As part of a choreographic research and video and sound collection project focused on social and traditional dances from the African diaspora and Native American communities and the resilience of peoples, Marie Houdin visited Cuba, Senegal and New Orleans in 2018 and 2019. At the end of January she presented a solo, Unexpected.
The connection between hip-hop and the dances of the African diaspora is at the heart of your research. Why choose this subject?
I wanted to better understand the history of these dances, which are so popular in France despite having originated in New York in the 1970s. So I became interested in the African-American and Latino-American communities from that era. This led me to the history of African-Americans and the transatlantic slave trade, then to researching and collecting the traditional, creolised social dances born in Africa and the Americas.
So you went Cuba, Senegal and New Orleans all in a row...
Which is difficult to describe if you have not experienced it yourself! I have been working for years on notions of resilience and uprooting, through these African-American dances and their social function. It was essential that I go and see them in their original context, geographically speaking. I've experienced a lot of uprooting myself on these trips, while still feeling at home. Wherever you go, you are ultimately a stranger to someone and at the same time their echo.
How did you choose these three destinations?
I based my choices on the map of transatlantic trafficking and French colonial history, while taking an interest in dances that have both a social and a ritual dimension to them, dances that convey a history and are still very popular today, and which are continuing to evolve. This quest led me to the Senegalese sabar, the Cuban rumba and, finally, second-line Buckjumping and the dances of the New Orleans "Mardi Gras Indian” culture. These dances are alive and unpredictable. And they are not danced anywhere in the world the same way they are in their homelands.
The Cuban rumba, for example, is a very representative example: this is a fundamentally creolised culture. It is descended notably from flamenco, brought over by the colonizers - which was itself born of resistance and resilience in Andalusian Spain. It is also descended from the cultures of the African slaves who belonged to many different peoples – Yoruba, Abomey, Congo, Arrarra – and the Cuban rumba itself gave rise to a Congolese version of the dance. In this example alone, we can see the lineage of an enormous heritage which is strongly linked to colonisation. Cubans are also very proud of their rumba: it shows how they have been able to recover from a traumatic history and create their own culture, without forgetting where they come from.
What was your process like on-site?
There was a lot of preparatory work, carried out in advance thanks to the French cultural network, which involved making contact with local cultural actors. Once there, thanks to them, I was introduced to other people with yet more connections, who themselves presented my project to the dancers. As a result I was able to film local, community and traditional events, some spontaneous, others the result of extensive planning, which allowed me to meet with dancers and interview them.
These interviews are essentially the same from one continent to another: I try to follow a protocol that I have created through my choreographic research, based on the fundamental elements that link these dances together while also setting them apart. The interviews take place in two stages: a question and answer session and a danced interview. I invited some of these dancers back afterwards, to do what I called "danced dialogues," with three dancers. Most of them invited me to follow them at their shows, in their dance classes and with their families. So I was able to film some of them on completing a whole journey. Finally, whenever possible, there was a whole range of spontaneous data collection, depending on the culture of each country.
How are you going to use the huge amount of video and sound you've collected?
I will share them first on social media, to reach as many people as possible, then on a dedicated website, which I would like to be interactive, eventually. The idea is to present a certain number of unedited or minimally edited improvisations, so as not to distort the data by imposing my point of view and in order to make it a real scientific tool. I also want to put the dances and the people at the heart of the project. The editing will reflect the choreographic approach that I have put forth through this collection process. This is also part of the idea of continuing this collection, and making it interactive.
At the end of January, you will perform a solo, Unexpected, created in June 2019. Was this choreographic work informed by your travels?
For this solo - which will be my first, at 36 and after a 15 year career! –, I wanted to work around relationships with others, from the individual to the collective, from the private to the public. It's basically a journey of initiation, presenting what I've been through. I also combine the notion of the relationship between individual and collective memory, between a white girl born in a small French town and cultures of resilience and resistance in black communities. These trips and encounters have brought me face to face with the history of the country where I grew up, France, and with my relationship to ancestry.
It's a show for public spaces. In the dance space, I am in dialogue with a musician and mix in the voices and sounds that I have collected in these three territories. So although I am alone dancing on the stage it is also a duet, and is performed in the centre of a circle of spectators, from the heart and for the heart, from the individual to the collective, from the intimate to the public.
Will this collection lead to other projects?
Yes, this is just the beginning! Several projects currently in progress have already been informed by it: an exchange between French and New Orleans dancers, "New Orleans fever", with performances in March 2020 in New Orleans and in September in France, in Orleans, Lille and Rennes; a 2021 project involving Senegalese and French performers and a Caribbean dance ; performances by dancers from all these countries as part of the Hip Opsession festival in Nantes... And I also hope to return to Senegal in 2020 to perform Unexpected there and set up dance classes, and to return to Cuba to work with the contemporary choreographer Yanoski Suarez, working with folk dancers in particular!
The collection isn’t over either. I started it in France, and I plan to continue it in Benin and Togo – to study voodoo dances, born in Africa and then spread across the Caribbean and Americas through colonisation – and also in Côte d’Ivoire, initially. I plan not to go on the trips alone this time, but instead with a dancer who I met on my travels and with whom I will experience the journey.
Unexpected will be presented in Brittany on 28th January 2020 at 10:30 am in Carhaix. Marie Houdin's work has been supported by the Institut français through its partnerships with the City of Rennes, the Rennes Metropolitan Area and the Brittany Region.
The Institut français partners with local authorities to develop international artistic exchanges. Find out more about project assistance programmes in partnership with local authorities
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