a Dancing to Connect for them. Brother Mauro tirelessly provides support on all levels and even seeks out the families of cast-a-ways. He gives financial support, business training and family counseling, sometimes following a family for over two years until a child is safely reintegrated. It is endless work and he touched the company deeply with his energy and commitment. The girls, upon completion of their show, tried to teach the company some of their dance steps. They did not realize that the company too spoke their language of dance and when they answered their call, executing the steps. The children jumped up and down in excitement.
The final week and performance went relatively smoothly with the exception of a few issues. One was the performance venue and BDC's schedule day of rehearsals with all the performers. The company found out on the Monday before the performance that the daytime hours at the Halle were not possible. This was after having completed rehearsals for that day and communicating it to the Dancing to Connect groups. BDC could only be there using the space that Thursday evening for about four hours. To space and tech a ninety minute show in four hours is unheard of. Of course it all worked out in the end with some extra planning and efficiency. Again, an enormous “hats off” goes to the technical crew of the National Ballet and the Halle de la Gombe for their professionalism in making the show happen. The company were so proud of all of their dancers who arrived on time for the rehearsal on stage. It is typical for people to be anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours late in Kinshasa. The dedicated group made a commitment even with unreliable transportation, to be on time. Aside from these issues, the performance itself was incredible.
The passion of the Congolese and their dedication to the project came through vividly for the final event. The program booklet included two paintings by local artists depicting Congolese women in some way with their hopes and struggles. The painters were finalists in the State Department sponsored contest. Sandy Francis and Nathalie Marini sang beautifully in songs that united Congolese and American traditions. The audience joined in and it was quite a rousing way to start the show. The National Ballet took it to a whole new level doing what they do best, conveying theatrical dance. At the pinnacle moment in the story where the woman chooses to share the fish with her male partner, the audience clapped and exclaimed out loud. The company was jumping up and down in the wings! The Dancing to Connect dancers performed all three pieces perfectly with more energy than ever before. Finally, Elfia recited a perfect poem describing a hope and call for social equality among the sexes and Lexxus talked about HIV/AIDS, closing the show with his artful rapping skills. BDC's Carmen, also received enthusiasm and support from the gracious audience with her two solo performances.
By working together with the National Ballet of Congo and local youth, BDC discussed ways of showing the role of women in the past, present and perhaps the future. It was a learning process to discover how it could be done with movement and dance. The message was carried forth in the performance and in the process. As dance artists, the company explored new territory in movement creation derived from a narrative and completely driven by a social message. This month of collaboration enriched BDC's work in so many ways.
The company are now home in New York reliving the indelible memories from this incredible month in exchange. A small piece of their hearts is still in Kinshasa with the people there, and the company vow to return to collect it and continue connecting with the people there.
Arts programs are not one-size-fits-all. It is important to allow yourself to be guided by those who really know the territory.
Collaboration comes as second nature to many people in the arts -- and international cultural engagement will take full advantage of your ability to collaborate in ways you never anticipated!
Think of the process as the building of partnerships. Your potential partners could be your artistic counterparts overseas, other American colleagues who have worked in the country where you are headed, international arts managers or Embassy Public Affairs staff, especially those who have been in country for a couple of years. Ask them to help you select from a variety of approaches that are comfortable and suited to your company’s repertoire and/or menu of programs.
Performances are the grand finale but your impact is strengthened and your interaction with local communities enhanced through Seminars, Workshops, Outreach events, etc.
Flexibility and adaptability are key traits. The only caution is to avoid taking on a project that doesn’t suit your artistic or social aesthetic or mission. You have to be clear about your strengths and weaknesses, and/or any rules that govern your institutional behavior.
Years ago, we were being wooed by top executives of a corporation based in Africa. As much as we wanted to accept their generous sponsorship offers, we couldn’t do so -- their main product was tobacco, and we work with youth. We had to forgo a potentially lucrative opportunity because this simply wasn’t the right message for Battery Dance Company.
On the positive side, where re-imagining our mission produced amazing results: In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we worked with the local PEPFAR (the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) office, modulating our Dancing to Connect program to focus on the stigma of HIV+ and AIDS prevention. This allowed the Embassy to double up on its goals of engaging youth (our Dancing to Connect program brings choreographic skills to high school students and young adults) and helping spread awareness and education around the illness that is afflicting an astonishing number of people in Africa.
Dancing to Connect, which typically works with school children, worked with over 60 Congolese dancers ranging from 18-year-olds to HIV positive adults in their 50s. Normally DtC performs at theaters with a lighting and technical staff consisting of 4-6 people on staff at the theater. In L'Halle de la Gombe, the staff consisted of one person. The troop was advised that their final performance would likely not be attended because they were not Congolese performers. However, they were delighted and surprised when the Grande Halle de la Gombe hosted an overflow crowd for their final performance.
• Malaria medication (Malarone) is available in African pharmacies at a fraction of the cost in America. Purchase only enough for the starter dose in the U.S. and purchase the remainder on tour.
• Dance is a powerful vehicle of bonding across social and cultural borders in Africa
• Security issues are important to understand in each country. Walking down the street in garments that might be considered disrespectful can spell trouble. When in doubt, get a security briefing from the Embassy and cover up.
• Internet connectivity is inconsistent; and so is access to reliable ATM’s
• Many theaters in Africa are not equipped with Western-standard lighting instruments and technical crews are often hard-pressed to support a full dance plot. Be ready to adapt and bring a resourceful production director with you.
• Think ahead about ways in which you can follow-up, once your program is complete. The thirst for high quality dance instruction and performances is greater than a short visit can quench.
• Bring plastic hangers, Woolite, Febreze and white tissue paper (to deal with damp costumes when you are on the run)
• Budget for excess baggage. Airlines baggage policies are not dance company-friendly.
• Engage the community in any/every way possible. Use all of your communication and teaching skills and think broadly and creatively about outreach. Our strongest suit was our Dancing to Connect program that brought us up close and fully teamed up with our African counterparts, and the fact that our final performances were shared with locals –our students and professionals.
• Determine which countries require visas to be obtained before leaving the U.S. and which can be left until arrival at the airport. Create a timeline for the visa application process. As we found out, the more countries you visit on a tour, the more complex the procedure becomes
• Make sure you have your International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (yellow booklet) with you and that your Yellow Fever inoculation is up to date (and don't leave it in your checked luggage -- you will need it upon arrival, before you retrieve your baggage!)
It will take some time to fully digest the experience of 6 days in Kinshasa. The broad strokes are easy to cover: deprivation visible through every possible lens. No building or enclave, regardless of its status, escapes the decay. The Grand Hotel thrives on its singular status – Secretary Clinton stayed there – however, it falls dismayingly short of its self-advertised 5 star classification with stained tiles in the bathrooms, mattresses that bear the imprint of years of guests, moist carpets and staff members who seem to be too tired and demoralized to be welcoming. A large signboard outside the hotel announces its impending renovation – however, with all of the UN officials and other NGO and Government officials streaming through the capital on their way to the center of turmoil in the eastern border area of the country, the Grand is too full to spare the time to renovate.
Turning to our reason for being in the DRC, anticipation for this leg of the 5-country Africa tour was high. Though working with only half strength – 3 dancers instead of the usual 6 or even 10, split into two units after our program in Algeria in order to reach more countries -- we engaged with a whopping 60 Congolese dancers ranging in age from 18 – 50, and worked with them intensively for three days leading up to the final performance. The performance itself, for a standing-room-only crowd at the Grande Halle de la Gombe, featured 3 dances of 8 minutes each created with and performed by the Congolese dancers, 5 short works by the Battery Dancers themselves, and 2 works by budding Congolese choreographers. As if preparing for this spectacle weren't sufficiently jam-packed we added a 2-hour session with HIV+ adults on one of our evenings. For our first day, our US Embassy team a Public Diplomacy Officer (PAO) and Cultural Affairs Assistant (CAA) had wisely decided to schedule a series of meetings that would help orient us in the DRC. The first meeting took place at the JAO where we introduced ourselves and our program objectives to the staff of the Embassy. Our nerves were tested in the next session, a security briefing at the US Embassy. In none of the many countries we have visited, many of which were arguably as dangerous as Kinshasa, have we been given a formal presentation by a security officer.
The bottom line in Kinshasa: no walking on the streets (accompanied or not); no taking of taxis; no talking to police; discretion if one was daring enough to enter a shop of any kind – by caching small amounts of money in one's pocket rather than opening a billfold full of cash, and so forth.
We then met with an Administrator of the local PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) program. Her office had provided support for the local expenses of our project (e.g. transportation and meal allowances for all of the local participants, rental of the Halle, technical crew and equipment, printing of a large banner, engaging of a local event manager.) We were very happy to have the first such opportunity of interacting with PEPFAR to test our long-held belief that Dancing to Connect could be helpful in providing emotional and psychological relief for those suffering with the condition and could address the stigmatization of HIV+ people in Africa. A cordial meeting with the DCM Samuel Laeuchli followed, in which we were delighted to have our mission of dance diplomacy thoroughly espoused by the Embassy's front office. He counseled a gentle approach to a people who had been through trauma and whose life conditions were fraught with difficulties (by this, he meant ALL Congolese). He voiced his curiosity at seeing how the dancing workshops turned out and looked forward to welcoming the audience personally at the performance on Friday. After lunch, we visited each of the workshop venues and discussed how transportation would be coordinated the next day. The CAA had located two good spaces with decent floors for Carmen and Oliver's workshops. Bafana was not so lucky: he was meant to teach on a cement floor at the Petite Halle at the French Cultural Center (the stage at the same complex where we were to perform was considered off limits due to noise that would interfere with the French Ecole whose classrooms were directly behind the stage.) We set about finding solutions for this problem the next day, first by bringing dance mats into the space, and then obtaining wooden platforms that provided a more forgiving under-surface, allowing for jumps and other athletic moves that would have been dangerous on the cement.
We also visited the L'INA, the DRC's national arts institute, having understood from various quarters that they were renovating a dance studio and hoping that it would be finished enough for us to utilize. This proved to be a vividly revealing occasion: L'INA is housed in a dingy and dilapidated building where no one seemed to be engaged in any organized activity, though there were plenty of students and adults (teachers or functionaries, one couldn't tell which) milling about. First we were led up a couple of flights of broken stairs and found a bedroom-sized airless room with a stone floor that bore no perceivable resemblance to a dance studio. Then we returned to the ground floor and entered a dark L-shaped room. In one wing of the L, students were lounging on randomly arranged chairs, one or two with a guitar in hand. The other wing was purported to be the newly renovated space. It had wooden 2 x 4 framing in place, covered with plywood that appeared to have been recycled and seriously degraded, warped and in some cases, missing part of the top veneer. The contrast between what I had in my mind's eye when imaging a 'renovated' space and what I found at L'INA was extreme. All of this makes our experience with the DtC participants in Kinshasa all the more miraculous. Based on our experiences over the previous two weeks in Nairobi and Algiers, we were expecting smiling faces and immediate bonding, a feel-good session before the hard work began. However, this was not the case in Congo. The large group that met us at the Halle de la Gombe was not smiling. I wondered what was behind their somewhat frozen expressions: Fear? Hostility? Embarrassment? Tremendous effort and funding had gone into the planning and realization of our project in Congo, and yet its success or failure rested on the willingness of the local DtC participants to give us the benefit of the doubt, let us demonstrate our good will, techniques and strategies, and our most important strength: the generosity and talent of our teaching artists. These ingredients had earned us the almost steam-roller success we have experienced over the past 6 years in a dozen countries; however, perhaps we had reached our Waterloo?
The first day of workshops dispelled many fears: 100% of the 60 participants showed up on time at the early hour of 8:30 a.m. (Much later, as we rode out of the Gombe's 'Green Zone' to the airport, through some of the city's poorer areas, we saw the conditions in which many of our DtC dancers live and awakened to the complications they would have navigated to arrive at that hour.) All of the participants maintained their stamina through the rigors of a 6-hour day. However, things were not as smooth as some of us thought: Bafana recounted that his dancers were angry that they had not been given lunch and that water hadn't been delivered on time. More than that, they wanted to be paid if they were going to perform. This flew in the face of everything that has ever been taken as a base line for DtC. The CAA was furious, she said that the dancers' complaints were dishonest: she had offered a catered lunch each day in early planning meetings with the them, an offer they had rejected asking instead to be given money to purchase their own lunch on the basis that they had their own likes and dislikes and preferred having the choice. Carmen and Oliver were shocked to hear from Bafana, because they had not experienced anything of the kind. Bafana made clear the fact that his dancers were fantastically talented and had dealt with the day's work with striking creativity and concentration despite their complaints. He was able to absorb their anger without responding defensively.
The CAA and Deo, the event manager who had been engaged to support the PD Department's efforts, went and met with Bafana's group and talked over the situation that very evening (they all stayed late for this confab.) They apparently revisited the history of how the food situation had been negotiated, and underlined as they had done in earlier meetings, that DtC was a collaborative program, not the usual series of master classes by international artists and that everyone was expected to participate voluntarily. The CAA conveyed the message that if conditions were not to their liking, they should not return. Well, the next day about, ¾ were there again in the morning at 8:30. Jacques, a senior dancer who had been thought of as a leader who could learn the methods of DtC and help sustain them within his group afterwards, appeared much later in dress clothes, claiming an appointment at the Belgian Embassy had caused his tardiness, his 5 dancers were also missing. Bafana weathered this situation and plunged forward with the creative process.
On the evening of this second day, when we all gathered at Baboto College of Arts, to prepare for a special workshop for a group of HIV+ adults, we found Carmen shaken. It turned out that, though most of her team was supportive, at least one member seemed to be in cahoots with Jacques and had been attempting to sow discord amongst the other dancers.
Fortunately, Carmen, with the help of a teacher at L'INA, was able to keep control of the group and continue the onward progress. She was also able to regain her equilibrium in order to join the rest of us in our dance workshop with the + group. We had expected teenagers, but instead, met with men and women who appeared to range in age from 30 to 50. We played various dance games with them and found them increasingly willing to let themselves go and to join into the physicality of the experience. Again, stony faces and guarded behavior transformed within the first few minutes. A spirit of fun and camaraderie supplanted the earlier inertia that was caused by a long delay in setting up a projector and screen in order to show us what turned out to be a PowerPoint presentation that was aimed at funders. The + adults showed that they could enjoy dancing and shedding the burden of their worries and fears.
We had been told by the facilities director of the French Cultural Center that the rule of thumb for Kinshasa audiences was that Congolese would attend performances by Congolese artists and ex-pats, diplomats and other international residents would attend shows by foreign performers. We were thrilled that an overflow audience that was clearly mixed down the middle between local and international mobbed our performance. Setting up for the show was a harrowing experience given that we were in Congo sans a technical director. As the Artistic Director, I have done just about every job imaginable with the exception of hanging, focusing, cuing lights and calling a bonafide show. I had gone through several sessions of a technical cram course with BDC's production designer Barry Steele in advance, and we engaged in several SKYPE calls once I had a feeling for how things would work at the L'Halle de la Gombe. Barry had prepared a lighting plot and had sent it several weeks earlier, but it was obvious that the staff at L'Halle had not paid much attention until we began working on site. By 'staff', I refer to one man, Musa, who appeared to me to be 50 years old, give or take 10 years on either side. Musa was a good natured man who had every necessary skill and the stamina and determination to do everything I needed done. However, he made it clear that the plot I was hoping to achieve was significantly more complex than anything he had done in Kinshasa and that he knew of in the region. Normally we work with a local technical crew of 4 – 6 people. At L'Halle, Musa seemed to be a one-man operation. There were other people dressed in similar work-suits who appeared from time to time, but it was Musa alone who hoisted a tall extension ladder, leaned it against the overhead pipes, climbed up with heavy lights in hand which he then attached, focused, and colored with the gel I had brought from NYC.
Since there were approximately 40+ overhead lights, I watched this slow, methodical and exhausting process go on for hours, feeling guilty and a bit scared that Musa's strength might give out. The Halle is an indoor-outdoor venue, with full roof over the stage and audience, sides open to the air, no fixed seating, and a platform stage of very good construction and commodious dimensions for dance. Because of the open sides, all kinds of grit and dust cover the stage and auditorium area. Concerned for the appearance of the show as well as the condition of our costumes, I put a lot of attention to scheduling cleaning – by the French staff as well as the U.S. Embassy. The FSO went to a lot of effort overcoming resistance by the GSO to make this happen. I was a happy camper when I watched a local Congolese woman, employee of the U.S. Embassy, dousing and scrubbing every surface of the theater – obviously a female equivalent of Musa, with his same power and determination to get it right.
After all of the exertions, the space was in mint condition as the audience began to arrive for the pre-performance reception. I even had time to douse myself, being as dirty as the theater had been, and to change into evening garb. I was meant to give a speech, in French, at the end of the performance – transforming myself from pseudo-stage manager and technical director into suave maestro of the occasion. The Chargé put me at ease when we met before the show, telling me that I should most definitely deliver a written speech. Apparently, though I always prefer the immediacy of speaking extemporaneously, the Chargé counseled me that people in the Congo feel that reading a speech demonstrates respect for the audience in that time and effort was spent crafting the words. As a result, and with CAA’s last-minute coaching, I managed to deliver the message of gratitude without tripping over my high school French.
A coda must be added to this review on the airport experience when we left the next morning. We got the full flavor of pan-handling as it is practiced in the DRC. Everyone was on the take in some way or another; we found that even the air traffic control officer had tried to extort money from us in the departure lounge with his song of woe about his sister's college tuition. Poor guy, he had to settle for a dozen cookies, gift of Pascale Weeks, who anticipated that we would be peckish after our check-in ordeal. We offered this 'gentleman' a share of our package and he promptly wolfed down the entire lot. Oh well, I guess that was a strange but somehow fitting last impression of the Congo.