Starting life as a solo, V/DA's Grin has grown into a powerful duet, challenging perceptions of African and Caribbean dance. We meet the team bringing the show to Dance International Glasgow
'An autobiographical story with no words,' – that's how Grin is billed to prospective audiences. But although the title of V/DA's new show is derived from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (later adapted by Maya Angelou), and the work itself is performed by Divine Tasinda and Levent Nyembo with choreographer/director Mele Broomes at the helm, the story in question doesn't belong to one of them – it belongs to all of them, and many others.
'It's a collective autobiographical story,' explains Broomes, co-founder of V/DA (Various Dance Artists). 'So it's not my story, or Divine's story or Levent's story – it's our individual stories, but it's also the collective story of many people that share similar experiences in the world.'
The full line from Dunbar's poem reads, 'We wear the mask that grins and lies'. American poet and novelist Dunbar, the son of African slaves, wrote the poem in 1896 to capture the pressure many Black people felt at the time, to smile in the face of racial oppression.
If conversations between Broomes, Tasinda and Nyembo during the rehearsal process for Grin are anything to go by, little has changed.
credit: Tiu Makkonen
'We talked a lot about perception,' says Broomes. 'Often a simple everyday act, a mundane trivial thing can be perceived as aggressive or having a certain energy. Or maybe people thinking you have an ill-mannered temperament. Being a Black man, what does that look like to the rest of society? What face do you have to put on, in order to be able to be seen as OK?'
The trio also talked at length about 'code-switching', the act of changing your behaviour to suit the circumstance – rather than just being yourself.
'You can't just be,' continues Broomes. 'You either have to be an idea of you, to live up to this idea of how you're perceived as Black. Or you have to be a palatable version of you, in order to be accepted.'
Both Tasinda and Nyembo moved to Scotland from the Congo as children, and have wrestled with the idea of what it means to be true to themselves as Africans in Britain. In particular, the dance and movement of African and Caribbean dance has been hyper-sexualised to the point where Tasinda no longer felt comfortable teaching or performing it, for fear of it being misconstrued. Grin aims to reclaim that.
'The first time I performed this piece, being able to move my body in a particular way as a Black female was nerve-wracking for me,' recalls Tasinda, 'because everything that society had told me came back to me. But now, I have to accept that this is the way I look, this is the way I move. Whether I try to move in a sexual manner or not, it's going to be portrayed like that because of my background, where I come from and how I move. So I had to accept myself as an African, regardless of who's watching. And I hope that people will be able to connect to it in their own way and it will help them discover themselves – to be who they are, instead of who they think they should be.'
credit: Tiu Makkonen
Likewise, Nyembo echoes Broomes' assertion that the autobiographical aspects reach far beyond those performing on stage.
'I feel that the story belongs to whoever can relate to it and make that connection,' he says. 'The story that's portrayed in the piece is very powerful not just now, but also within African history. I truly believe that it comes down to all of us uniting – and the only way we can do that is to be in each other's worlds.'
As a theatrical experience, Grin has much to offer. In addition to Broomes' choreography and Tasinda and Nyembo's movement, the show features striking carnival-inspired costumes and a new score fused with music by South Africa's Mushroom Hour Half Hour. But as Broomes' points out, whatever the content, Black dance in the UK should be supported for all manner of reasons.
'The wealth of this country has been built on Blackness, so people should come and support it regardless,' she says. 'It doesn't matter what we're doing, our history and ancestry has supported the wealth in this country, so you have to hear our story, our creative vision and our voice through our movement.
'There are many things we can talk about politically and philosophically, but people should recognise that they just have to support it. Because if you're a white person, you were born into a variety of privileges and if you're a person of colour, you should just want to be there for solidarity and strength.'
Grin will be performed as part of Dance International Glasgow at Tramway, Glasgow, Fri 11 & Sat 12 Oct, 8pm.
Part of Dig International Glasgow
Grin is a contemporary performance of sound, visuals and choreography subverting hyper-sexualised notions of African and Caribbean dances. A masquerade of sculptures where body, costume and lighting unite, embedded in a pulsating soundscore. Grin is a thematic autobiographical story…