Creating new realities

Art — By on May 29, 2017 12:42 pm

When Alfdaniels Mabingo returns to Uganda he will go there as the first PhD graduate in dance pedagogy. He talks with Judy Wilford. 

“Dance is not just something you do with your body,” says dancer and dance educator Alfdaniels Mabingo (usually known as Mabingo).

“Dancers are knowers, doers, thinkers, explorers and creators. Dance is a pool fed by different streams.”

“In the West many people think dance from African cultures is all about the body: that all you have to do is mimic and master the movements to become a dancer. But it’s so important to recognise that the key to the dances is in the stories they tell. The dances embody philosophies, they express views of the cosmos, are embedded in the cultures and histories of their communities. If you think they’re just about the body, all that knowledge of what we are and who we are is lost.”

As part of his PhD, Mabingo has been interviewing cultural heritage dance teachers who are working outside the mainstream in central Uganda: not in schools or universities, but in communities, orphanages, youth groups, churches or NGOs.

“One of the discoveries I have made is that story-telling and music are central to their methods of teaching dance,” he says. The teaching is based on “highly complex principles that are embedded in the philosophies and realities of the cultures”.

Unlike Western frameworks for teaching dance – which tend to separate choreography, history, theory, performance, movement and musicality – the frameworks used by the Ugandan teachers aim to integrate all of these.

Music is seen not just as an accompaniment to the dance. Instead it becomes a teaching aid – almost a coteacher – working to help give the dancers feedback, to encourage them to learn through their ears as well as their eyes, to give them ways of dealing with the passion of the dance as they attempt to embody the story it is telling.

“Teachers will often teach their students to make music, using drumming, song or poetry, as a foundation to the dance.” The teaching of dance among the people of central Uganda is anchored in the Ubuntu world view, which can be expressed as: “I am because we are, and because we are, therefore I am.” The community finds its existence through the individual and vice versa.

Says Mabingo: “It’s based on the possibilities that are created through participation.” Which means of course that dance is an embodiment of this philosophy.

Dance, it is clear, plays a much greater role in day-to-day life in Uganda than in Western societies, including Pākehā New Zealand.

“That is true, and I’m trying to theorise why it is so,” says Mabingo, who grew up in a “very big extended family and a big community” where “learning to dance was like learning to breathe”.

“One reason is the difference in cosmology, in the way we see ourselves in the world. In Uganda the feeling is that, in a sense, we have to ‘become’ the things that are close to us. If music and dance are close to our lives we feel the need to produce them, and by that act of producing them we become a part of them. The African inside me always wants to sing and dance with those around me.

“But in Western society, progress has turned many people into consumers of music and dance.

“My theory is that in the capitalist system, where the major purpose of the people is to spend, then dancers become the producers of cultural products which the audience consumes. You lose that instinct, that sense of being a ‘doer’ of dance or music – or a worker of the land. If you want to engage with music and dance, your space is the computer, the TV, the headset or the iPhone.”

He’s seeing these changes also in Uganda, as it becomes increasingly urban: “This is about the politics and economics of dance.”

Mabingo completed his undergraduate degree and his MA in performing arts at Makarere University in Uganda, followed by a masters in dance education at New York University in the US.

There are few universities around the world that offer a PhD in dance studies and Mabingo was attracted to the University of Auckland by its “rich combination of scholarship, dance education, theory, research and practice” and by its international research focus.

His supervisors, Professor Ralph Buck and Associate Professor Nicholas Rowe, have carried out research not only in New Zealand but also in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the Pacific.

Mabingo aims in his own research to ignite scholarly interest in new ideas of teaching dance, especially those that draw on non-Western artistic, intellectual and philosophical traditions. He hopes to encourage collaborations that expand possibilities and build awareness and understanding.

“Dance can build a bridge between cultures and people,” he says.

Which is certainly true of an exciting new production which had its recent world premiere at Mangere Arts Centre in Auckland, and which Mabingo choreographed (with Charlene Tedrow).

In Transit, directed by Justine Simei-Barton, is based on a play by Wanjiku Kiarie Sanderson, a Kenyan New Zealander (widow of Martyn Sanderson, founder of Downstage Theatre in Wellington). Through a complex interweaving of drama and story-telling with vibrant and evocative music and dance, it explores the real-life stories of African immigrants as they adapt to a place far from their countries of origin or birth. And, in a remarkable creative twist that adds to the complex interplay of cultures, the dancers (and many of the musicians) are Pacific Islanders by ancestry or birth: “Instead of an African story it’s now a Pacific story as well.”

When I met Mabingo it seemed to me he was born to be a dancer, but as a child he had a different plan for his future.

“I first aspired to be a Catholic priest, but that didn’t happen. At 13 I wanted to become a lawyer, but later that changed. Then dance claimed me [at about 18], and who was I to say ‘no’?

“I’ve travelled in every continent but one, and worked with people from all over the world to create new realities through music and dance.

“As a priest or a lawyer I’d never have been able to achieve these things.”

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