At the risk of failing to sound like the cultured liberal I like to think myself, I have to admit to often finding African culture difficult. It’s a part of the world I’ve never been to, I have a scant understanding of its political history, and a lack of knowledge about its contemporary social and cultural life. So the notes in the Afro Vibes programme which describe these two solo semi-narrative dance pieces as ‘complex’ and ‘sophisticated’ make me think I’m going to be missing something thanks to my inexcusable cultural ignorance.
So when this extraordinary evening is over, a revelation has taken place. I don’t need to come at this with a wealth of cultural knowledge, just a big dose of humanity. Both Sonia Radebe and Qudus Onikeku have made work that goes straight to the core of the human soul. These are works about the human physical and psychological journey, about succor and spirituality, loss and longing.
In Inception Sonia Radebe seems to be fighting for her life, pursued by an unseen threat, chasing an unseen goal. She runs, breathes, screams and laughs, moving her body with a sinuous, animalistic and earthy power. Her limbs spin until they blur, golden against the black depths of the stage, made jewel-like by Suzette le Seuer’s simple but dramatic lighting. Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s techno whale song score grinds and soars along with Radebe’s incredible muscular body.
The honeyed, richness of Inception seems long gone as Qudus Onikeku appears in a greyish white light for the evening’s second piece, My Exile Is In My Head. Overcut with spoken text which tells of a child finding a place to hide away (actually drawn from Wole Soyinka’s prison notes, The Man Died), he moves across the stage as though carrying a heavy load. With Onikeku’s physique, any load that made this man move this way would truly be a heavy one. This astonishing sense of weight pervades the piece, with Onikeku seeming to be striving to, and then breaking through, fighting gravity and worldliness as he spins and somersaults, blending traditional Nigerian dance with hip hop and capoeira. His fight is astonishing, he gives his all to us in a violent and desperate frenzy, then ends in stillness as he sings a haunting Yoruba song. But this is hardly a solo work. Charles Amblard’s brilliant live score, looped on an electric steel guitar, moves from ambient sound to bluegrass, blues to rock. He follows Onikeku’s movement like an accompanist, the sound and movement fusing like they could never survive apart.
Tonight’s small but appreciative audience know they’ve seen something special. Those not privileged enough to have been at this launch of the Afro Vibes Festival at Contact should seek out this incredible evening of dance at one of its other venues. A truly memorable and moving experience.