Theatre: Lifebeat Stops For Dance Expert, Lawal
FORMER Deputy Editor of The Guardian, and now a culture communicator, Ben Tomoloju, leads tributes to the late dance maestro, Bode Lawal, who passed on August 13, 2015. In his tribute, Tomoloju said, “it is very sad indeed to read of a highly resourceful, reputable artiste like Bode passing away so untimely. I recall his creative exploits among the young dance-troupers in Lagos after his graduation in the 80s.
So promising and so accomplished. May the Good Lord grant him eternal peace.” Hailed as one of the finest exponents of creative African dance working in Britain, he studied dance, choreography and drama before being invited to join the Nigerian national dance troupe with which he toured internationally, winning the Ministry of Culture’s Dancer of the Year award in 1985.
After this success, he moved to Britain to form Sakoba (meaning new dawn), to celebrate the rich traditions of African dance and music and to spread the profound messages encapsulated in his choreography across Europe.
For Odafen Ikpefan, a theatre graduate from the University of Ibadan, where Lawal had his training, “Bode was a very energetic and talented dancer with great potentials.
I’m not surprised at the height he had achieved and from the little I’ve read, he still had a lot to do in the arts. My heart goes out to his family at this time. We have lost another one!” Reacting to his death, Dr. Julius Spencer, managing director, Premier Media Group Ltd., Freetown, said, “Bode was a diploma student in University of Ibadan, in the early 80s, while I was doing my Ph.D there.
He was a member of the Association of Theatre Arts Students (ATAS) Troupe that I brought to Sierra Leone in 1984 to stage a dance drama and Femi Osofisan’s Farewell to a Cannibal Rage.
Even in those days, he was an exceptional dancer with fluid and graceful movements. I returned to Sierra Leone, in 1987, but our path crossed again in 1991, while I was on a fellowship progamme and was attached to the Commonwealth Institute in London. “He had relocated to London and had just started his dance company.
I attended one of his rehearsals and met a few other ex-Uites, who had also relocated to London and were working with Bode. It was clear to me way back then that Bode was destined for greatness.
Not only was he immensely talented, he also took his work very seriously. “Bode’s death is indeed a great loss to African dance and I hope the police are able to establish the cause of his death.
I wish to extend my deepest condolences to his family; friends and particularly the members of his dance company who I’m sure are going to miss him greatly.”
According to Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, professor emerita, Ku Departments of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies/Theatre, “This is a major shock. He was so young, talented, daring, and just brimming with ideas.
Bode got his Certificate in Drama from Obafemi Awolowo University. With his emphasis on dance and choreography, he was my student, and he lived up to, and even surpassed the promise he displayed in those early days.
We linked up again when he was at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 2003, and had kept in touch since.” Over the years, Sakoba Dance Theatre has drawn much attention and praise for their innovative style, which draws upon traditional African tribal dance — mixed with contemporary Western styles.
In 1990, he was asked to choreograph Macbeth for the English Shakespeare Company, directed by Michael Bogdanov, which also formed part of an exchange programme with the Santa Monica Playhouse.
In 2002, Lawal was awarded The Dance Artist Fellowship “Men of Merit” Award for Outstanding Contribution to Dance. His Clockwork won the ‘Performance of the Year 2006’ in The Journal Culture Awards.
In 2003, the Dean of Faculty of Arts and Architecture invited Bode to UCLA as a visiting dance professor, teaching intercultural choreography in the World Art and Cultures department.
His sojourn at UCLA changed his dance technique forever. He had this to say about his fellowship in the US. “I’m following myself now, I’m not listening to what the Arts Council wants me to do.
This is what I encountered at UCLA, believing in yourself as an artist, being honest with your work. This is my own dance language, what we discovered in dance lab, but in this lab we are processing African dance, making it more accessible, making it more original and more unique without losing the essence of the Africanism of what we are trying to do.
That’s why the word post-modern; it’s coming to mean a dance theatre. Let’s say a Chinese person comes to see the show, an Indian person, an African person or Bengalese or anybody who comes to see Aseju they will like the work because the movement idea behind the theme is very universal. It’s what is happening now,” he had said in an interview.
Lawal stresses the point that practitioners and students alike should understand the source of the technique and its use as a vehicle for creating dance movements and choreography.
The technique should be seen as a guide and inspiration for developing one’s own vocabulary and style, a vehicle that is driven by the human spirit. Upon completing his sabbatical, returned to the UK where he arrived with a fresh and compelling new dance language.
Due to the great interest in his visionary work, he was encouraged to establish Sakoba’s sister company in Los Angeles in order to promote the understanding and appreciation of his unique choreography and technique.
The company had received sponsorship from some renowned personalities including, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Guest, Sharon Stone, James Cameron and the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, allowing the company to perform at the prestigious Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts.
Lawal, in his lifetime, sought to revitalise these traits, reviving what is known, while retaining the dignity traditional African dance forms received in America and African continent, but still sought after in Britain.
Lawal’s post-modern stance was a further development of the use of Africanist expressions to express worldviews practiced in the 1940s, 1950s and the related genealogies seen in the 1970s and 1980s. His inspiration was from ancestral ritualistic movements embedded in Yoruba tradition of the orisas.
Movements and gestures inspired by the foundation of Sango (god of thunder) and Osun (goddess of river) form the basis of the technique, which demands of practitioners, grounding, sincerity and understanding of the connection and importance of spiritualism and physicality: a rich aesthetic experience of a quest for truth and originality of self-being that can be practiced as an art form as well as being taught in institutions.
He essentially deconstructs form by using recognisable Africanist expressions explored for alternative movement possibilities and significances,” as Thea Nerissa Barnes puts it in the piece Bode Lawal’s Post Modern African Dance.
He believed his post-modern African dance was not only a way of making dance, “but also a counter strategy for the kinds of conflicting, often duplicitous efforts by critics and stakeholders to support, but in actuality, deprive the form of its value and its place,” said Barnes.
Barnes noted, “Emphasis on the higher aspect of African dance beyond cultural tourism and other trivial realms in which African dance is frequently expressed. “It maintains and honours the vital link between progress and tradition. By dwelling in the realm of human consciousness, it naturally embraces and complements all styles of dance, while remaining rooted in the tradition of the orisas.”