Eric Minh Cuong Castaing joins forces with the Ugandan collective Waka Starz
Eric Minh Cuong Castaing and his company Shonen have created Waka👁, in collaboration with the Ugandan collective Waka Starz. It is a show that, through video conferencing, opens a window between two worlds, which enter into dialogue through singing and dance. To develop the project, Minh Cuong Castaing travelled to Uganda for a residency, Danse Export, supported by the Institut français.
Updated on 02/08/2023
Could you tell us about your background, which combines film, digital and dance?
I’m based in Marseille, and work as a choreographer, visual artist and artistic director of the company Shonen, which I set up in 2008. I first spent ten years working in animated film, while also doing hip-hop dance. I was born in the 93 [Seine-Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris] and for me this dancing was empirical, in non-dedicated spaces such as train stations, gyms, always from a perspective of my relationships with others through dance: you give me a movement or gesture and I’ll respond. Then I encountered contemporary dance forms such as contact improvisation and butoh. I decided to combine these two practices, by considering the relationship between the stage and technologies, with the help of humanoid robots, drones and video installations. The second important aspect of my company today is in situ in socius practice, which sees us working with institutions outside the art world, such as research laboratories, hospitals, centres for developmentally disabled children, NGOs, or simply artists whose practice lies outside our traditional methods. They are often long cycles lasting around three years per project.
The première of your new show, Waka👁️, will take place at the Théâtre de la Criée, in Marseille, on 23 June. It is a “double show” that will be performed in France and Uganda at the same time. Can you tell us more about it?
“Waka”, which means “house” in Luganda, will be associated with the name of the theatre where the show will be performed each time. The idea is that the members of the Ugandan collective Waka Starz, who come from the outskirts of Kampala, can make use of our theatre through video conferencing. The singer Rachael M. will be on stage in France and will be able to interact with the other members of the collective, opening a window to the place where they create their music and film.
How did you discover Rachael M. and the Waka Starz? Can you tell us about their background, which is very unusual, and about the working relationship you have forged with them?
It was our playwright, Marine Relinger, who had heard about them through the kids’ father, Isaac Nabwana, who owns the film studio Wakaliwood, and whose work has been shown at the Palais de Tokyo and at Documenta in Kassel. His children make up a new generation of artists who are known as the Waka Starz. I called them three years ago to suggest a video conference, and when we connected, an entire village performed a concert for us which then led to a dance battle between them and us. This profusion of movements, the relationship that formed at a distance, was very moving and also raised the issue of the distance that exists between our two worlds. So all that became the subject. The creation then evolved and today it’s Rachael M. alone on stage, who connects to her brothers and sisters.
The community dimension is very present in this project, through the focus on siblings, family, the village. How did you tackle this aspect as an outsider?
The Waka Starz are used to working with Western artists. Their father sometimes invites white tourists to film remakes of B movies in the form of political satires. His children have travelled a lot, so even though we come from different worlds there’s a mutual understanding of the issues relating to contemporary creation. This means that they’re aware of what their work might produce in an audience that is different from their own. On my side, there’s also a real immersion in their work in order to understand the artistic meaning of their songs, their films, with a lot of discussions so that they can explain the role of each family member, the meaning of each word, etc. The Waka Starz are open to all sorts of practices, such as kung fu and yoga, and have an amazing ability to take on different genres and transform them. So we needed to find echoes and shared values to enable us to successfully complete the process of working and rehearsing from a distance. I also worked with Rachael on stage when she came to France.
You travelled to Uganda for a residency called Danse Export with the support of the Institut français. How did this stay influence the show?
It was important to meet in person, unlike certain projects where I’ve been unable to actually be there, such as in Gaza. We were able to dance together, I got to know their working cycle and visit their cinema and editing studio. I also showed them my work, in which on-screen fiction is combined with dance, where I show bodies and spaces rendered invisible, to try to see how it might resonate with their world and their political concerns. Denouncing the oppression they experience at home, such as violence against children or women, is an important part of their identity.
Your work has also long explored the way in which new technologies change our relationship with the body and with perception. Will this aspect also feature in Waka👁?
Each project creates different modes of perception and singular spaces of formal permissions. For example, I’m currently working with telepresence robots on a project in Japan with Anne-Sophie Turion, in collaboration with hikikomoris who interact from their room. These people, who experience different kinds of social isolation, can therefore move around and act through robots, who project anthropomorphism and facilitate a shift between the human and the non-human. All this creates ambiguities and makes us consider what could replace the living on stage. In Waka👁️, there are different types of images that appear on stage, films mixing kung fu, manga effects and political satire, live music tutorials made, inspired by TikTok. This all allows us to deconstruct a number of biases on what these Black teenagers, living in poverty in Uganda, represent to us, as a rare formal freedom appears on stage, joyfully shattering our codes and our system of Western theatre.
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